Essential Fatty Acids And The Menopause
Speaking with numerous girlfriends – all of us of a certain age.. I’m trying to help them avoid the nasty symptoms of the menopause, which is also not far from my door. I’ve been looking into essential fatty acids and the menopause – namely Omega 6 and Omega 3.
Now, until I studied nutrition I had no idea that these are indeed essential for us to eat…the body can’t produce them – hence the name ‘essential’!
They’re soooo important for long term health both mentally and physically and even more so for women approaching or going through the menopause.
Omega 6 and Omega 3 Conversion Pathways
Here’s the simplest diagram I could find to explain how the omega fats convert into other substrates that our bodies need (thanks to Marilyn Glenville PhD)
- Omega 6 can be converted to either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory prostaglandins (fats with hormone like effects)
- Omega 3 can only be converted into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins so these are hugely important to have in our diet.
- They are even more important during the peri-menopause and menopause. You want more anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and less of the pro-inflammatory ones; Less Omega 6 fats and more omega 3 fats.
However, in the west we eat far too many omega 6 fats which are found in processed foods in the form of polyunsaturated fats such as vegetable oils, ready meals, margarine, crisps, chips, cakes, biscuits and similar snacks.
What does Too Much Omega 6 do?
Research shows that there is an increase in the risk of heart disease due to high omega 6 fat and low omega 3 fat intakes.
High omega 6 intakes increase inflammation, as shown above, which predisposes us to inflammatory diseases such as type 2 diabetes, allergies, eczema, arthritis, autoimmune disease and even cancer.
What’s the right Amount of Omega 6 & Omega 3?
- The more omega 3 fat we eat, the less omega 6 will be available to the tissues to produce inflammation
- Omega 6 is pro inflammatory
- Omega 3 is anti inflammatory
- A diet high in omega 6 and not much omega 3 will increase inflammation
- A diet high in omega 3 and not much omega 6 will decrease inflammation
Still with me?…good…:) so let’s add the next bit…
Sadly, you can’t just say to yourself ‘Oh , OK then I’ll start eating more omega 3 rich foods – simple!’
Nope its science honey , so it’s not simple 🙂
Omega 6 fat, although the baddy in our story today, is actually important for us to have …remember the name ‘essential’? We need this pro inflammatory in our bodies to help with infections and damage repair – such as when we cut yourselves and the wound becomes red and inflamed? That’s all the good guys in your body helped by omega 6 getting the healing process going.
It’s the ratio of omega 6 fat to omega 3 fat that’s really important. This is because the enzymes that break down these fats are shared by both omega 6 and omega 3 pathways…the fat that shouts the loudest gets the attention of the enzyme and so gets more conversion.
So too much omega 6 means that poor omega 3 gets left behind. If there’s too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3 in your diet to start off with, then omega 3 hasn’t a chance in hell to be heard. 🙂
There are many variations on what this ratio should be depending what you read but it should be at least
omega 6: omega 3 – 1:1 – 4:1.
It’s estimated that in the Western diet we currently are getting ratios of between 15:1– 17:1!
Dietary intervention studies have shown that reducing the ratios down to 1:1 – 4:1 leads to decreased risk in breast cancer, reductions in heart disease deaths , colorectal cancer cell growth, and symptoms of inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis and asthma .
Time to get those omegas sorted!
Foods To Eat Less Of- Omega 6 Rich
- Processed foods
- Ready meals
- Vegetable oils: corn, canola, sunflower, soy
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats ( nasty trans fats)
Foods To Eat More Of – Omega 3 Rich
- Fatty Fish- see below
- Flaxseed ( linseed)
- Chia seeds
- Nuts and seeds in general are good
And to a lesser degree but still good:
- Meats and dairy from grass fed animals
- Brussel sprouts
- Hemp seeds
Do note that it’s harder for the body to convert plant sources from alpha linolenic acid, at the top of the omega 3 conversion pathway, to the good EPA and DHA.
Flaxseed and walnuts contain alpha linolenic acid, and approximately only 10% of it gets converted into EPA and DHA. You get more EPA and DHA if you eat fatty fish as these contain these fatty acids already.
So if you’re not a veggie / vegan then the below list with the easy to remember name S.M.A.S.H are the ones to aim for:
Vegetarians are advised to decrease the intake of omega 6 rich processed foods if eaten in high quantities such as meat substitutes, soy oil and nuts, especially peanuts, as this could lead to an imbalance of high omega 6 fat and low EPA/DHA due to lack of direct EPA/DHA in the diet.
Essential fatty Acids and The Menopause
So why not aim to reduce your intake of the omega 6 fats and get more essential omega 3 fats into your diet? It will help reduce inflammation reducing symptoms of the menopause and in the long term reduce the risk of breast cancer and heart disease both linked to the menopause.
Do remember to aim for a balance of Omega 6; omega 3 of 1:1 – 4:1 – OK so maybe start adding some of the presently very popular flaxseed or chai seeds into your morning porridge, yoghurt or smoothie but don’t start just chucking them into every meal and think that’ll do the trick 🙂
Look at eating fatty fish at least once if not twice a week and try to eat whole foods not processed foods. Remember – your body cannot produce these essential fatty acids unless you help it!
Let me know if you give this a go and how you find it! Over a couple of months your symptoms will reduce if you focus on your diet and eat healthily!