The foundation of the ECS is essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Both Omega-6 and Omega-3 EFAs are required for the production of endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors.It is necessary to consume both types of EFAs because the body cannot synthesize them.
In addition to requiring adequate amounts of Omega-6 and Omega-3, maintaining the
proper balance, or ratio, is critical. EFAs are metabolized through the same pathways, so eating too much Omega-6 or Omega-3 will inhibit proper metabolism of the other fat. While overconsuming Omega-3 can be problematic, the vast majority of people suffer from an excess of Omega-6. This is because Omega-6 is so readily available, primarily in vegetable oils derived from canola, corn, cottonseed, peanut, safflower, and sunflower seeds. These oils are found in a wide variety of packaged and processed foods. Unfortunately, sources of Omega-3 are relatively lacking in society, which further impairs EFA balance. Most people get some quality Omega-3 through eggs and fish, but it is often not enough to compensate for the high Omega-6 intake.
Omega-3 fatty acids are generally anti-inflammatory, whereas Omega-6 fatty acids are proinflammatory (Covington). The early human diet had a dietary ratio of 1:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3, whereas the modern diet’s ratio is 10:1 or higher. Omega-3 consumption has been proven to protect against cardiovascular damage, and large doses reduce high triglyceride levels and improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. An anti-inflammatory diet alone alleviates rheumatoid arthritis, but adding Omega-3-rich fish oil significantly enhances those benefits (Adam et al.). Omega-3 supplementation can also, to a lesser extent, help people who eat a proinflammatory Western Diet.
Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratios exert protective effects at ratios as high as 5:1, but between 2:1 and 3:1 is more powerful (Simopoulos). When dealing with a serious disease, aiming for between 1:1 and 2:1 seems ideal. Ratios of 10:1 or higher promote the development of cardiovascular diseases, cancers, autoimmune disorders, and inflammatory diseases.
Given that Omega-3 acids and endocannabinoids share similar benefits, it is very possible that enhanced endocannabinoid production or function is the healing mechanism behind increased EFA consumption. While endocannabinoids are also produced from Omega-6, an imbalance of it promotes inflammation. Most people need to work on getting more Omega-3 into their diets rather than Omega-6, but if large quantities of the former are being taken, the latter’s consumption will need to increase as well.
The importance of Omega-3 to the ECS was conveyed in a 2011 study titled “Nutritional Omega-3 Deficiency Abolishes Endocannabinoid-Mediated Neuronal Functions” (Lafourcade et al.). Using mice, the study found that a deficiency in Omega-3 caused presynaptic CB1 receptors to uncouple from their effector G proteins, essentially disabling them. This dietary-induced impairment of CB1 function adversely affected emotional behavior. Increased Omega-3 consumption has been linked to upregulation of CB1 and CB2 receptors, as well as increased levels of endocannabinoid synthesis enzymes (Hutchins-Wiese et al.).
However, it is important to maintain a balanced ratio of Omega-6 and Omega-3, or the latter’s supplementation may not be as therapeutically effective. Other negative dietary habits could also impair proper metabolism of fatty acids.
Foods like flax, hemp, and chia seeds, along with walnuts, are excellent vegetarian
sources of Omega-3. The form of Omega-3 in these products is alpha-linolenic acid, which must be converted into the longer-chain Omega-3 compounds known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Due to the relatively low efficiency of this conversion, it is important to directly consume EPA and DHA as well. These acids are almost only found in animal sources like fish, eggs, and meat. Fish oil is an easy way for anyone to adequately supplement their Omega-3 intake, as long as it is properly manufactured and distilled to eliminate heavy metals. There are also vegetarian algae-based products which provide DHA. Supplementation with algal DHA is likely as effective as fish-based DHA, as it can reduce serum triglycerides and improve cholesterol (Bernstein et al.). However, more research is needed on this particular supplement.