Specific fats, particularly the omega-3 fatty acids, are top of the list of nutrients needed for healthy cells and therefore for fighting and protecting against cancer. But why are they so important to our cells, how can they increase our risk or protect against cancer and how can you make sure you’ve got the right fats, in the right amounts in your cells, to keep them happy and healthy. The team of expert nutrition scientists from Igennus Healthcare Nutrition answer your top 10 fat based questions below.
1) Why are essential fats so important to our cells?
When we talk about fats it’s important to clarify what we mean by essential fats! Only the omega-6 linoleic acid and the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid are considered ‘truly’ essential because we do not have the ability to manufacture them within the body and must therefore consume them in the diet to avoid deficiency.
These essential fats are then used as a source of fuel for the body, as components of the structure of our cell membranes and as the building blocks of other fats of the omega-6 and omega-3 families. The fats derived from these two ‘essential’ fats, especially the long-chain omega-6 and omega-3, are
the ones that play pivotal roles in multiple biological processes. They help maintain optimal fluidity of cell membranes because of their big flexible structure relative to the other fats (such as saturated fats) found in our cells.
This is an important factor, given that membrane fluidity can affect the movement of molecules such as proteins, receptors and ion channels present within the membrane, which, in turn, affects their function and subsequently that of our cells.
The omega-6 fat AA (arachidonic acid) and the omega-3 fat EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), present within membranes, are of particular importance because they are also the precursors to hormone-like substances that affect our cardiovascular and immune function, as well as inflammatory processes. Having a good balance or an appropriate ratio of AA to EPA in the diet is therefore important to ensure these processes function optimally.
2) How does this relate to cancer?
It is known that inflammation creates the ideal tumour microenvironment and is an enabling characteristic of cancer. The omega-6 and omega-3 fats contribute to both the risk and progression of cancers through the production of pro-and anti-inflammatory chemical messengers that influence cell replication, migration and survival, and even the formation of the blood supply required for tumour survival (the process of angiogenesis).
In the main, diets that are high in omega-6 increase AA levels in the cells, which is the key driver of the processes that influence cancer initiation and progression. In contrast, diets that are rich in long-chain EPA, such as high EPA oily fish or fish oils have opposing and therefore protective effects. There is even encouraging evidence that EPA in pure supplement form can help reduce tumour size and slow cancer progression.
3) What happens when we eat the wrong types or amounts of certain fats?
The AA to EPA ratio is a biomarker of inflammatory status and should be around 1.5-3 to 1 in healthy states and ideally no higher than 7 AA for every EPA molecule in the cell. In inflammatory states we see this ratio rise significantly, to well over 15 to 1, and when looking at the AA to EPA ratio within a tumour site itself this can be well over 20 to 1.
Given that inflammation is a key driver of carcinogenesis, reducing this ratio can have potentially significant positive benefits in protecting against cancer recurrence and supporting recovery through the reduction of inflammatory processes.
4) So where do we get good fats from?
Oily fish is one of the healthiest sources of good fats as it contains an abundance of omega-3 EPA and DHA. Oily fish can include mackerel, herring, anchovies, sardines, salmon and fresh tuna. Consuming 1-2 portions of oily fish each week is ideal to get your weekly omega-3 dose.
Most of us may even benefit from eating fish more frequently than twice a week, although maximum recommendations are set due to toxins like methyl mercury which are found in fish. Larger fish, higher up in the food chain, accumulate these toxins; if, therefore, you eat fish more than twice a week, limit consumption of large fish such as tuna, and opt for smaller oily fish such as mackerel. Wild fish also have healthier fat profiles compared to farmed fish.
Nuts and seeds also contain omega-3 fatty acids. Linseeds, chia seeds, echium seed oil and walnuts have particularly healthy ratios of omega-3 to omega-6, so try having seeds sprinkled over your breakfast, or have a handful of nuts as a snack. Olives and avocados also contain healthy fats and are particularly rich in omega-9, so be sure to include these in your diet too.
5) Is there any research showing essential fats are helpful in cancer recovery?
There is a wealth of research to date which shows there are a number of ways that fish oil and concentrated omega-3 isolates can be of benefit in cancer and secondary prevention. Evidence suggests, for example, that omega-3s can act as an effective co-therapy to chemotherapy treatment, may have direct anticancer effects, and may help ameliorate some of the secondary complications associated with cancer.
Patients can often become immuno-compromised after cancer therapies, thereby increasing their risk of developing sepsis. The use of fish oil not only reduces this risk but also reduces the time spent in intensive care. Fish oils have also been shown to improve liver and pancreas function in postoperative cancer patients (contributing to faster recovery), and to reduce the rate and extent of the muscle wasting (cachexia) associated with cancer. It is thought that many of the benefits attributed to fish oil, and specifically EPA, are through its ability to modify inflammatory processes - and even our genetics.
6) So which types of fat should I be focusing on in my diet and why?
The huge range of healthy fats from omega-3 to omega-9, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated can sometimes become a bit overwhelming when trying to understand their various roles in the body. The fact is fatty acids are essential to health and even a slight imbalance can lead to an array of health issues. To simplify this, we generally consume too much omega-6 from vegetable oils (it appears in everything from prepared and pre-cooked to processed) and not enough omega-3, which exacerbates inflammation in the body.
