Omega-6 Gets a Bum Rap

You have probably read more than once that omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory. I'm sure I've been guilty of saying something to that effect myself.  The truth is, it's an over simplification.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids. They are called essential because the horse's body can't manufacture them. They are also called essential because the body needs them - both of them.

The first step in the metabolism of omega-6 linoleic acid is the production of arachidonic acid. Counterparts on the omega-3 side are DHA and EPA.  This is a multistep process but the first enzyme for these conversions is the same for both omega-3 and omega-6. I'll come back to that in a minute.

After the production of arachidonic acid, eicosanoids are generated. These are prostaglandins, leukotrienes and a few other minor classes. These are the lipochemicals with active inflammatory effects while those generated from omega-3 have anti-inflammatory actions. However, while it is true that there is some evidence diets with high omega-6 are associated with higher arachidonic acid levels, that does not immediately translate into higher active inflammatory eicosanoids.

Inflammation doesn't just happen. It has to be triggered by something - an infection, injury, toxin, cell death. Just having more omega-6 and arachidonic acid around won't do it. Where the level of omega-6 versus -3 has its major effect is in the production of omega-3 counter regulatory eicosanoids. When there is an abundance of omega-6 they can block omega-3 access to that first enzyme needed to start conversion of these fats into active compounds.

The omega-6 series also does more than cause inflammation. Eicosanoids from omega-6 linoleic acid have some  important beneficial actions. Aspirin can cause an asthma attack because it blocks production of the omega-6 prostaglandin E2, which is a bronchodilator.  Aspirin allows the bronchoconstricting prostaglandins to take over.

Throughout the bodily functions, normal is a balance between chemical mediators, and prostaglandin eicosanoids are involved in many reactions. In the kidneys, they play a role in urine production and electrolyte balance. They are involved in noradrenalin modulation and the sensitivity of sensory nerves. Intraocular pressure, pituitary hormone release and insulin action are influenced.

The leukotrienes derived from omega-6 are primarily mediators of inflammation but inflammation is a necessary reaction for defense from invaders, cleaning up dead or damaged tissue, and healing, as researched in this study.  They are also involved in stimulating the innate immune system response to bacteria, fungi and viruses.

Lipoxins derived from omega-6 are structurally similar to leukotrienes, but they are involved in the resolution of inflammation rather than promoting it. They work together with omega-3 derived resolvins, protectins and maresins to stop the inflammatory process and restore homeostasis.

When a nutrient is essential, there is no good or bad. It's balance that is important.

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