Alteration of the fatty acid content of the diet has much potential beyond just cardiovascular and inflammatory effects. The scientific literature is unveiling new diseases that may be altered, cured, or prevented with fatty acid therapy. The list includes arthritis, cancer, lupus and other autoimmunities, headaches, hypertension, endotoxemia, muscular sclerosis, psoriasis, diabetes, gallstones, and more.1, 2
Increasing the more fluid and dynamic omega-3 levels in the body and decreasing the more stiff and static saturated fats has many biological implications. Lipids are ubiquitous in membranes and make up cell and tissue level regulatory compounds. Altering lipid intake therefore creates a fundamental alteration in the dynamics of many, if not all living processes. Although more natural lipid nutrition is now known to influence blood cholesterol and triglycerides, influence platelet aggregation, decrease platelet count, increase bleeding time, decrease blood viscosity, increase RBC deformability, decrease blood pressure, decrease intimal hyperplasia, and decrease autoimmune manifestations, this list is far from complete.3-5 (Fig. 29)
Lipid malnutrition or deficiency has until recently been blurred by nutritional abundance. The more acute protein and vitamin deficiencies have essentially disappeared in all but "developing" countries. (Actually, truly underdeveloped countries often have excellent nutritional status if natural foods are in adequate supply. "Underdeveloped" here means modernized but undersupplied.) In the place of acute deficiency we now have chronic degenerative disease from more subtle imbalances and toxicities which will increasingly be linked to fatty acid malnutrition. These are nutritional diseases resulting in problems often far removed in time from the cause, thus it is more difficult to determine cause-effect relationships. 6
The ability of phosphatides and the highly unsaturated fatty acids to hold oxygen can affect aerobic efficiency as well as increase tissue oxygen tension resulting in a less favorable environment for pathogenic growth.7 Resistance to disease, athletic capabilities, endurance, metabolic efficiency, energy conversion, recovery from injury, sensory improvement, appearance, sleep-wake cycles, behavior, and all vital life processes can also possibly be beneficially affected by restoring natural balances to lipid nutrition and thus improving oxygen metabolism. (It should be mentioned in this regard that the ability of lipids to hold relatively high levels of oxygen has negative implications for the obese. Increased oxygen in fat reserves can result in lipid oxidation and thus free radical formation, which can then increase various tissue pathologies.)
As the omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids increase in the diet, the phospholipids in cellular membranes have the saturated fats replaced with unsaturated fats which increases the fluidity of these membranes, thus restoring their more healthfu1liquid crystal state. If you will recall, the more saturated the fat, the more stiff it is, and the more solid it is at room temperature. The less saturated, the more fluid it is at room temperature. Omega 3 fatty acids likely exert an added beneficial effect for organisms living in Northern climates where low temperatures would tend to congeal tissues if tissues were composed of high levels of saturated fats.
Some clinicians suggest that bleeding time is a good general indicator of proper fatty acid nutrition. A reasonable goal is a bleeding time of 5 to 8 minutes. Some Eskimos have bleeding times of up to 15 minutes and many Westerners have bleeding times under 3 minutes.8-11 An unusually high bleeding time can increase the risk of cerebrovascular hemorrhage (stroke), whereas a very low bleeding time increases the risk of clotting, atherosclerosis and claudication. Eskimos and individuals consuming excess amounts of omega-3's are thus at risk, as are modem urbanites consuming high levels of arachidonic acid and oxidized fats, although to different diseases.
There is likely an optimal level of the various fatty acids depending upon each individual's environment and unique biochemistry. Determining that level on an individual basis would require elaborate testing and even then the results would be equivocal. The application of nutritional average requirements to individuals is faulty since there is no way of knowing where an individual lies under a curve in a statistical distribution.
Thus allowing the body to select its own optimal levels by supplying it with whole fresh varied natural foods seems wisest. This is not to say prudent supplementation with fresh, properly protected oils may not be helpful under certain circumstances. In certain diseases and when attempting to more rapidly convert the lipid pool in the body to a more healthy profile after a lifetime of abuse, short-term isolated oil supplements may be helpful.
But one lesson to be learned from understanding the broad health benefits possible from lipids is the complexity and interrelatedness of their functions. Food, which is also life, is of equal complexity. The modern tendency to address medical and nutritional problems with isolated chemicals seems to contradict the basic character of life as well as food. The complexity of what we know and the vast unknowns still remaining in lipid nutriture are likely best served by the like complexity and unknowns of fresh, whole, natural foods.
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