The most important fatty acids we should be consuming are omega-3 EPA plus a little DHA; these are the ‘long-chain’ fats used directly by the body to produce anti-inflammatory effects and to provide structure in cell membranes. Omega-3 EPA and DHA are found in oily fish. Other forms of omega-3, such as ALA found in seeds, for example, need to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, requiring enzymes and nutrients. Conversion of fats may be limited in some individuals, so, for the most effective health benefits from fats, ideally, we need to be directly consuming omega-3 EPA and DHA.
If you are vegetarian, include lots of seeds in your diet and minerals such as zinc, magnesium and B6 which will support the function of enzymes used to convert fats. Echium seed oil is one of the easiest vegetarian omega-3 sources to convert in the body to omega-3 EPA and DHA.
7) Is there any way to tell what level of these fats I have in my cells?
Understanding what levels of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ fats currently make up your cells can be really empowering in terms of being able to make a real and positive difference to your health. Thankfully there are now a few very simple and quick tests out there that give you a highly accurate reading of your full red blood cell fat composition.
These tests – like the Opti-O-3 fatty acid biomarker test available through Igennus – can be carried out at home and don’t require a visit to your GP or nurse to take blood. Using a sterile needle device, which gives a small pin prick, you squeeze a few drops of blood onto a medical sample collection card and leave to dry before being posting it for analysis at the lab. Simple!
8) How do I know how much I need to consume for my cells to be ‘healthy’?
The importance of the role of omega-3 fats in health is now widely recognised; as such, scientists have been busy researching to find out just how much is ‘enough’ for our cells to be healthy. There are now a number of established and validated biological markers of omega-3 status that enable us to predict how healthy your cells are, and also to determine exactly what dose of omega-3 you need to bring your cells into ideal ‘healthy’ ranges.
The Opti-O-3 test uses the omega-3 index – the sum of omega-3 EPA and DHA in your cells – plus your current body weight, to accurately calculate the exact dose of omega-3 an individual needs to raise levels above what is known to correlate with good long-term health, over the course of 6 months. The great thing is, raising the omega-3 index subsequently lowers the AA to EPA ratio and both are linked to improvements in heart health, brain function and body-wide wellbeing - so you’ll see many more benefits than just protecting your cells (which is pretty important in itself!)
9) Is there anything else I can do to make sure the fats in my cells are healthy and protected?
The fats in our cells are extremely delicate, so make sure you are consuming the best quality fats to begin with by eating natural, organic, wild, grass fed and pastured foods and choose omega oil supplements that have a proven track record for pure, high concentration and bioavailable ingredients. Also choosing an omega oil that is delivered in a form that keeps the oil protected from oxidation - such as those in capsules, including vitamin E and blister packed – will make sure it reaches your digestion in as healthy a state as possible.
If you struggle to digest fats, consider an emulsifier, such as egg white or lecithin, with your supplements or fatty foods and always make sure to take omega oil supplements just before eating a meal that contains some fatty foods. This will make sure your lipase enzyme – the one needed to digest fat – is awake and active, ensuring you fully break down and absorb the fats.
We also need to think about protecting our fats once they are in the body. Our cells and the fats in them are constantly being exposed to oxidative stress, causing damage to DNA, so they need to be protected on a constant basis. As many sources of oxidation (such as car fumes, pesticides, and certain foods) are difficult to avoid, concentrating on protecting your cells with nutrients instead of worrying about the aggravators is often the smartest way to achieving healthy cells.
Antioxidants are the key protectors against oxidative stress, and are found in high levels in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables and nuts & seeds. The antioxidant flavonoids in fruits and vegetables have different pigments depending on the type, therefore if you include a rainbow of colours in your diet, you will be consuming a wide range of antioxidants, all of which offer various health properties.
Zinc is also an important mineral for cell health as it actually influences cell division and proliferation. Adequate dietary intake of zinc therefore may promote a healthy cell cycle. Zinc is found in foods such as seafood, beef, lamb, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, nuts and seeds.
10) What about cooking with fats? Which are best?
The quality of fats at room temperature versus frying on a hob is very different indeed. Most oils when heated to 180 deg C start to alter their chemical structure, and can transform from what was originally a healthy oil (such as sesame oil) to a very unhealthy unstable oil which may negatively affect metabolism of other good fats and may also cause oxidative damage.
The healthy nut and seed oils are particularly bad for you when fried, but are super-healthy cold, so save these for salads. Olive oil and rapeseed oil are considered fairly heat-stable when cooked on a medium heat, but damage still occurs if cooking for a prolonged period. The most heat-stable oils are coconut oil and butter and so should be the only oils used when frying at high temperatures.
The stability of any oil is also relevant when considering fatty acid supplements, as light, heat and oxygen can eventually turn an oil rancid. Fish oils protected in capsules, in blister packs, and in a dark container is something to look out for when choosing a good quality fish oil supplement.
If you would like to know more about any of the above or would like a leaflet on measuring your cell fatty acids, please feel free to call Nina, Sophie or Kyla, all of whom will be very happy to answer your questions.
They can be reached at 0845 1300424 (not a premium rate number) or you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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