How too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 is making us sick

May 8, 2010 in Food & Nutrition, Myths & Truths | 58 comments


vegetable oil poisonIn the last article we discussed the problems humans have converting omega-3 (n-3) fats from plant sources, such as flax seeds and walnuts, to the longer chain derivatives EPA and DHA. Since EPA and DHA (especially DHA) are responsible for the benefits omega-3 fats provide, and since EPA and DHA are only available in significant amounts in seafood, it follows that we should be consuming seafood on a regular basis.

But how much is enough? What does the research literature tell us about the levels of EPA and DHA needed to prevent disease and ensure proper physiological function?

I’m going to answer this question in detail in the next article. But before I do that, I need to make a crucial point: the question of how much omega-3 to eat depends in large part on how much omega-6 we eat.

Over the course of human evolution there has been a dramatic change in the ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fats consumed in the diet. This change, perhaps more than any other dietary factor, has contributed to the epidemic of modern disease.

The historical ratio of omega-6 to omega-3

Throughout 4-5 million years of hominid evolution, diets were abundant in seafood and other sources of omega-3 long chain fatty acids (EPA & DHA), but relatively low in omega-6 seed oils.

Anthropological research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1. It also indicates that both ancient and modern hunter-gatherers were free of the modern inflammatory diseases, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, that are the primary causes of death and morbidity today.

At the onset of the industrial revolution (about 140 years ago), there was a marked shift in the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids in the diet. Consumption of n-6 fats increased at the expense of n-3 fats. This change was due to both the advent of the modern vegetable oil industry and the increased use of cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock (which in turn altered the fatty acid profile of meat that humans consumed).

The following chart lists the omega-6 and omega-3 content of various vegetable oils and foods:

efa content of oils

Vegetable oil consumption rose dramatically between the beginning and end of the 20th century, and this had an entirely predictable effect on the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the American diet. Between 1935 and 1939, the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids was reported to be 8.4:1. From 1935 to 1985, this ratio increased to 10.3:1 (a 23% increase). Other calculations put the ratio as high as 12.4:1 in 1985. Today, estimates of the ratio range from an average of 10:1 to 20:1, with a ratio as high as 25:1 in some individuals.

In fact, Americans now get almost 20% of their calories from a single food source – soybean oil – with almost 9% of all calories from the omega-6 fat linoleic acid (LA) alone! (PDF)

This reveals that our average intake of n-6 fatty acids is between 10 and 25 times higher than evolutionary norms. The consequences of this dramatic shift cannot be overestimated.

Omega-6 competes with omega-3, and vice versa

As you may recall from the last article, n-6 and n-3 fatty acids compete for the same conversion enzymes. This means that the quantity of n-6 in the diet directly affects the conversion of n-3 ALA, found in plant foods, to long-chain n-3 EPA and DHA, which protect us from disease.

Several studies have shown that the biological availability and activity of n-6 fatty acids are inversely related to the concentration of of n-3 fatty acids in tissue. Studies have also shown that greater composition of EPA & DHA in membranes reduces the availability of AA for eicosanoid production. This is illustrated on the following graph, from a 1992 paper by Dr. William Landis:

percentage of n-6 and n-3 in tissue associated with

The graph shows the predicted concentration of n-6 in the tissue based on dietary intake of n-3. In the U.S. the average person’s tissue concentration of highly unsaturated n-6 fat is 75%. Since we get close to 10% of our calories from n-6, our tissue contains about as much n-6 as it possibly could. This creates a very inflammatory environment and goes a long way towards explaining why 4 in 10 people who die in the U.S. each year die of heart disease. (Note: the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 matters, but so does the total amount of each.)

In plain english, what this means is that the more omega-3 fat you eat, the less omega-6 will be available to the tissues to produce inflammation. Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral. A diet with a lot of omega-6 and not much omega-3 will increase inflammation. A diet of a lot of omega-3 and not much omega-6 will reduce inflammation.

