Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay 

I wrote here on what essential fatty acids are, and why they’re important. While there are food and vegetable sources of each step along the way, our bodies need to be working appropriately to get the most out of them.

Step One: Delta-6 Desaturase

As you can see from the flow chart here of the biochemical pathways, step one of both the Omega-6 and the Omega-3 pathways require the same enzyme, Delta-6 Desaturase (in green) to progress down to the most anti-inflammatory oils. On the Omega-6 side, the most anti-inflammatory oil is Gamma-Linolenic Acid. On the Omega 3 side, they are EPA and DHA (the same oils typically found in fish oil).

If your Delta-6 Desaturase enzyme isn’t working very well, you’re not going to be able to use all those good oils from your diet (unless you’re consuming fish, for the most part: then you skip straight to the best oils, as least on the Omega-3 side).

There are several reasons why your Delta-6 might not be working as well as it should. These are:

Step Two: Delta-5 Desaturase

If you glance back up at the pathway, once the EFAs make it past Delta-6, they also have to pass through Delta-5 Desaturase as well (also in green). This one is more of a mixed bag, as on the Omega-6 side it produces arachidonic acid, which is usually thought of as inflammatory because of the inflammatory prostaglandins it produces downstream. But on the Omega-3 side, it produces the very beneficial EPA and DHA.

Arachidonic acid is not all bad, though. It’s important in cell membranes, which is of course critical for every cell. They’re also precursors for endocannabinoids, the compounds the body produces that behave similarly to what is found in CBD oil. These are important for pain, mood, and stress modulation. They are also responsible for part of the immune modulation of the Th2 response.

It’s when the Omega-6 and the arachidonic acid pathway are overloaded that the excess spills over into the inflammatory prostaglandins. This is often the case in the Standard American Diet; while the ratio of O6:3 should be around 4:1 at most, the SAD has it closer to 20:1 due primarily to processed foods made with vegetable oils, as well as a diet high in agriculture industry animal products. (Grass fed, free range animal products are much less problematic, as a general rule.)

There is also a genetic component to the Delta-5 Desaturase. FADS1 encodes for Delta-5 Desaturase. You can have a “speed-up” or a “slow-down” mutation at any one of these; a “speed-up” mutation here is responsible for higher arachidonic acid production. Fortunately, there is a failsafe built in: as long as there’s something in the Omega-3 pathway to work with, the same enzyme will also increase EPA and DHA production, and its subsequent anti-inflammatory prostaglandins to balance things out. But if all you’re eating is agriculture industry animal products and processed foods made from veggie oils, there’s nothing on the omega-3 side to convert.

The Upshot

You can get your essential fatty acids from your food alone, provided:

If ANY of these things are not true of you… I’d suggest you supplement with fish oil or krill oil. (Note that while flax oil starts at the very top of the omega-3 pathway, it still might not convert if you have any disruption in the enzymes that do the work.)