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:
- Genetic mutations. Specifically if you’ve had a genetic analysis performed, FADS2 encodes for Delta-6 Desaturase. If you have especially a homozygous (two bad copies) mutation in this gene, it means your body isn’t as efficient at turning plant sources of EFAs into their more usable forms.
- Too many trans-fatty acids in your diet. Also called partially hydrogenated fats, trans fats actively inhibit the activity of Delta-6. So not only are the trans fats themselves gunking up your cell membranes, they’re also preventing good fats from being converted into a usable form that might otherwise offset the damage they cause.
- Stress. While stress in the body can effectively cause whatever your weak link is to snap, it’s specifically been shown to slow down EFA metabolism. This may be in part because cortisol is a steroid, and steroid medications likewise depress both Delta-5 and Delta-6.
- Nutrient Deficiencies. Like all enzymes, Delta-6 has nutrient cofactors necessary for it to do its job. Its primary cofactors are Vitamin B6, magnesium, and zinc.
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.
You can get your essential fatty acids from your food alone, provided:
- You’re not stressed. 🙂 (Need some ideas on how to manage your stress? Click here.)
- Your micronutrient status is adequate.
- You have no genetic mutations that slow the process down.
- You’re not eating trans fats.
- You’re not eating (exclusively) agriculture-industry animal products.
- You’re not overdoing the processed foods made with vegetable oils.
- You’re eating nuts and seeds, OR you’re eating fish on a semi-regular basis.
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.)