We seem to have become completely obsessed with fat. Low-fat this, reduced-fat that. It has become a demonised nutrient. In some cases, it is certainly wise to reduce our fat intake. Saturated animal fats, such as those found in red meat, can trigger inflammatory issues in the body, which can be damaging to the heart, the circulatory system and the joints, and can even worsen some skin lesions like eczema and psoriasis . However, the trend that most health-conscious people take is to go ‘low-fat’ on almost everything, and this can be detrimental to many aspects of our health.
Fats are a vital nutrient for our body. Virtually every single hormone in the body is manufactured from fat. This includes oestrogen and testosterone. Fats are also the key materials used for the creation of different communication molecules, and structural components necessary for normal day-to-day functioning of the body. They also provide the source material for the manufacture of nutrients. So, as you can imagine, cutting them out completely can be bad for long-term health.
The key is to make sure that you choose the right types of fat, and that you’re not guzzling down pizza and chips every night. The emphasis should be on unsaturated fats such as those found in nuts and seeds, oily fish, avocados and olive oil.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Unless you have been living in a cave, or have distanced yourself from all forms of communication in the last decade, chances are you have heard a lot about omega 3 and the myriad benefits that it delivers. Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid most commonly found in oily fish, some nuts, such as walnuts, and some seeds, such as flax and hemp. It is a vital yet widely deficient nutrient.
Omega 3 fatty acids are one of the most important tools that we have at our disposal for the treatment of any type of inflammatory issue. When we process and metabolise dietary fats, one of the metabolic end products is a group of communication molecules known as prostaglandins. One of the main roles of the prostaglandins is to regulate different aspects of the inflammatory response. There are three different types of prostaglandin: series 1, series 2 and series 3. Series 1 and series 3 are involved in dampening down and deactivating the inflammatory response. Series 2 prostaglandins, in contrast, are involved in the instigation of the inflammatory response, and can make any currently active inflammation worse.
manipulating our dietary fat intake can directly influence the inflammatory response in our body
The type of prostaglandins produced will depend on the type of dietary fat that is consumed. For example, saturated animal fats are very high in a fatty acid called arachidonic acid, which, when metabolised, causes a rise in series 2 prostaglandins – the ones responsible for exacerbating inflammation. Oily fish, however, is high in omega 3 fatty acids, which, when metabolised, will cause an increase in the production of series 1 and series 3 prostaglandins – the ones that tackle inflammation. So, in essence, manipulating our dietary fat intake can directly influence the inflammatory response in our body.
Remember that virtually all skin lesions involve inflammation. The red, itchy flare-ups of eczema, the painful swelling of acne are all signs of active inflammation. So, any techniques we can adopt to make this less severe are of huge importance.
Cell membrane health
Every cell in our body has a fatty membrane that gives the cell its shape, keeps the cell contents in, and keeps toxins and pathogens out. Cell membranes are made of a double layer of molecules called phospholipids, which are composed of fatty acids. The cell membranes also house a whole array of different receptors and transporters. These complex and highly organised structures allow interactions between the inner workings of the cell and its outer environment. They allow hormones to bind to the cell and instigate changes to the way in which the cell behaves. They allow nutrients to successfully enter the cell, and for waste material to be removed. A healthy membrane means a healthy cell, which means healthy tissues.
Cell membranes require a constant stream of fatty acids in order to be able to maintain themselves, to ensure that they remain soft, supple and strong, and that their many receptor sites remain fully functional. As you have probably guessed by now, the fats required for this maintenance are the omega 3 fatty acids.
If the membranes of skin cells are working optimally, the skin as an organ will function much better. There will be better oxygen delivery, better transport of nutrients to the tissue, and also the skin’s ability to retain moisture will be greatly improved.
There is another added plus point. As the skin starts to behave better as an organ, the effects of any topical products that we use on our skin, such as moisturisers and face masks, will be greatly enhanced.
Omega 6 fatty acids
The other essential fatty acid is the omega 6 fatty acid.
This is found in the highest concentrations in seed oils.
Hanging in the balance
Omega 6 fatty acids have some vitally important functions in the body. When converted in the right way, they can also deliver some anti-inflammatory effects, which have been well documented in cases of eczema and acne.
However, there are issues surrounding omega 6 fatty acids, mainly around the way in which they convert during their metabolism. Omega 6 can, when consumed in levels beyond daily requirements, be converted into series 2 prostaglandins – the ones that activate and exacerbate inflammation. They can also be converted into another inflammatory stimulator – lipoxygenase. In addition, there is new evidence emerging that some by-products of omega 6 fatty acids are found in all acne lesions, and are believed to be part of the instigation process of this condition.
The key to ensuring that the omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids deliver the anti-inflammatory benefits described above is ensuring we have the right balance of them in our diet. We need a ratio of 2:1, in favour of omega 3. That’s twice as much omega 3 than omega 6. However, for many in the Western world, this ratio is completely reversed. This has led to devastating patterns of disease. There are now links between excessive omega 6 fatty acid consumption and diseases such as cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and some types of cancer. In relation to skin health, this can trigger or exacerbate inflammatory lesions such as eczema.
So, it is vital that we get this ratio right.
This balancing act can often lead to quite a bit of head scratching and guesswork, so what I recommend is that people focus on getting extra omega 3 into their diet, and don’t worry too much about their consumption of omega 6, as generally we tend to get more than enough from the usual array of foods that seem to dominate our diets in this part of the world. This means you should eat plenty of oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and herring.