Inflammation is a word that you will most likely have become familiar with and is often used within the Paleo/primal health arena (and many others) when discussing various aspects of health and well-being. We all know that it is bad and something which we need to avoid but do you really know what it is and how to address it?
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is often associated with a physical injury, perhaps a sprained ankle or a cut where you can physically see the harm caused to your body. We all know the signs; swollen limbs with a fiery red appearance, reduced mobility most likely coupled with severe pain. It is an instant and natural response created by the body in order to protect and heal by breaking down the damaged tissue, enabling repair, and protecting the body against any invading pathogens that could lead to infection.
The need for balance is based on the fact that Omega-6 is inflammatory whilst Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory; when consumed in appropriate ratios they work together to help balance out the effect on your body. Get the ratio out of sync and the inflammatory effect of Omega-6 will start to take hold.
Inflammatory conditions such as joint pain are only the surface manifestations of inflammation; most goes on at the cellular level where you know nothing about it. The cells within your body fight infections and any foreign invaders through inflammation. Inside your body where you cannot physically see the effects it can be forgotten and ignored for months, and often years, until it manifests itself in a condition such as obesity, heart disease, or depression. Then you sit up and take notice. The sobering fact is that the majority of illnesses seem to have some association with inflammation. So how does inflammation go from being a natural (and helpful) response to become linked with some of the most chronic and debilitating illnesses of our lifetime?
A natural immune response, inflammation is intended to fight off invaders; it is supposed to be short and to the point. In most cases it will last only a few days allowing you enough time to rest and heal before getting you back on your feet and on your way. The problem arises when there are just far too many invaders so that every cell in the body becomes inflamed and can even trigger allergic responses; at this stage inflammation becomes an ever present chronic and systematic feature. Far removed from the short, acute situations it was intended for.
Once your immune system becomes overburdened these inflammatory triggers are cycled continuously through your blood where they affect nerves, organs, connective tissues, joints, and muscles. It is not difficult to see how diseases can then begin to develop.
So where do these invaders come from? You can most likely guess that diet is a factor – consuming a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and lacking in vital nutrients has implications for inflammation. This is closely linked to the impact of insufficient levels of Omega-3 and excessive levels of Omega-6 and of course we can’t leave out the usual trio of lack of sleep, high stress, and poor gut health. As with most stories in restoring health and well-being these are always the main players and by addressing each of these items we can start to reset the balance and get good health back within our control.
The role of Omega-6 and Omega-3
Omega-6 and Omega-3 are polyunsaturated fatty acids and are both essential for optimal health. It is thought that our ancestors consumed a diet containing a 1:1 ratio with our optimal ratio being 4:1 (Omega-6:Omega-3) or lower. The need for balance is based on the fact that Omega-6 is inflammatory whilst Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory; when consumed in appropriate ratios they work together to help balance out the effect on your body. Get the ratio out of sync and the inflammatory effect of Omega-6 will start to take hold.
When you consider that the average ratio in the modern western diet is 16:1, but can be as high as 25:1, it starts to make sense that most modern diseases are inflammatory conditions (think cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, IBS, arthritis, asthma, cancer, and autoimmune disease to name only a few.) Let’s take a look at where you might find Omega-6 in your diet.
There are several different types of Omega-6 fatty acids and not all of them promote inflammation. The main sources of Omega-6 that we come across in our diet come from highly processed vegetable oils, practically all processed foods, intensively farmed meat, and animal by-products.
Modern vegetable oils are highly processed (the only way to squeeze oil from a hard seed or grain) and easily oxidised by heat or light. This means that in the body they form free radicals and unstable molecules that lead to inflammatory conditions and general chaos.
Cheap oils such as sunflower, vegetable, and corn oil contain massive ratios of Omega-6; sunflower oil in particular has 130 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 and is in practically all processed foods as well as the modern cooking oil of choice. Highly processed vegetable oils, and their chemically mutated offspring trans-fats, are the reason for the imbalance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 in the population at large.
Don’t use cheap, or otherwise, cooking oils; vegetable oil, corn oil, sunflower oil all come under this heading. Also avoid processed foods containing these things – practically everything does from your expensive deli-style olives to ice cream. When eating out be aware that these oils are prevalent in fast food and also used in the majority of restaurants. Choose cold pressed nut oils, olive oil, and animal fats as alternatives.
Omega-6 is not all bad though; it is an essential fatty acid (meaning it is essential for human health) and we do need to include it in our diet as our body does not naturally produce it. Amongst others it has a crucial role to play in brain function, as well as growth and development, maintaining bone health, and regulating metabolism. The key is not to over consume and to maintain a healthy balance with Omega-3 which we turn to next.
It is likely that you will have heard much more about Omega-3 than Omega-6; it is the darling of the food world and products which are lucky enough to contain healthy doses of this fatty acid are often raised to superfood status. This is not surprising given its anti-inflammatory properties.
The two types of Omega-3 fatty acids that you want to be focusing on are EPA and DHA and the best sources are found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines; the canned varieties with bones also provide calcium and the vitamin D needed for the body to utilise it. Aside from fish there are very few food sources that naturally provide EPA and DHA. The recommended intake of oily fish is 2 portions per week, the majority of people do not achieve this; if you fall into this category it may be time to consider an Omega-3 supplement.
Whilst it is all very well promoting its anti-inflammatory benefits this is no good whatsoever unless you also take into account your consumption of Omega-6. It is a simple fact that increasing your intake of Omega-3 will not have the desired effect unless you also decrease levels of Omega-6. This is the part that the TV shows and food industry in general conveniently forget to tell you.
The good news is that if you are following a Paleo or primal lifestyle then you should already be well on your way to correcting any Omega-6/Omega-3 imbalance. Maintaining a healthy diet with a wide variety of fresh produce created in your own kitchen is the single best thing you can do for your health and that of your family.
- Sisson, M.. (2012). What is Inflammation?. In Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved 9 August 2015 from http://www.marksdailyapple.com/what-is-inflammation/#axzz3iDiBIVmL
- Marquis, D.M.. (2013). How Inflammation affects every aspect of your health. In Mercola.com. Retrieved 9 August from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/03/07/inflammation-triggers-disease-symptoms.aspx
- Kressor, C.. (2010). How too much Omega 6 and not enough Omega 3 is making us sick. In Chris Kresser. Retreived 9 August 2015 from http://chriskresser.com/how-too-much-omega-6-and-not-enough-omega-3-is-making-us-sick/
- Simopoulos, A.P.. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. In Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, Vol. 56, Iss. 8, Oct 2002, pp. 365–379. Retrieved 9 August from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0753332202002536