With all the conflicting stories out there, you know you need to take the time to understand the science behind the recommendations. You don’t have to become a PhD in immunology or nutrition, but reading articles like this one and taking our Immune Prepper course (Sfmempoweron.com) will help you navigate the headlines and their abundant propaganda. Today, you can learn how different fatty acids influence your immune system.
No one should be surprised by the basic premise of the article I’m referencing today: diet affects health. Even conventional and functional medicine can agree that what we put in our mouths have a great impact on our lives. This article from Nutrients simply lays out the mechanisms linking dietary fatty acids and inflammation in our bodies. Focused attention is given to how Omega 3 fatty acids from various plant or fish sources can lower inflammation, in contrast the increase in inflammation which arises from saturated fatty acids and Omega 6 unsaturated fatty acids.
Let’s start with some background before we get down into the nitty gritty details. Fatty acids are long chains of carbon atoms linked together with an acidic carboxyl group on the end. They serve not only as energy sources with proteins and carbohydrates, but as mediators for multiple body functions and as the structural material of our cell membranes. Without fatty acids, we could not exist.
The distinction between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids lies in the presence of a double bond between 2 carbon atoms somewhere in the chain. This double bond changes the shape of the chain and alters the functions it can serve. The difference between monounsaturated and polyunsaturated lies in the number of these double bonds, respectively either one double bond or multiple double bonds. Finally, the location of the first double bond in the chain distinguishes between omega 3, omega 6, or omega 9 fatty acids, with the number marker which carbon is the first to have such a double bond.
Science has long recognized that higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids in the diet tended towards lower levels of inflammation in both disease and seemingly healthy states. Until scientific methods or sorting and measuring the different fatty acids were developed, less was known about the why of this lower inflammation.
With newer methods described in the focus article, scientists have learned how different omega 3’s and 6’s are modified by our cellular metabolism into different immune system messengers called leukotrienes and prostaglandins. Omega 3’s are primarily modified into messengers that lower inflammation while omega 6’s mostly produce inflammatory messengers. These various messengers then interact with different receptors on other cells to influence that local inflammatory status.
Scientists have also tracked the fatty acids to find them accumulating in different immune cells like neutrophils and macrophages. The presence of different concentrations of these fatty acids influences the response of the cells to other immune stimuli. The fatty acids also push the T helper cells of the immune system towards a more anti-inflammatory type called Th2 while lowering Th17 inflammatory T cells. The immune system tends to produce lower levels of inflammatory messengers like interferon gamma and more anti-inflammatory messengers like interleukin 4.
In contrast, studies have shown that some saturated fatty acids increase inflammation through various mechanisms. They can increase the activity of cyclooxygenase 2 enzyme, which makes more inflammatory messengers and raises inflammation. They can influence the activity of Toll Like Receptors (TLR) which increase inflammation. They can increase the release of lipopolysaccharide endotoxin produced by bacteria in the colon and therefore cause more inflammation. As if that were not enough, they also activate Nod-like receptor pyrin domain-containing protein (NLRP)-3 which produces more inflammatory cytokine messengers and is involved in the severity of COVID 19 infection.
All this science talk would not mean much were it not for the fact that all these different pathways lead to different diseases and pathologic processes in humans. Various diseases caused by or worsened by inflammation are influenced for the better or for the worse by how much of these different fatty acids are floating around in our body by way of our diet. This fact leads necessarily to the conclusion that we are what we eat. We can alter the outcomes of these various diseases or even alter whether they ever begin in the first place by altering our diets and supplements.
Functional MD’s like myself want to see health more abundant lives for our patients. That requires educating ourselves with this kind of research and then applying it to the care of our patients. That application begins with a measure of education like this, explaining enough of the mechanisms that patients appreciate the importance and necessity of watching their fatty acid intake in foods and supplements. For those wanting an even deeper understanding, we have other blog articles or our Immune Prepper course for a deep dive. For those wanting our one on one guidance, we see patients in our office and across the United States by telemedicine.
Kumar, Naren Gajenthra et al. “Dietary Bioactive Fatty Acids as Modulators of Immune Function: Implications on Human Health.” Nutrients vol. 11,12 2974. 5 Dec. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11122974
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.