A healthy diet is essential to the proper functioning of every system in our body, including the immune system.
This includes not only how much food we eat (i.e., calories), but also the types of foods we eat (protein, carbs, and fats) as well as how those foods are processed and prepared (baked, steamed, refined, deep-fried, etc.).
Researchers have also identified certain nutrients that possess immune-regulatory properties, including macronutrients like fatty acids and essential vitamins like Vitamin D. <1>
Today, we take a more in-depth look at how specific fatty acids impact immune health, more specifically, the omega-3-6-9 fatty acids.
How Omega-3-6-9 Benefits the Immune System
Having the right balance between omega-3-6-9 fatty acids is essential as some research indicates an imbalance between these fatty acids may lead to the development and progression of several chronic diseases.
Now, let’s start by first noting some important differences between omega-3 6 and 9 fatty acids.
For starters, omega-3s and omega-6s are considered "essential" fatty acids. Omega-9 fatty acids are not regarded as essential since the body can produce them.
Second, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are classified as polyunsaturated fats. In contrast, omega-9 fatty acids belong to the class of monounsaturated fats since they only have one double bond.
Now, the impact of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids (like omega-3s and omega-6s) on immune health has been the subject of research for decades. However, a heightened focus has been placed specifically on omega-3 fatty acids.
The reasons for this a numerous, but two of the big ones are the fact that omega-3 fatty acids (and their metabolites) can act as signaling molecules within the body, and they can also regulate cellular membrane properties, such as membrane fluidity. <1>
Additionally, most people consume a disproportionate amount of omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3 fatty acids.
As we mentioned above, significant imbalances between the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids are believed to contribute to inflammation and chronic disease. <2,3,4,5>
Research indicates that the average individual’s omega-6:omega-3 ratio is around 20:1, instead of 4:1 or 1:1. <2>
This stems from the overconsumption of processed foods and the underconsumption of omega-3 rich foods, such as fatty fish.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in large amounts in nuts, seeds, refined vegetable oils, and foods cooked in vegetable oil.
Note: Omega-9 fats are also common in vegetable and seed oils, as well as nuts and seeds.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found predominantly in oily fish (salmon, anchovy, mackerel, sardine, etc.).
They can also be found in some plant foods, such as walnuts, flaxseed, chia seed, and pumpkin seeds.
Researchers believe much of omega-3 fatty acids' ability to support immune health resides in its anti-inflammatory properties. Still, other research indicates that omega-3s may also directly impact immune function by enhancing B cell activation and select antibody production. <7>
B cells, also known as B lymphocytes, are a type of white blood cell that secrete antibodies. B cells function in the humoral immunity component of the adaptive immune system. It's worth mentioning that the immune system consists of two major parts -- innate and adaptive.
The innate immune system (as the name suggests) are the families of white blood cells that you’re born with. These include macrophages, neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils, mast cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and dendritic cells. <8>
Cells of the innate immune system are the “first responders” of the immune system, as they act quickly but have limited specificity.
The adaptive (“acquired”) immune system is a group of specialized cells and processes that eliminate pathogens by preventing their growth. These cells have an antigen-specific immune response and develop a memory against pathogens after an initial confrontation. <8>
Once your body gets infected the first time around, these cells remember what the pathogen looks like so it can recognize it and destroy it the next time it encounters said infection.
The “catch” to the adaptive immune system is that while it is more highly tuned and specific in its mechanism of action, it’s slower to respond than the innate immune system.
Still, both the innate and acquired immune systems are vital to immune function.
In addition to enhancing B cell activation, DHA (one of the omega-3 fatty acids) supplementation has also been noted to improve B cell secretion of immune cytokines IL-6 and TNF-alpha.
What is Plant-Based Omega-3-6-9?
Oily fish and fish oil supplements are the primary sources individuals utilize when seeking to increase their omega-3 intake.
However, there are more than a few people who aren’t particularly fond of seafare (or those looking for a plant-based alternative).
As we mentioned above, several plant foods, including flaxseed, chia seed, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts contain omega-3 fats, but the form is different than that found in fish and fish oil supplements.
The form of omega-3 found in plant foods is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
The human body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA through a series of reactions that occur in the liver.
However, this conversion isn't very efficient <9>, which means that only a small fraction of the ingested ALA converts entirely to DHA.
Researchers believe this is due in part to competition from omega-6 fatty acids, which are (as we mentioned) overconsumed in the average person’s diet respective to omega-3s.
According to the Institute of Medicine, the recommended intake of omega-3s per day is 1.6 grams for men and 1.1 grams for women.