Big Pharma is well aware of the effect of n-6 on inflammation. In fact, the way over-the-counter and prescription NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin, Celebres, etc.) work is by reducing the formation of inflammatory compounds derived from n-6 fatty acids. (The same effect could be achieved by simply limiting dietary intake of n-6, as we will discuss below, but of course the drug companies don’t want you to know that. Less profit for them.)

As we discussed in the previous article, conversion of the short-chain n-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in plant foods like flax and walnut, to DHA is extremely poor in most people. Part of the reason for that is that diets high in n-6 LA inhibit conversion of ALA to DHA. For example, one study demonstrated that an increase of LA consumption from 15g/d to 30g/d decreases ALA to DHA conversion by 40%.

Death by vegetable oil

So what are the consequences to human health of an n-6:n-3 ratio that is up to 25 times higher than it should be?

The short answer is that elevated n-6 intakes are associated with an increase in all inflammatory diseases – which is to say virtually all diseases. The list includes (but isn’t limited to):

  • cardiovascular disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • obesity
  • metabolic syndrome
  • irritable bowel syndrome & inflammatory bowel disease
  • macular degeneration
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • asthma
  • cancer
  • psychiatric disorders
  • autoimmune diseases

The relationship between intake n-6 fats and cardiovascular mortality is particularly striking. The following chart, from an article entitled Eicosanoids and Ischemic Heart Disease by Stephan Guyenet, clearly illustrates the correlation between a rising intake of n-6 and increased mortality from heart disease:

landis graph of hufa and mortality

As you can see, the USA is right up there at the top with the highest intake of n-6 fat and the greatest risk of death from heart disease.

On the other hand, several clinical studies have shown that decreasing the n-6:n-3 ratio protects against chronic, degenerative diseases. One study showed that replacing corn oil with olive oil and canola oil to reach an n-6:n-3 ratio of 4:1 led to a 70% decrease in total mortality. That is no small difference.

Joseph Hibbeln, a researcher at the National Institute of Health (NIH) who has published several papers on n-3 and n-6 intakes, didn’t mince words when he commented on the rising intake of n-6 in a recent paper:

The increases in world LA consumption over the past century may be considered a very large uncontrolled experiment that may have contributed to increased societal burdens of aggression, depression and cardiovascular mortality.

And those are just the conditions we have the strongest evidence for. It’s likely that the increase in n-6 consumption has played an equally significant role in the rise of nearly every inflammatory disease. Since it is now known that inflammation is involved in nearly all diseases, including obesity and metabolic syndrome, it’s hard to overstate the negative effects of too much omega-6 fat.

In the next article we’ll discuss three different methods for determining healthy intakes of n-3 that take background intake of n-6 into account.

{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff May 9, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Chris,
What is the asterisk (on fish oil) indicating in the table?  Also, I would love to see more discussion on olive oil.
I don’t use vegetable/corn oil in my home cooking at all, although I haven’t checked how much I am exposed through buying processed/restaurant food.
Jeff

Reply

Chris Kresser May 10, 2010 at 7:29 am

Jeff,

I’m not sure what the asterisk means.  I pulled that graphic from a website a while back and now I can’t find it.

Olive oil is between 55 and 83% omega-9 (monounsaturated), and 3.5 and 21% omega-6 (polyunsaturated).  The fatty acid content varies by the region where it’s produced.

On average, according to Wikipedia, olive oil contains 11% omega-6 LA.  That is still quite high, which is why I only recommend olive oil in moderation.

The best fats to consume and cook with are those that are the most saturated: butter, coconut oil, ghee, tallow, duck & goose fat.  Pretty much the opposite of what we’ve been told.

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Chris Kresser May 11, 2010 at 9:06 am

Hi everyone,

The next post in this series is up: How much omega-3 is enough?  That depends on omega-6.

