Essential Fatty Acids Pathways
Although most omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are generally referred to as “essential” fatty acids, only linoleic acid (LA) of the omega-6 family and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) of the omega-3 family are truly “essential”. Once we have either LA or ALA, our body has enzymes that can convert these fatty acids into all the other different types of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
It turns out that both the omega-3 and omega-6 pathway utilize the same enzymes, and both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids have to compete for these enzymes in order to produce their final product. Studies have reported that the enzymes used in these pathways were found to prefer the omega-3 pathway. It turns out then that in diets high in omega-3 fatty acids, most of the enzymes will be “busy” converting the omega-3 acids.
The omega-6 fatty acids, Dihommogamma-Linoleic Acid (DGLA) in particular, can be converted to either the anti-inflammatory PG1 or into arachidonic acid (AA), a precursor of PG2. Conversion of DGLA into PG1 does not require any enzymes, but conversion of DGLA into AA requires the enzyme delta-5 desaturase. In diets high in omega-3, most of the delta-5 desaturase will be used in the omega-3 pathway; few delta-5 desaturase will be available to convert DGLA into arachidonic acid, and subsequently, PG2. DGLA ends up being converted into the anti-inflammatory PG1 and inflammation is therefore decreased.
In a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids, large quantities of delta-5 desaturase enzymes are available to convert DGLA into AA. The available AA is then converted into the inflammatory PG2. Thus, the more omega-3 fatty acids present in our body, the fewer enzymes are available for converting omega-6 fatty acids into the inflammatory prostaglandins. A balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is therefore essential for proper health. However, the typical Western diet has evolved to be high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 fatty acids. While omega-6 fatty acids are not necessarily bad, a skewed ratio in favor of too much omega-6 can be detrimental to one's health.
One last note about essential fatty acids concerns their relationship with vitamin E. Some studies have reported that there is a significant correlation between vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. Findings suggest that an inadequate intake of vitamin E results in a decreased absorption of omega-3. Hence, some experts suggest that vitamin E supplementation may be helpful in conjunction with omega-3 supplementation. (Wander, et al.)
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