I recently got the following email:
Iâ€™d like to advise caution about the use of excessive omega-3s, such as flax and fish oil. I discovered that too much of these oils can induce an omega-6 deficiency, since both n3 and n6 oils compete for the same enzymes in the biosynthesis pathways of prostaglandin precursors. In susceptible people, of which I am one, this leads to insomnia, psoriatic lesions, and when combined with food avoidance (e.g. Atkins-like diets, etc.), can lead to loss of immunological tolerance to food antigens. It turns out that n6 arachidonic acid is critical for the development and maintenance of oral tolerance (Newberry, 1999).
I asked her for details. She replied:
I started taking 2 tablespoons of flax oil daily with meals, and this was my exclusive added fat source for several months; I also got fat from meat and dairy. This was back in 2001. The insomnia happened almost immediately, and the psoriasis and â€œcellophane-likeâ€ skin developed over several weeks. I quit the flax oil after 3 months, but this was around the same time that I learned of Atkins and the Weston Price foundation- so, I cut back on carbohydrates and added fish oil and â€œwhole foodsâ€ to my diet. Itâ€™s not clear what exactly happened around that time, but I started to descend into chronic illness: chronic flu-like symptoms, blood-sugar fluctuations, disordered sleep schedule, arthritis in my wrists and toes, rapid weight gain, etc. (And I should mention that before that I was an invincible young woman grad student, an outdoorsy athlete, was proud to never get a cold, and only mildly overweight.) I dealt with it as best as I could, since I was also trying to do my PhD thesis in engineering. I also quit taking any dietary supplements, because nothing seemed to help and I would often get weird side-effects from simple things like calcium supplements. On the advice of a physician in 2004, I added more carbohydrate back to the diet (re-introduced wheat carbs) and got hit with some frightening digestive complaints (cramps, vomiting, IBS symptoms.) It looked a lot like celiac disease, but all of the tests were negative. I didnâ€™t have the proper genetic markers for celiac disease, either, but a strict gluten-free and dairy free diet helped nonetheless.
The GI symptoms were much better by 2005 after going gluten and dairy free, but I was still not well. What gave me the â€œaha momentâ€ was taking a random dose of fish oil during that time, and having an immediate relapse in symptoms. Then I started researching arachidonic acid (the â€œbadâ€ n6), with the question of â€œwell, what is it good for, then?â€ Thatâ€™s when I found the Newberry paper, and it dawned on me that I had inadvertently created an n6 deficiency by overdoing it on flax/fish oil. I also became quite an expert on essential fatty acid metabolism. What I had likely done was impair my ability to tolerate the introduction of new foods. I knew that my problem wasnâ€™t gluten per se, because I would develop symptoms soon after adding exotic foods (coconut milk, pork, tapioca flour, etc.) to replace the eliminated things like milk and wheat flour.
Here are the three things I did to get well:
1) After discovering the Newberry paper, I decided to focus on acquiring pre-made sources of arachidonic acid in the diet. I found that the best source of pre-formed arachidonic acid is egg yolks and poultry, and I looked to worldwide intakes of AA to gauge my dose. It turns out that the French get a good daily dose of AA (190mg for women), and I settled on 2 egg yolks per day (65mg each) plus incidental sources. This is where I really turned the corner on feeling well.
2) I avoided known problem foods temporarily. I consulted with Jonathan Brostoff on food intolerances, and he said that the immune system requires about 6 months to â€œforgetâ€ its hypersensitivity to a food antigen before it can be re-introduced. I did the gluten and dairy free diet for 3 years in total, and added back foods on an experimental basis once I had been on the egg-yolk regime for a year.
3.) Finally, a gastroenterologist called my problem IBS, which is a catch-all trash diagnosis. However, I had been thinking in terms of celiac disease for a long time, and after doing searches on IBS I came across some new information about a probiotic that was supposed to help with IBS. I tried Bifidobacterium infantis (Align) for 2 months last winter, and it put me over the top. This was around the same time that I tried gluten and dairy for the first time in 3 years, and I was able to introduce it with no problems.
Today, I feel that Iâ€™m back to 100% and cured, except for the weight that I acquired during the illness. (I stopped gaining after going gluten free, but could never lose anything.) My propensity to experiment on myself led to some serious consequences, but I discovered something that relatively few people know about the importance of omega-6s.
Keep in mind that deficiency of omega-6 is very rare and overconsumption very common (e.g., the Israeli Paradox). In 2002, the Japan Society for Lipid Nutrition recommended reducing linoleic acid (LA) intake; LA is the short-chain omega-6 fatty acid, found in high concentrations in many vegetable oils, such as soybean oil. LA is converted to AA in the body.