Heart disease, cancer, arthritis, type 2 diabetes,
depression and bipolar disorder, cancer, Alzheimer’s, immune disorders, and
asthma—what do these all have in common?
With every one of these disorders, omega 3/6 balance plays a crucial
role. This balance is so often upset in
our culture that it is the norm to be out of balance! The result—one in two people in this
country get cancer, every other person over 85 has Alzheimer’s, heart disease
is the leading cause of death, the incidence of asthma is growing dramatically,
and type 2 diabetes rates are expected to double in the next 20 years.
What is Omega 3/Omega 6 Balance?
“Omega” fats are fats with one or more double bonds in their
chemical structure. Simply put, these
strategically placed double bonds allow the fats to operate in unique ways upon
your body chemistry. An omega 3 fat has
a double bond in the 3rd position, an omega 6 fat has a double bond
in the 6th position. While
both types of omegas are crucial to your health, our culture consumes a great
deal of omega 6’s, and very little omega 3’s.
This lack of balance lays the foundation for chronic disease.
Omegas and Inflammation
Fats in our bodies are precursors to a group of chemicals
called eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are
short-lived substances that are the biochemical equivalent of messages shared
between cells. These substances can be
broadly divided into two groups: good eicosanoids and bad eicosanoids (there is
a time and a place for both categories, but imbalance tipped toward the “bad”
guys is very bad indeed). Healthy
levels of omega-3’s tip the balance toward “good” eicosanoids, excessive
omega-6’s or a deficiency of omega 3’s allow the “bad” eicosanoids to run
rampant (note—there is a section at the end on what foods are high in
Good eicosanoids lead to the following:
“clottable” blood—fewer strokes and heart attacks
blood vessels—better blood supply to organs and tissue for healing and
energy, lower blood pressure
immune system—less asthma, eczema, psoriasis, allergies, and cancer
inflammation levels healthy, decreases arthritis and pain
Bad eicosanoids lead to the following:
probability of heart disease and strokes
immune system, predisposes to sickness and cancer
inflammation—atopic disorders, allergies, asthma, eczema, autoimmune
diseases such as multiple sclerosis
Bad Inflammation, Omega-3’s, Cholesterol, and Heart Disease
“Bad” inflammation can be prevalent within your body without
your knowing. Dr. Barry Sears, in his
book The Anti-Inflammation Zone, calls this “silent inflammation”. This silent inflammation is the groundwork
of the great ailments of our time. Silent
inflammation takes a toll on blood vessels making you more prone to
cardiovascular disease. In an effort to
repair blood vessels your liver creates cholesterol—the “patch” for blood
vessels. In a misguided effort we treat
the cholesterol (the effect) rather than the inflammation (the cause). A recent study in the Archives of
Internal Medicine found that omega-3 supplementation resulted in a 23%
reduction in mortality, whereas statin drugs (like lipitor, zocor, and others)
resulted in only a 13% reduction in mortality.[i]
In response to pronged silent elevation, your body creates a
natural anti-inflammatory called cortisol.
Cortisol and Inflammation
Cortisol works well short-term in response to natural causes
of inflammation such as infection, but it creates havoc when levels are
elevated for a long period of time.
Cortisol decreases your cells’ sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that
ushers blood sugar into cells. The
result is insulin resistance—a component of the metabolic syndrome X, and a precursor
to type 2 diabetes. Prolonged cortisol
elevation encourages your body to store fat in the abdomen. A simple test to see if your cortisol levels
have been elevated for some time is to look in the mirror. Simply put, if your belly is bigger than your
butt, you probably have elevated cortisol and metabolic syndrome X. Many studies show that this simple test is
better than many blood tests at predicting future diabetes and heart disease!
Omega 3’s and Cancer
As mentioned above, omega-3’s regulate the immune system,
and a lack of omega-3’s suppresses the immune system. Cancer is an immune disorder.
