As people age, systemic inflammation can inflict degenerative effects throughout the body.1-5 A primary cause of this destructive cascade is the production of cell-signaling chemicals known as pro-inflammatory cytokines. Along with these dangerous cytokines, imbalances of hormone-like messengers called prostaglandins and leukotrienes also contribute to inflammatory processes.6-8
The body needs fatty acids to survive and is able to make all but two of them: linoleic acid (LA), in the omega-6 family, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in the omega-3 family. These two fatty acids must be supplied by the diet and are therefore considered essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in coldwater fish (and fish oil), perilla and flaxseed oils, are essential elements of a healthy diet. Omega-3 oils contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are usually lacking in the typical Western diet, which is filled with foods containing high amounts of omega-6 fats.30 EPA and DHA can be synthesized in the body from ALA, but EPA and DHA synthesis may be insufficient under certain conditions and for most people that consume Western diets.
Omega-6 fatty acids are well-supplied in the diet by meat and vegetable oils. However, not all omega-6 fatty acids are of equal value. Arachidonic acid (AA) tends to be unhealthy because it is the precursor of inflammatory eicosanoids — such as prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), thromboxane A2, and leukotriene B4 — which promote inflammation. In contrast, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found in evening primrose oil, borage oil, and black currant oil, is an important fatty acid that plays a beneficial role in healthy prostaglandin (PGE1) formation and pro-inflammatory mediator reduction.31
Most Americans and citizens of other Western nations consume far too many omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and not enough omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. In fact, some Western diets consist of 20 parts of omega-6 to only one part of omega-3. For optimum health, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be between 1:1 and 4:1.32 The severe imbalance that occurs with most people contributes to the development of long-term health problems.
Studies associate the Mediterranean diet — rich in omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids such as that found in olive oil, and antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and herbs — with lowered cardiovascular risk and increased life span. 33-39 Other studies support omega-3’s importance in cardiovascular health.40-41
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