Can Fatty Acids Improve Autoimmune Conditions?

Dr. Dorian Holmes, ND

As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

In the case of autoimmune disfunction, adding fats and oils into the diet can help keep the inflammatory response in check. However, it is essential to consume the correct ratio of fatty acids to promote the body’s natural way of managing inflammation. To understand this balancing act, let’s take a closer look at the different types of fatty acids.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 is a term which refers to a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Most nutritionally notable are eicosopentanoic acid (EPA), docsahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are resolvins that activate local messengers called Prostaglandins 1 and 3 to resolve inflammation.

EPA and DHA are largely found in oily fish (wild salmon, mackerel, herring, or sardines) and fish oil (often from cod liver, anchovies, or krill). Research supports EPA and DHA’s ability to slow down debilitating autoimmune diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis. Evidence shows statistically significant reductions in joint swelling, pain, and duration of morning stiffness.

For vegans, EPA and DHA can be found amongst a sea kelp known as the Schizochytrium species. Some would argue that the only drawback to animal-free oils are that DHA is more readily available for digestion as a fish oil form. The jury is still out.

ALA is considered an essential nutrient because the body cannot produce it on its own. It is found mainly in plant sources such as flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. The body can convert ALA into other long chain amino acids such as EPA and DHA. Thus, ALA is the truest form of essential fatty acids. It must be consumed or nothing else can follow without supplementation.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

The most notable in the Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid family is gamma linoleic acid (GLA). GLA is also considered an essential fatty acid as it can only be obtained through diet. GLA foods include hemp oil, evening primrose, black currant, and borage oils. GLA modulates the inflammatory response by regulating nuclear factor-kappa B from switching on genes that provoke inflammation within the immune system. The steady rise in inflammatory autoimmune conditions like eczema or atopic dermatitis is related to one’s inability to form GLA from dietary sources.  Due to the high level of Omega-6’s in our modern diet, it is more common to have an oversupply of this nutrient, which can tip the scales within the body and increase inflammation.

Reducing the Inflammatory Cascade

A mixture of EPA, DHA, ALA and GLA create a healthy balance to reduce the inflammation cascade.  To obtain a nice balance of the essential fatty acids in your diet, start adding fish, walnuts and hemp seeds regularly to various meals. If wild salmon, which hold the greatest levels of EPA and DHA, are not favourites – consider essential fatty acid supplementation fish oil, algal oil liquid or capsules to get EPA and DHAs. Fish oil is often paired with other nourishing, GLA rich oils. Borage oil contains the greatest amounts of GLA at 18-24% compared to black currant oil or evening primrose oil. For daily use in smoothies, for example, black currant oil is the more stable of the two. If supplemental capsules of borage oil are preferred, be sure it is certified free of unsaturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids, a chemical that can be quite toxic to the liver if consumed regularly. Flaxseeds are the best source of alpha linoleic acid (85%).

The synergy of the above fatty acid oils assist the body’s natural mechanisms to reduce inflammation. This function includes the supporting role of EPA, DHA or GLA to tame, reduce, and even turn off genes that initiate inflammation. If inflammation is an issue, please talk to a naturopathic doctor about how to balance omega-3’s and omega-6’s by incorporating nourishing fats as food and/or supplementation.