Should you care about your omega-6/omega-3 ratio? The short answer is, no, not unless you’re vegan or eat a diet that doesn’t contain liver, egg yolks, and fish.
Nevertheless, blood testing for arachidonic acid, EPA, and DHA levels can be useful and can guide dietary choices to improve the levels of these fatty acids. Still, don’t get caught up in the arachidonic acid-to-EPA ratio. And be mindful about how EPA behaves differently when you are or aren’t taking aspirin.
Tune in for the details!
This episode is brought to you by Ancestral Supplements’ “Living” Collagen. Our Native American ancestors believed that eating the organs from a healthy animal would support the health of the corresponding organ of the individual. Ancestral Supplements has a nose-to-tail product line of grass-fed liver, organs, “living” collagen, bone marrow and more… in the convenience of a capsule. For more information or to buy any of their products, go to https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/ancestral
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Here are links mentioned in this episode:
How to avoid false data when using Cronometer to track your nutrient intake: https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/2018/07/24/track-vitamin-mineral-intake/
How anti-inflammatory drugs might lead to food intolerances: https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/2018/09/25/best-weapon-food-allergies-food-intolerances/
How anti-inflammatory drugs might contribute to chronic inflammation: https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/2019/01/01/aspirin-goes-best-bicarbonate-glycine/
The Quest test for AA, EPA, and DHA: https://www.questdiagnostics.com/testcenter/TestDetail.action?ntc=91001
Testing Nutritional Status: The Ultimate Cheat Sheet, which puts this testing into the broader context of lab testing and gives protocols for using the testing: https://chrismasterjohnphd.com/cheatsheet Use the code LITE5 for $5 off.
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Read the Transcript
Should you care about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid ratios? Tune in to this episode to find out.
Hi. I’m Dr. Chris Masterjohn of chrismasterjohnphd.com.
And this is Chris Masterjohn Lite, where the name of the game is “Details? Shmeetails. Just tell me what works!”
And today we’re going to talk about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Now, both of these types of fatty acids come in forms that are found in plant oils that need to be converted with your enzymes into forms that are found in animal products.
So, the omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils is linoleic acid, and the omega-6 fatty acid that we ultimately need to have in our bodies that we could also get from animal foods is arachidonic acid. The omega-3 fatty acid that is found in plant oils is alpha-linolenic acid, and the omega-3 fatty acids that we get from animal products are EPA and DHA. EPA is almost exclusively found in fish and in other animals. If those animals are raised on pasture and eating grass and insects, you will generally get a significant, although smaller amount of omega-3 compared to what you get from fish, but it’ll be almost exclusively DHA. And we humans are not fish. If you look at most of our cell membranes, you will mostly find DHA, not EPA, even if we’re eating fish, although the more fish you eat or the more fish oil you take, the more EPA you do get into your body.
Now, do you need to care about the ratio? Everyone’s out there talking about the ratio. The idea that you need to get the ratio is based on animal experiments where the animals were only fed the forms found in plant oils, the linoleic acid, omega-6, and the alpha-linolenic acid, omega-3. Why did the ratio matter so much in those animal experiments? Because it’s the same enzymes that convert the omega-6 into the forms we need as convert the omega-3’s into the forms we need.
So, if we don’t get a balance between the two, they’re competing for those enzyme systems, and if you get too much of one, you hurt the conversion of the other and vice versa. But guess what. Unless you’re vegan, you are not getting only those plant oil versions. In fact, even if you’re a vegan, you can take algae-derived DHA from algal oil. If you are getting arachidonic acid into your diet, and you are getting DHA into your diet, you should not need to worry about the ratio between these at all.
So, for vegans I would say, or for people who don’t eat egg yolks, don’t eat liver, and don’t eat fish, I would say, yes, you should care about the ratio. You generally want a ratio of about four-to-one in favor of omega-6. If you get a little bit lower than that, that should be fine. Some people might argue you should be lower than that. Maybe even some people would say up to one-to-one. As long as you’re at four-to-one or under, meaning four omega-6 for every one omega-3, then you should be fine.