Fortunately, there is another source of omega-3 fatty acids that are derived from plants, and it's also sustainable! <13>
Best Omega-3-6-9 Supplement
Ahiflower (Buglossoides arvensis) is a plant belonging to the Boraginaceae family that is planted in early spring or autumn and reaches maturity in 100-150 days.
It’s also the richest plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids!
So, what makes Ahiflower-derived fatty acids superior to other plant sources?
Well, Ahiflower oil contains a type of omega-3 fatty acid, called stearidonic acid (SDA), that converts far more efficiently (4x more efficient than ALA) in the body to EPA and DHA! <10,11>
Furthermore, Ahiflower also contains gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential omega-6 fatty acid noted for its anti-inflammatory effects. <13,14>
SteelFit® Ahiflower is a premium-quality omega-3-6-9 supplement supplying 128mg omega-3 SDA and 315mg omega-3 ALA per serving. Also included are 34mg of omega-6 Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA) and 68mg Linoleic Acid (LA) as well as 45mg of omega-9 Oleic Acid (OA).
Fish oil supplements may be popular, but the fish oil supplement market isn't without its own set of issues as they are highly susceptible to oxidative degradation. <15>
SteelFit® Ahiflower offers a sustainable alternative to help fulfill your essential omega-3 fatty acid needs. It has been shown in research to boost EPA levels in the body more effectively than standard options in walnuts and flax seeds, and it comes without the unpleasant taste, smell, and burps of regular fish oil gels.
- Gutiérrez S, Svahn SL, Johansson ME. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Immune Cells. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(20):5028. Published 2019 Oct 11. doi:10.3390/ijms20205028
- Simopoulos AP. An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients. 2016;8(3):128. Published 2016 Mar 2. doi:10.3390/nu8030128
- Kang J.X. The importance of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cell function. The gene transfer of omega-3 fatty acid desaturase. In: Simopoulos A.P., Cleland L.G., editors. Omega-6/Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acid Ratio: The Scientific Evidence. Volume 92. Karger; Basel, Switzerland: 2003. pp. 23–36.
- Simopoulos A.P. The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 Fatty Acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Exp. Biol. Med. 2008;233:674–688. doi: 10.3181/0711-MR-311.
- DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JHImportance of maintaining a low omega–6/omega–3 ratio for reducing inflammationOpen Heart 2018;5:e000946. doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2018-000946
- Dolecek, T.A. Epidemiological evidence of relationships between dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and mortality in the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. PSEBM. 200:177-182, 1992
- Gurzell, E.A., Teague, H., Harris, M., Clinthorne, J., Shaikh, S.R. and Fenton, J.I. (2013), DHA‐enriched fish oil targets B cell lipid microdomains and enhances ex vivo and in vivo B cell function. Journal of Leukocyte Biology, 93: 463-470. doi:10.1189/jlb.0812394
- Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. Chapter 24, The Adaptive Immune System. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK21070/
- Baker, E. J., Miles, E. A., Burdge, G. C., Yaqoob, P., & Calder, P. C. (2016). Metabolism and functional effects of plant-derived omega-3 fatty acids in humans. Progress in Lipid Research, 64, 30–56. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plipres.2016.07.002
- Lefort N, LeBlanc R, Giroux MA, Surette ME. Consumption of Buglossoides arvensis seed oil is safe and increases tissue long-chain n-3 fatty acid content more than flax seed oil - results of a phase I randomised clinical trial. J Nutr Sci. 2016;5:e2. Published 2016 Jan 8. doi:10.1017/jns.2015.34
- Lefort, N., LeBlanc, R., Giroux, M.-A., & Surette, M. (2015). Consumption of Ahiflower Oil Is Safe and Increases Tissue EPA Levels Compared to Flaxseed Oil – Results of a Phase I Clinical Trial. The FASEB Journal, 29(1_supplement), 401.7. https://doi.org/10.1096/fasebj.29.1_supplement.401.7
- Surette, M.E. Dietary omega-3 pufa and health: Stearidonic acid-containing seed oils as effective and sustainable alternatives to traditional marine oils. Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 2013, 57, 748–759.
- Kapoor, R., & Huang, Y.-S. (2006). Gamma linolenic acid: an anti-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid. Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 7(6), 531–534.
- Sergeant S, Rahbar E, Chilton FH. Gamma-linolenic acid, Dihommo-gamma linolenic, Eicosanoids and Inflammatory Processes. Eur J Pharmacol. 2016;785:77–86. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2016.04.020
- Cameron-Smith D, Albert BB, Cutfield WS. Fishing for answers: is oxidation of fish oil supplements a problem?. J Nutr Sci. 2015;4:e36. Published 2015 Nov 23. doi:10.1017/jns.2015.26