Omega-6 fatty acids have traditionally been associated with promoting inflammation, but a new study shows that they also might have anti-inflammatory effects. From the University of Eastern Finland, researchers associate a lower risk of death from heart disease and a lower risk of death in general with high omega-6 fatty acid levels in the blood.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in foods like vegetable oils and other plant-based spreads, nuts, and seeds. On a molecular level, omega-6 fatty acids are “precursors to potent lipid mediator signalling molecules” which are largely involved with inflammatory regulation. Traditionally, omega-6 fatty acids are thought of as the proinflammatory fatty acids while omega-3 fatty acids are thought of as anti-inflammatory. However, omega-6 fatty acids are also associated with lowering blood cholesterol levels. And the new University of Eastern Finland study shows that they may also increase the production of anti-inflammatory compounds.
In the new study, researchers focused on the most common omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid. Levels of this particular fatty acid in the blood are determined completely by what you eat. “We discovered that the higher the blood linoleic acid level, the smaller the risk of premature death," explained University of Eastern Finland’s Jyrki Virtanen.
Virtanen and the other researchers conducted a long-term healthy study to evaluate the connection between omega-6 fatty acid levels in the body with the risk of premature death and heart disease. For an average of 22 years, they followed over two thousand study participants between 42 and 60 years old, measuring their blood fatty acid levels.
At the end of the study, 1,143 men had died of disease-related causes. Researchers did not include deaths from accidents or other reasons in their analysis. Researchers divided participants into five groups based on their blood linoleic acid level.
For the group with the highest blood linoleic acid levels, risk of both premature death from all disease causes and death from heart disease was approximately 43 percent lower than participants in the group with the lowest blood linoleic acid levels. There was a similar association with blood arachidonic acid levels. Arachidonic acid is another type of omega-6 fatty acid, levels of which are less impacted by dietary choices.
Interestingly enough, the outcomes of the study’s participants did not change significantly even if the study participants had heart disease, cancer, or diabetes from the beginning of the study.
The present study was published in the journal American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.