Has anyone heard of the fight or flight response? The fight or flight response is a primal defense response that the body uses when it is under stress- this response gives us the drive to ‘run from the bear’ who is chasing us in the woods, hence threatening our life. I am using the fight or flight response as a simple metaphor to introduce the fatty acids. How does the fight or flight response relate to this topic, you ask? Well give me a couple paragraphs and I will explain. The organic fight or flight response triggers an increase in hormones that temporarily increase our anxiety, aggression, excitement, urge to run, and anything else we may need to get away. This, in our ancestors was said to happen only when needed by things like ‘running from the bear’ and then shortly after the event was calmed down, the hormones triggering the unfavorable feelings calmed down as well and everything inside of the body went back to normal. As society progressed, however, things got more complicated and now instead of just getting stressed when running from the wild animal in the woods, we have more chronic forms of our life- saving response. More chronic forms of stress yield opposite results, being not-so-life-saving.
Continual stress from modern working environments, technology, drive-time, more complicated human relations, etc. is what yields the non-stop state of being in the fight or flight response. When those hormones are firing regularly, they create a state of constant inflammation due to the effect of those particular hormones. This state, the state of always being stressed, is not a natural state for our bodies. A little bit of stress helps us to flee danger and hence save our life, but stress long-term has the opposite effect and will in turn, ‘do us in’. The same is true when speaking about the essential fatty acids known as the omega-3 and omega-6 fats. The natural ratio we should be consuming these fats in, and the ratio that our bodies have been used to for centuries is a 1:1 ratio. More recently, however, (recently as in the moment we started processing our foods), the ratio of these needed fats consumed has been WAY out of balance- with the inflammatory omega-6 fats being on the high end of the scale. (1)
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are two of the main essential fatty acids- essential meaning that we cannot produce them from within our body and need to consume them from food or supplements. Omega-3 is known to be anti-inflammatory whereas omega-6 is known to be pro-inflammatory. Each fat serves a much needed purpose within the body; they in essence are similar to the ‘yin and yang’ effect, complimenting each other as one balances out the other. While omega-3 fats are needed to keep the blood thinner, omega-6 fats are needed to ensure the blood doesn’t get too thin and that it will clot when needed, as in times of injury. Omega-3’s also help to balance out the more inflammatory responses that come from the opposite omega-6 effects so that the body is not living with chronic inflammation. The problem now days, however, is that just like that fight or flight response in its unnatural state creates a chronic long-term inflammation, the same is true when consuming a diet unnaturally high in omega-6 fats.
A diet consisting of a ratio outside of the ideal 1:1 ratio for the essential fatty acids is not only unnatural, but unfavorable. Chronic inflammation sets the body up for weight gain and disease. As a society, we need to focus on a diet where nature is the highlight, which is also how our bodies have adapted to need to eat- otherwise disease is prevalent. The high availability of common foods containing high levels of inflammatory omega-6 fats that have become our American staple include: chips, fries, common fried foods in general, peanuts or peanut butter, too many grains and grain-fed animals, grain-fed dairy products, processed sweets such as all bakery goods, common store bought salad dressings and most ‘junk’ food. Foods in these forms were either not even available for a good part of history or the quantity in which we ate them was drastically different. In general, the inflammatory omega-6 fats in our diets have become dangerously out of balance with the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.
