I can still remember clearly the moment I learnt just what a huge impact the right balance of fats has on your health. Sat in a lecture hall in Wimbledon in my first year of a diploma in nutritional therapy. I’m grateful to my tutor at the time, Nigel Hinchliffe for that lightbulb moment.
Fats can be a complicated subject. There’s some aspects that you don’t need to know and others that are worth spending a bit of time with. Ever since that lecture, I realised that essential fat pathways fall into the latter. Deadly boring and super scientific they may sound, but the 10 minutes you will spend reading and getting to grips with this concept really could change your life.
In this article we’ll take a closer look at the way your body converts essential fats into other types of fat – some beneficial and some not so. This is absolutely crucial for two reasons: 1) these fats are needed to form key structures in your body such as those in your brain 2) eventually, these fats become special substances called prostaglandins – and will either fight or promote inflammation. What you end up with is determined by how your essential fat pathways work. Since inflammation is now considered to be at the root of many common chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, depression and even obesity – this is one aspect of your health that’s worth getting right.
You can use your diet and lifestyle to nurture healthy pathways that help to fight inflammation.
Here’s what you need to know about essential fat pathways and nothing else:
The only essential fats
There are only two essential fats – omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) and omega-3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA) - called ‘essential’ because your body can’t make them, so they must come from your diet. LA comes from nuts as well as oils of safflower, sunflower and sesame. ALA comes from flax, pumpkin and walnut oils.
How your body makes more beneficial fats
You’ll see from the diagram that there are conversion pathways for both omega-6 and omega-3 fats. From each of these ‘parent’ fats (LA & ALA) your body can make other special fats such as GLA (often helpful for eczema sufferers) or even EPA & DHA (needed for a healthy heart, brain and even mood and behaviour).
For these conversions to happen you need:
1) Plenty of LA & ALA in your diet
2) A healthy functioning enzyme called delta-6-desaturase (D-6-D)
3) Plenty of nutrient co-factors B3, B6, magnesium, zinc, biotin and vitamins C, E & A.
Why you need to protect delta-6-desaturase (D-6-D)
This is a crucial enzyme that helps your body to make the conversion to highly beneficial key fats such as GLA, EPA and DHA. D6D also supports the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins too. However, if you have any of the following in your diet or lifestyle then it’s likely this enzyme won’t work properly. Stress, alcohol, sugar, obesity, smoking, extreme dieting, fasting or starvation and even some medications such as corticosteroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can all block this enzyme. This enzyme also needs optimal levels of vitamins B3, B6, biotin, magnesium, zinc and vitamins C, E & A to work properly.
Why you don’t want too much delta-5-desaturase (D-5-D) activity
Unlike D6D, this is one enzyme that you don’t want to be too active. You will see on the omega-6 pathway that the beneficial fat DGLA can either be converted into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins OR arachidonic acid (AA) and then into pro-inflammatory substances. This doesn’t just happen by chance – the conversion to pro-inflammatory substances requires D5D. You can reduce the activity of D5D by limiting your intake of sugar and increasing your intake of omega-3 EPA.
Why you don’t want too much AA in your diet
AA comes from meat, dairy and eggs. You do need AA, but not at the high levels you get in a typical Western diet. Most people eat far too much omega-6 AA and not enough omega-3 fats such as ALA, EPA or DHA. The ideal ratio of omega-6: omega-3 fats should be around 1:1 but is actually more like 20:1! Since AA is directly converted into pro-inflammatory prostaglandins, you can see how the typical Western diet feeds inflammation.
What you can do about it:
• Increase intake of flax, pumpkin, walnut and oily fish
• Support D6D activity by eating regularly, avoiding sugar, alcohol and smoking and taking steps to reduce stress
• Reduce D5D activity by avoiding sugar and increasing intake of omega 3 EPA
• Ensure an optimal supply of vitamins B3, B6, biotin, magnesium, zinc and vitamins C, E & A (a high quality daily multivitamin will help to support this as will eating plenty of wholegrains, nuts and seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables and leafy greens)
• Supplement directly with a pure and stable form of oily fish containing omega 3 EPA & DHA to ensure you are getting plenty of this crucial nutrient in your diet. Everyone will benefit from a daily dose of omega 3 EPA & DHA: from babies – 100 and beyond!
• If you suffer from eczema, supplement directly with a high quality supplement containing GLA such as borage seed oil
• Reduce your intake of meat and dairy and increase your intake of nuts, seeds and oily fish to help rebalance the ratio of omega-3: omega-6 and get inflammation under control