All of us create thousand of cancer cells per day—a healthy immune system
is able to mark these cells as problems and annihilate them. Dysfunctional immunity allows these cells to
grow unchecked. “Bad” eicosanoids
actually participate in a process called “neovascularization”—a process where
you grow new blood vessels to feed the cancer!
Studies have shown that DHA, an omega-3 found in fish, is toxic to
cancer cells.[ii] Other research has shown a 69% reduction in
breast cancer among women with the highest levels of DHA.[iii]
A favorite study of mine involved a 78 year-old man with
lung cancer refusing medical treatment.
He proceeded to consume 15 grams of omega-3’s per day. To the surprise of the treating doctor his
cancer slowly shrank away, and at the time of publication the patient was
Conversely, we see increasing rates of cancer with high
levels of omega-6’s in the diet. French
fries, for instance, are high in omega-6 oils as well as trans fats (trans fats
are really bad). A recent study
published in the International Journal of Cancer found that for every serving
per week of French fries consumed by a girl in pre-school, there is a 27%
increase in breast cancer risk!!![v] One note to vegetarians—consuming flax oil
in high amounts actually contributes to an aggressive form of prostate cancer,
whereas omegas from fish decrease risk[vi]—see
the section below on How to Take Omegas.
Omegas and Hormonal Effectiveness
Hormones and neurotransmitters are the “chemical messengers”
that allow communication between the trillions of cells in your body. The receptors for these chemical messengers
“float” within the membranes surrounding every cell. The floating receptors can be thought of as keyholes in which the
insertion of the correct key (chemical messenger) causes a change within the
cell. In order for these receptors to
function well, the cell membrane must be very supple and fluid. Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for proper
cell-membrane fluidity, and thus for effective hormonal communication.[vii] In a state of omega-3 deficiency,
every hormonal system within your body is less effective. This can contribute to depression and
bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, insulin resistance, and decreased learning
ability.[viii] Research in The European Journal of Clinical
Investigation concluded that “Omega-3 supplementation is associated with an
improvement of attentional and physiological functions, particularly those
involving complex cortical processing.”[ix]
They found people to be happier and higher functioning.
Omega 3’s and Depression and Bipolar Disorder
Numerous studies have shown omega-3 supplementation to be
beneficial in depression and bipolar disorder.[x][xi]
[xv] These studies find that people with
depression or bipolar disorder are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, that they
have relatively high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, and that supplementation
with omega-3’s improves symptoms.
Serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain are brought into balance by
omega-3 supplementation. One of the
foremost proponents of omega- 3’s in the treatment of bipolar disorder,
depression, and even schizophrenia, is Andrew Stoll, MD, who is faculty at
Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Psychopharmacology Research
Laboratory at McLean Hospital.[xvi] In his book, The Omega-3 Connection,
Dr. Stoll outlines his research in omega-3 therapy as it pertains to pregnancy
and post-partum depression, major depression, bipolar disorder, attention
deficit disorder, schizophrenia, and memory and cognition (memory and
what….?) (That was a joke). I absolutely recommend this book to anyone
suffering these problems.
Omega-3’s and Brain Development: Infant/Childhood Development and
Infants have a special need for omega-3 fats, especially
DHA. DHA is a primary building block
for the nervous system, and in this country children are usually deficient
in-utero and throughout childhood! DHA
is highly concentrated in healthy brain cells and in the cells of the
retina. Studies show that DHA
deficiency leads to lower intelligence, decreases ability to concentrate,
decreased visual acuity, decreased motor skills, and a higher incidence of ADD.[xvii]
One study looked at the effects of omega-3 supplementation
in children with “developmental coordination disorder”—a condition that affects
about 5% of school-aged children. These
kids demonstrate “difficulties in learning, behavior, and psychosocial
adjustment that persist into adulthood.” The results, published in the journal Pediatrics, were as
follows; “significant improvements for active treatment versus placebo were
found in reading, spelling, and behavior over 3 months of
treatment”.[xviii] (In this study they used the same omega-3
product that I have available in my office.)
Your chance of suffering from Alzheimer’s is cut by 60%
if you regularly consume fish or fish oil![xix] This is very significant since right now 1
out of 2 people over 85 in this country have Alzheimer’s!