You can try to figure it out on your own, or you can use Cronometer to track it. When you use Cronometer, they give you the ratio in your data, but you need to subscribe to the paid version to get that feature. I will link to a video that I have previously made about how to track your foods in Cronometer because there are some very important caveats about things you need to watch out for to make sure that you don’t get false data, so if you do go that route, please look at the episode that I link to in the show notes.
If you’re not vegan and you do eat eggs, liver, and fish, or even if you just eat eggs and fish, even if you don’t eat liver, you should not need to care about that ratio. But here’s the thing. Another way that the ratio comes into play is the arachidonic acid-to-EPA level in your cell membranes. You cannot know about that from your diet. You would have to know about that from blood tests. Arachidonic acid is inhibited by EPA. And so when you get high levels of EPA in your cell membranes, it acts as if you’re taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug. I do not recommend trying to use this to modify your level of inflammation because two episodes ago, I talked about over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs and how they can prevent you from reaching peak inflammation, but they can also prevent you from ever fully resolving inflammation back down to normal. In other words, they inhibit the inflammatory process, both getting the inflammation and getting rid of it.
EPA at high doses, high enough to affect the arachidonic acid-to-EPA ratio in your cell membranes, will do the exact same thing. So, will it work to lower your level of inflammation? Absolutely. Absolutely, I’m not saying it doesn’t work. What I am saying is it has every single one of the potential side effects that you would get from taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs. So, don’t think that because it’s natural you’re not doing the exact same thing But with that said, the blood tests can also be useful because DHA is supposed to be in your cell membranes, and you need it to properly resolve inflammation.
So, as inflammation runs its natural course, usually you use arachidonic acid to initiate the inflammation. You use arachidonic acid to get to peak inflammation. But then when you want to go back down to normal, you want to get rid of the inflammation, you still use arachidonic acid, but you also start using DHA, so they become partners in that clean-up process. And if you don’t have enough DHA in your cell membranes, you need more. So, what should you do?
Well, in that case you’re not talking about the ratio, you’re just talking about having enough of both. And what I would say there is that you should get a blood test, not because the blood is the best place to look at this, but because it’s the only place where we can get a reasonable insight into it, so you should get a blood test, and you should just make sure that your arachidonic acid levels and your DHA levels are towards the upper part of the reference range. If they’re below the reference range, you definitely need more. If they are in the middle, you could probably benefit by boosting it up toward the higher end.
In terms of what tests to use, Quest offers a test that just looks at EPA, DHA, and arachidonic acid. I’ll link to that in the description of this episode, and that is I think the simplest test to get. You can also get other panels like the Genova ION Profile or the NutrEval that are looking at many things, costs way more money, but will give you those numbers. So, you don’t need the Quest test if you’re doing the comprehensive panel like the Genova ION and Nutreval because those numbers will be in there. But if you’re not doing those tests, and you don’t want to pay for a ridiculous amount of money, and you only want to know about your omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, I would do the Quest test that I link to in the description of this episode.
Now, one slight modification to this. I should say that if you’re not taking aspirin, everything that I just said was true. EPA does not contribute to the resolution of inflammation if you are not taking aspirin. If you do take aspirin, like I talked about two episodes ago, aspirin not only jump-starts making the compounds that resolve inflammation from arachidonic acid, but also from DHA, and aspirin makes you make those compounds that resolve inflammation from EPA, the omega-3 fatty acid that you get from fish. And only when you’re taking aspirin does EPA generate a meaningful amount of chemicals that help you resolve inflammation. The thing is you don’t want to be blocking the arachidonic acid metabolism with the EPA.
So, I would say that in just managing your dietary ratios, you should not be concerned about boosting EPA levels up, you should just be concerned about getting your arachidonic acid levels up through liver and egg yolks and your DHA levels up through fish, fish oil, cod liver oil, or algal oil if you’re vegan, or to a lesser extent pastured egg yolks.
I do think there’s a place for a limited amount of EPA in terms of a more pharmacological program to help resolve inflammation when simple nutritional strategies don’t work, but that will be the subject of the next episode.