Essential Fatty Acid Testing

Have you ever been told to take fish oil?  Well, as many times as you’ve heard that advice, I’ve probably told ten times that many people to take it.  How much should you take?  Well, I went over some rough guidelines in my blog about fish oil some time ago.

I was doing some reading some time ago and came across an article about doing blood tests to guide fish oil therapy.  Hey!  I didn’t even know blood tests were available to determine how much fish oil a person needed to take!  On I read…

Turns out, just like treating other problems of the blood chemistry (like electrolyte disturbances, low magnesium, high cholesterol and vitamin D deficiency) fish oil therapy can be guided by blood testing.  However, more information can be gotten from those blood tests than just how much fish oil a person should be taking.

Blood fatty acid testing can give an overall “wellness score” for the body.  It’s known that omega-3 fatty acids (like those found in fatty fish, flaxseed oil, borage seed oil and walnuts) are very good for you and are generally deficient in the Western diet.  On the other hand, omega-6 fatty acids (found in olive oil, corn oil and many other oils used in cooking and baking) are very prevalent in our diet.

In the body, a healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is about 1:1.  In other words, your polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) should be balanced between omega-3 and omega-6.  The more heavily skewed your blood PUFA levels are towards omega-6 fatty acids, the less healthy you are, in general.

A very brief scan of the literature revealed LOTS of evidence of positive health effects of a high omega-3/omega-6 ratio. For instance, higher ratios were protective against progression of prostate cancer, cognitive decline in the elderly, neurologic deterioration after acute stroke, and progression of coronary plaque after heart attacks (even when patients were taking a statin drug!).  Asthma patients with higher ratios have better outcomes and fewer symptoms.  Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids were also associated with lower blood pressure.

There are two other fatty acids that can be measured, that give a lot of information about inflammation in the body.  Those fatty acid are arachidonic acid (AA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).  The ratio of AA to EPA is increased in inflammatory states.  The lower it is, the better.

So how can we use this research to help influence your health?  First you need to get tested.  If you have a cholesterol problem, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, or any other inflammatory condition, ask your doctor to order these tests:

  • Total omega-3 fatty acids
  • Total omega-6 fatty acids
  • Total polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • Arachidonic acid (AA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

The first measure to understand is the omega-3 fatty acid/total polyunsaturated fatty acid ratio.  Ideal would be about 50%.  To alter the ratio, you would eat more omega-3 fatty acids and less omega-6 fatty acids.  This would translate to eating more fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovy, sardine and herring (SMASH is the acronym for fish with high omega-3 levels) and taking more fish oil supplements.  Using less cooking oils and eating less processed foods (which have added oils in them) is helpful too.

The second measure to calculate is the AA/EPA ratio.  The higher this ratio is, the more inflammation is present in your body.  A low level would be under 3, moderate is 3-6, elevated is 7-15, and high is >15.  If you have a high ratio, your best approach is to adopt a Mediterranean-type diet with lots of fresh colorful vegetables and fruit, fatty fish, lean meats in moderation, nuts and seeds.  Limit sugar, added oils and white starches.  Avoid food additives, especially partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils, like the plague.

These tests can be repeated to gauge progress.  If you make changes in your diet and add fish oil supplements, a repeat test can help to see if you’re moving in the right direction.

Don’t guess!  Test!  Then you’ll know whether your diet is helping nourish your body or if you’re causing inflammation and increasing your risk of a whole host of medical problems down the line.

QUESTION:  Do you think essential fatty acid testing would be helpful for you?  Why, or why not?

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