So what can you do in order to balance the fats in your diet? Ingest limited quantities of the prior mentioned omega-6 fats and try implementing more omega-3 fats such as a high-quality fish oil, flaxseed/primrose oil, walnuts, wild-caught fish (particularly salmon), grass-fed beef and eggs and grass-fed dairy products, etc. Although we need the benefits of omega-6 fats to help repair short-term injury to the body (just as the fight or flight response comes in handy when we need it) too much can destroy our health. Omega -3 fats are known to reduce the levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, raise the levels of healthy HDL cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reduce atherosclerosis. Each of these benefits help with reduced risks of stroke, heart disease and heart attack. The disruption of the omega balance can create inflammation, blood clots, high blood pressure, irritation of the digestive tract, depressed immune function, sterility, cancer and weight gain. (2)
An entire paragraph or two…or three, devoted to the benefits of some type of fish oil, is deserved since it contains a very usable form of the essential omega-3 fat. All omega-3 fat starts out in the body as what’s called alpha- linolenic acid (ALA), which then further needs to be broken down into EPA and DHA- the usable forms of the fat that the body is trying to get from the ALA . When we consume fish oil, the fat is already in the EPA and DHA forms that do our bodies much benefit. Unfortunately, if we are not consuming some type of fish or fish oil supplement regularly, our bodies are most likely not receiving adequate supplies of the needed EPA and DHA fats regardless of how many walnuts, flax seed, flax/primrose oil, and green veggies we are consuming. The human body has been found to only be able to convert a small portion if any of the ALA to the highly beneficial EPA and DHA fats. Plant sources of ALA do have health benefits regardless of how well they break down into the EPA and DHA fats, so keep consuming them specifically since they are all anti-inflammatory, but to receive the benefits that EPA and DHA provide, one must consume a source that readily comes in those forms already. (3)
So what exactly are the benefits of consuming the needed dosage of EPA and DHA? The benefits of these essential fats could potentially help with just about any health concern present, including improved brain development, reduced psychological distress, enhanced eye and skin health, reduced symptoms of depression, reduced age- related sight loss, possible reduction in chest pain for acute coronary syndrome, decrease in harmful triglycerides related to heart issues, and diabetes support, along with many others. Main health diagnosis’ that fish oil is known for helping with are any disorder influenced by inflammation including several forms of cancer, autoimmune diseases- like rheumatoid arthritis, heart attack, stroke and any disorder related to nervous system function or brain health (these fats are needed in high quantities in the brain). (3, 4)
Best food sources of EPA and DHA include sardines, wild alaskan salmon, herring, and anchovies however, even if we were to consume these foods, it is possible that we could still need more EPA and DHA in our diet, unless you were to have a serving of these fish at least once or twice a day. (3) Recommended dosages vary, with possible upper limits being pretty high as compared to the RDA. If you are consuming a high quantity of fish, I definitely recommend sticking with the high quality fish such as those that can be found in health food stores, and even Mejer/Kroger at times, if you know what you’re looking for. If you are unable to get quality fish, I’d advise even avoiding fish altogether especially if it is farm raised (grain-fed and chemicals in water). Farm-raised fish is the most common type of fish served in typical restaurants, just FYI (for your information). Keep in mind, however, that fish oil does have that blood thinning effect so if taking it you would need to check with your doctor to be sure it is safe to take along with your other medications.
If there is anything to learn about the essential fats, it is that we absolutely need them, and in the correct balance. To put it into ‘laymen’ terms: stay away from junk food and slowly replace the less healthy foods with foods that are more natural to our body composition. Implementing healthier choices can be a lengthy process of trial and error according to what works for your body, but we all must start somewhere. If I were to sum up what I’d want someone to truly get from this article, it would be the focus on inflammation and how to prevent high levels of it by something as simple as focusing on which foods exacerbate and which lessen the effects of inflammation. We are each on a different journey and all of us start from unique places- if you are in need of further direction or help in regards to nutrition services, they are available at the Heart and Vascular Institute of Lapeer, MI.
1.) Champ, C. (2012, May 14). Omega-3 Fats and Your Health. Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.cavemandoctor.com/2012/05/14/omega-3-fats-and-your-health
2.) Fallon, S., & Enig, M. (n.d.). The skinny on fats. Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.westonaprice.org skinny on fats
3.) Nikkola, T. (n.d.). “Mega” Benefits of Omega-3 Fish Oil – Articles – LifeTime WeightLoss. Retrieved March 6, 2015, from http://www.lifetime-weightloss.com/blog/2009/11/6/mega-benefits-of-omega-3-fish-oil.html
4.) Weil, A., & Becker, B. (2013, January 10). Vitamin Library. Retrieved March 6, 2015, from http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART03050/Fish-Oil-Omega-3-Dr-Weil.html