PUFAs-Inflammation-Stress: The Axis of Evil

Nighttime at Stresshacker.comIn a prior post on the benefits of fish oil in preventing stress-related illness, the subject of inflammation—the principal cause of stress-related illnesses—was touched upon briefly. It is of such importance, however, that we return to it today and discuss further the connection between inflammation, stress and low polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) intake.

The Problem: Too much ALA, Not Enough LA

In most industrialized countries, including the United States, we now consume five to 20 times as much proinflammatory omega-6 fatty acids than anti-inflammatory omega-3s. What’s the difference between the two, where do these fatty acids come from, and why is this happening?

Omega-6 and omega-3 are the two major types of PUFAs, contributing between 95 and 98% of dietary PUFA intake. Omega-3’s principal component is linoleic acid (LA) and omega-6’s is a-linoleic acid (ALA). LA is abundant in corn, sunflower, soybean oils, and their margarines. ALA is found in green vegetables, soybean and rapeseed oils, nuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil. The availability of LA in Western countries increased greatly in the second half of the 20th century, following the introduction and marketing of long-shelf-life cooking oils and margarines. This changed pattern of consumption has resulted in a significant increase of bad-PUFA omega-6 intake vs. good-PUFA omega-3.

Why Do We Need PUFAs?

PUFAs are important in the membrane protein function of human cells, in maintaining
membrane fluidity, in regulating cell signaling and gene expression, and in overall cellular
function. It is through the interactions of fatty acids that anti-inflammatory agents in the bloodstream can pass through blood vessel walls and reach the site where their intervention is needed.

Inflammation can be caused by a physical pathogen (an insect bite, a burn, or a traumatic injury), or by a stressful event that triggers the body’s defensive mechanisms and causes the release of inflammatory agents such as norepinephrine and cortisol in the blood stream. PUFAs are active in facilitating the removal of inflammation induced by either a physical pathogen or by stress.

Which PUFAs Reduce Stress?

Omega-6 and omega-3 PUFAs play different roles in facilitating anti-inflammatory responses. Research indicates that it is the ratio between these fatty acids that is most important in preventing or reducing the severity of stress-induced diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel syndrome. A favorable ratio of LA (eating foods rich in omega-3) vs. ALA (eating less food that contains omega-6) appears to produce the best anti-inflammatory effects.

Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Nuts: walnuts.
  • Vegetables: kidney beans, navy beans, tofu, winter and summer squash, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, romaine lettuce, and collard greens.
  • Fruits: raspberries and strawberries.
  • Meats: free-range beef and poultry.
  • Fish: herring, mackerel, sturgeon, salmon, and anchovies.