Pregnant and nursing mothers also have needs for higher
levels of omega-3 fats. Your child’s
nervous system, hormonal system, and eye development all depend on the presence
of these fats in your diet. Pregnant
or nursing mothers, children under 5, and Alzheimer’s patients have different
omega-3 needs than the rest of the population—these special needs are addressed
at the end of this paper.
How to Take Omega-3’s
The first step in normalizing your omega-3 levels is
decreasing your omega-6 intake. A
healthy ratio of these fats in your blood is about one to one (the normal range
is 1-3 omega 6’s to 1 omega-3). Most
Americans are between 20-50 to 1! Their
omega-6’s are literally 6-50 times what they should be! The following foods are extremely high in
omega-6’s and should be avoided: oils of safflower, cottonseed,
sunflower, soy, and corn.
Next, be sure that you are not eating trans fats. These “fake” fats are the worst thing you
can put in your body and have the strongest link to diabetes, heart disease and
cancer. Any food with ingredients
labeled “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” contain trans fats. These foods should not be eaten.
The following guidelines are for omega-3 supplementation:
Adults use a 2 to 1 ratio of EPA to DHA, some GLA is helpful
to get it into your system.
Three grams is a good dose for healthy adults.
If you are dealing with a health issue you can megadose with
omega-3’s for 1-4 months—talk to me if you want to do this.
Older people with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s should
reverse the ratio of EPA to DHA—they take double the DHA.
Children under 5 years old use a 2 to 1 ratio of DHA to
EPA—a healthy child takes 200-300 milligrams per day.
Be sure your omega-3’s are labeled either pharmaceutical
grade or molecularly distilled—this means all mercury and PCB’s are removed.
I carry an excellent
omega-3 product at my office—orders can be placed at (530) 273-4388. If
you have any questions, ask!
Studer M, Briel M,
Leimenstoll B, Glass TR, et al. Effect of
Different Antilipidemic Agents and Diets on Mortality. Arch Intern Med. 2005;165:725-730
[vi] Leitzmann MF, Stampfer MJ, Michaud DS,
Augustsson K, Colditz GC, Willett WC, Giovannucci EL. Dietary intake of n_3 and
n_6 fatty acids and the risk of prostate cancer. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;80:204 –16.
[vii] Parris M. Kidd,
PhD. Bipolar Disorder as Cell Membrane
Dysfunction. Progress Toward Integrative Management. Altern Med
[viii] Fontani G, Corradeschi F, Felici A, Alfatti F, Bugarini R,
Fiaschi AI, Cerretani D, Montorfano G, Rizzo AM,
Berra B. Blood profiles, body fat and
mood state in healthy subjects on different diets supplemented with Omega-3
polyunsaturated fatty acids. European Journal of Clinical Investigation 35: 499 August 2005.
Stoll AL, Severus WE,
Freeman MP, et al. Omega 3 fatty acids
in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Arch
Gen Psychiatry 1999;56:407-412.
[xi] Lachman HM, Papolos DF. Abnormal signal
transduction: a hypothetical model for bipolar affective disorder. Life Sci 1989;45:1413-1426.
[xiv] Sagduyu K, Dokucu ME, Eddy BA, Craigen G, Claudia F,
Baldassano CF, Yildiz A. Omega-3 fatty acids
decreased irritability of patients with bipolar disorder in an add-on, open
label study. Nutrition Journal
Omega-3 Connection. Andrew Stoll MD.
2001 New York, NY Fireside.
[xvii] Larque E, Demmelmair H, Koletzko B. Perinatal
supply and metabolism of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids: importance for
the early development of the nervous system.
Ann NY Acad Sci 2002 Jun:967:299-310.
[xviii] Richardson AJ, Montgomery P. The Oxford-Durham Study: A
Randomized, Controlled Trial of Dietary Supplementation With Fatty Acids in
Children With Developmental Coordination Disorder
115(5) May 2005, pp. 1360-1366