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 omega-6’s).
Good eicosanoids lead to the following:
- Less “clottable” blood--fewer strokes and heart attacks
- Relaxed blood vessels--better blood supply to organs and tissue for healing and energy, lower blood pressure
- Regulate immune system--less asthma, eczema, psoriasis, allergies, and cancer
- Keeps inflammation levels healthy, decreases arthritis and pain
Bad eicosanoids lead to the following:
- Increased probability of heart disease and strokes
- Suppresses immune system, predisposes to sickness and cancer
- Increases 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 asymptomatic![iv]
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] [xii] [xiii] [xiv] [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 Alzheimer’s
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!
[i] 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
[ii] Lindskog M, Gleissman H, Ponthan F, Castro J, Kogner P, Johnsen JI. .Neuroblastoma cell death in response to docosahexaenoic acid: Sensitization to chemotherapy and arsenic-induced oxidative stress. Int J Cancer. 2005 Dec 13
[iii] Maillard V, Bougnoux P, Ferrari P, Jourdan ML, Pinault M, Lavillonniere F, Body G, Le Floch O, Chajes V. N-3 and N-6 fatty acids in breast adipose tissue and relative risk of breast cancer in a case-control study in Tours, France. Int J Cancer. 2002 Mar 1;98(1):78-83.
[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 Rev 2004;9(2):107-135.
[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.
[ix] Fontani G, Corradeschi F, Felici A, Alfatti F, Migliorini S, Lodi L. Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Invest. 2005 Nov;35(11):691-9.
[x] 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.
[xii] Adams PB, Lawson S, Sanigorski A, Sinclair AJ. Arachidonic acid to eicosapentaenoic acid ratio in blood correlates positively with clinical symptoms of depression. Lipids. 1996 Mar;31 Suppl:S157-61.
[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 Journal2005, 4:6
[xvi] The 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
Pediatrics. 115(5) May 2005, pp. 1360-1366