There are many forms of fatty acids in our bodies. Some we must ingest as food, some are created by the body and others are created by symbiotic organisms such as gut bacteria. The bottom line is that they are ubiquitous and necessary to our lives.
Because we are in direct control of our diet, it's important to focus on the fatty acids that come from food. These are known as the "essential" fatty acids.
Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats which the body cannot make on its own and therefore must be obtained from the diet. These essential fatty acids are better known as the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids; names which come from their unique chemical structures.
Essential fatty acids play many roles in our biochemistry. One such role is the balance of inflammation in the body - the hottest topic medicine today.
Inflammation on its own is not a bad thing. In fact there are times when we need a very good inflammatory response to take place in the body. This is particularly true shortly after sustaining a tissue injury - internally or externally. Inflammation calls the body's healing and protective mechanisms into action!
It is excess or chronic inflammation that becomes a problem.
Excess inflammation in the body seems to play a role in the genesis of almost every disease process, so figuring out how to reduce it is an important part in recovery.
Balance is the key, and this is especially true with essential fatty acids!
Much of the recent medical focus has been on the omega-3 fatty acids. This is primarily because the omega-3 fatty acids help to quench inflammation - among its many other potent healing properties.
alpha-linolenic acid (vegetarian precursor to EPA and DHA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
Fish (esp. salmon, makerel, herring, sardine, anchovies)
Cod liver oil
Although they tend to drive the inflammatory process, Omega-6 fatty acids have a very important role in the structure of cell membranes and are critical to our health. Again balance is the key. The problem with the content of our western diet is that omega-6 fatty acids far out-number the omega-3 fatty acids. When coupled with other inflammatory foods, increased exposure to environmental toxins, extreme stress, poor exercise and sleep habits, you have a recipe for rapidly declining health in the population of people (which is exactly what we are seeing today).
The Omega 6s
Besides helping with the balance of inflammation, here are some of the other functions of essential fatty acids in your body:
Source of cell energy
Cell membrane structure
Helps with calcium absorption reducing osteoporosis
Modify gene expression
Improves HDL and reduces triglyceride
Improves brain and eye function
Supports balanced mood
Determining if you are getting the right balance of essential fatty acids is as simple as providing a few drops of blood to be tested by a lab. If you have recurring or chronic pain, it's safe to say you are trending toward the inflammatory side of the balance.
Once you know your balance, you can adapt your diet appropriately. Many people find that supplementing with fish or plant oils helps them easily maintain balance. It's important to seek the advice of a naturopathic doctor in choosing a safe, high quality supplement and to help you with digestion if you know you have difficulty digesting fats.
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