What do rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel diseases, obesity and even coronary artery disease have in common? Inflammation. Recent findings suggest that generalized inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, SLE, psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis, affect not only our joints, skin and bowels, but most importantly our blood vessels. Chronic inflammation can cause tissue damage and dysfunction. Therefore, coronary artery disease is not just a metabolic disorder and is to some extent an inflammatory disease.
The theory that inflammation can be modified and controlled with the help of particular fatty acids began more than thirty years ago, when two researchers named Bang and Dyerberg studied the correlation between an Eskimo diet and heart disease. Surprisingly, they found that despite the Eskimos’ diet, which was high in fat, the instances of heart disease remained quite low.
Fats are comprised of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. These atoms chemically bond to create a fatty acid molecule. Due to different chemical structures of fatty acids, there are several different types of fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive and canola oils. Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils. Saturated fats are found in animal protein and dairy products. Finally, trans fats, heat-damage fats, are founds in fried foods, heated vegetable oil, pastries and margarine.
In general, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are “good fats.” Saturated fats are “not-so-good fats,” and trans fats are “bad fats” which can cause coronary heart disease, obesity and inflammation. Essential fatty acids needed for the body’s proper growth and function are not naturally produced by the human body, but can be obtained by consuming vegetables or fish. The two types of essential fatty acids are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have the ability to regulate the metabolic imbalance associated with inflammation, unlike Omega-6 fatty acids which can stimulate inflammation. The higher the presence of Omega-6 fatty acids, the lower the anti-inflammatory effect from Omega-3 fatty acids.
In today’s society, largely due to our diet high in saturated fat and processed foods, the ratio of Omega-3 versus Omega-6 is now 1:25, rather than the well balanced 1:4 ratio of previous times. A change in eating habits to contain less Omega-6 fatty acids (saturated fats and processed foods) and increasing Omega-3 intake can help close the ratio gap and decrease inflammation. The best sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are salmon, tuna, sardine, trout, mackerel, herring, olive oil, flaxseed, nuts, oatmeal, spinach, soybeans and algae. The “oilier” the fish, the greater its anti-inflammatory power.
The American Heart Association has recommended that normal healthy individuals consume a variety of fish (preferably oily), and a daily intake of 1 gram of Omega-3 fatty acids for patients with documented coronary heart disease and even more for individuals with high triglyceride levels. Patients with inflammatory disorders or autoimmune diseases are prone to develop coronary disease and should consume 2-3 grams of Omega-3 fatty acids daily and less Omega-6 fatty acids.