Omega-3 and omega-6 are different types of essential fatty acids. They are referred to as “essential” because your body cannot make them on its own, and thus must obtain them from dietary sources. All fatty acids display a variety of beneficial properties, although too much of certain types can lead to biochemical imbalance and consequent disease. The modern American diet tends to be too rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which promotes inflammation in your body and exacerbates many autoimmune conditions.
Of all the fatty acids, the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) have the greatest effect on the immune system and the inflammatory response. This is potentially important for autoimmune diseases patients. Studies examining the use of omega-3 supplements (usually taken as fish oil) have demonstrated benefits for people with chronic diseases, including autoimmune conditions such as lupus, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease. These benefits include reduced pain and inflammation, with a consequent decreased need for medications designed to combat inflammation, which can have their own negative side effects.
The pathology of many autoimmune conditions involves an over-production of substances that trigger inflammation. The inflammatory culprit is often something called arachidonic acid (AA), which is a type of PUFA derived from linoleic acid, an omega-6 fat common in Western diets. AA can either block or promote inflammation (depending on the specific condition and the precise cause of the inflammation) in the cardiovascular, neurological, and gastrointestinal systems, among others. Western diets, often too rich in omega-6 fats, without the counterbalance of protective omega-3 fats, may leave you at risk for heart disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes. Similarly, the dietary lack of omega-3s (the primary ingredient in most fish oil blends) may render you less able to prevent or temper the inflammation of arthritis and some autoimmune disorders, because of the reduced natural anti-inflammatory mechanisms. However, supplementation is not without its own risks either. High doses of supplements can also have unwanted and potentially dangerous effects, such as an increased bleeding risk according to Mayo Clinic. In addition, though not necessarily causative by themselves, such high doses for extended periods of time have been putatively linked to both prostate and breast cancers.
First, it’s important to understand that this may depend on the condition and its severity at a given time. This is why it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor and perhaps a nutritionist prior to beginning a regimen of supplements aimed at limiting your disease state. Recommended ratios may differ somewhat based on the disorder.
Before trans fats and processed foods were added to our diets, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was about 4:1, with a 70% lowered risk of death from heart disease. Research now indicates that the typical American diet contains anywhere from 10 to 30 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats, owing in part to widespread use of vegetable oils (such as corn and safflower oils), margarine, salad dressing and heavily processed foods. As a general rule, ratios of 10:1 or higher (omega-6:omega-3) are associated with adverse outcomes like higher rates of chronic inflammatory diseases, including autoimmune conditions. Some experts suggest ratios of no more than 2:1 for optimal health. Thus, unless directed otherwise, you shouldn’t intentionally supplement with omega-6 fatty acids; instead you should take omega-3 supplements, while also reducing your dietary consumption of omega-6 fats.
There are multiple types of omega-3 fatty acids, although those from fish oil (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) ), are the most biologically active. While still beneficial, eating small amounts of fish each day doesn’t give your body enough EPA and DHA to make much of an impact on inflammatory conditions, so supplementing is often recommended. Daily doses of EPA and DHA in the range of 3 to 6 grams have proven effective in this regard, although it can take up to three months before one sees such improvements. While liquid fish oil may be more easily digested and absorbed than capsules, such preparations often have a fishy aftertaste. As a result, capsules or gel caps are the more commonly used forms. These too may also have a slight odor once broken apart in the stomach, usually in the form of “fish burps”. However, there are now companies offering “odorless” alternatives too, though they’re more expensive.
About the Author
Dr. Rothbard is a professional medical writer and consultant based in New York City, specializing in medical education articles targeted at a variety of audiences, from children through clinicians. After leaving medicine, he worked as a biology and medical science educator for several years, before deciding to pursue writing full-time. He may be reached at [email protected].
This blog post was originally published by AutoimmuneMom.com, written by Dr. Rothbard, and first published on Sep 15, 2012.