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enliteneer May 11, 2010 at 11:44 am

Just to add to the list,  Olive oil is mostly Omega-9, with only about 10% omega-6.     Grape Seed Oil  (popular in Chile),  is mostly (~75%) omega-6.
So what about Omega-9s?   How does it relate to Omega-3s?   Is it also pro-inflammation?
Due to the lower omega-6 content, I would think Olive or Flaxseed oil (or even Canola) would be the ideal cooking oil, yet I don’t often hear it touted for cooking.. why?    The relatively low smoke temperature (200′s F)?
 

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Chris Kresser May 11, 2010 at 11:55 am

The more unsaturated an oil is, the more easily it oxidizes.  Flax is omega-3, which is very unsaturated.  That’s why it’s imperative never to cook with it.  In fact, it must be stored in the refrigerator in opaque containers to prevent oxidation from light and heat.  There’s no reason to consume flax oil anyways, as I stated before.

The best fats to cook with are saturated, because they’re relatively protected against oxidation.  Coconut oil, butter, ghee, and animal fats like tallow are all good choices.

Olive oil is less inflammatory than omega-6 oils, but still has a significant amount of omega-6 so should be used in moderation.

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Moss Bliss May 11, 2010 at 2:22 pm

The article only mentioned fats from oils, and neglected fats from animal tissue.  Mammals and birds are also 100% deficient in Omega-3.  The primary fatty acid in beef is Arachidonic Acid, an Omega-6.  It has been found that many vegetarian societies are actually deficient in this fatty acid, yet most Americans are flooded with it.  As with most substances, too much is as bad or worse than too little.

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Moss Bliss May 11, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Your point on Omega-3s, -6s, and -9s ignores the Omega-7s.  I don’t know much about them, as they have only come to my attention recently, but they are there…

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Chris Kresser May 11, 2010 at 3:02 pm

I ignored it on purpose.  I don’t believe they’re anywhere near as important as the n-3 and n-6, and not at all as common in the diet.

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Chris Kresser May 11, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Grass-fed meat has more n-3 than factory-farmed meat.  The difference is very small, but it’s there.

Our ancestors likely got EPA & DHA from seafood and consuming the brains of ruminants.

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Madison Davis May 18, 2010 at 11:25 am

I am just concerned about the main source of Omega 3 which is the liver of fish. as you can see, fishes can accumulate mercury and pcb. ,:’

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Chris Kresser May 18, 2010 at 11:26 am

The next article will address these concerns.

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Kevin May 20, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Can you say something about the n-6 / n-3 ratio of pastured beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and goat, as well as pastured eggs?

Your site is FANTASTIC!

Thank you,
Kevin

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Chris Kresser May 20, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Kevin,

Glad you like the site! Check out this chart comparing fatty acid profiles of grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Also see this study. Most of the evidence shows a higher concentration of n-3 and a lower concentration of n-6 in grass fed meat. Several studies suggest that grass-based diets elevate precursors for Vitamin A and E, as well as cancer fighting antioxidants such as glutathione (GT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity as compared to grain-fed contemporaries.

Hope that helps,
Chris

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Hans Keer May 22, 2010 at 12:21 am

My opinion is that you do not need much poly-unsaturated fatty acids at all. When you consume somewhere between 0.5 and 3 grams per day it’s more than enough. You easily get that out of real foods. So you don’t need sead oils or fish oils. I made a little video on the subject: http://bit.ly/c4JheJ

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Roger Kaza June 11, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Curious about your opinion of the following study.  I couldn’t access the full report, only the abstract.
http://www.plefa.com/article/S0952-3278(08)00132-4/abstract

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Chris Kresser June 12, 2010 at 8:27 am

Looks interesting, but without access to the full text I can’t comment on it.  I can say that there is a large body of evidence supporting the pro-inflammatory role of LA, both in vitro and in vivo.

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enliteneer June 12, 2010 at 10:41 am

I couldn’t find the full article anywhere either!     But according to WorldCat / ScienceDirect , it’s available for library use only at a nearby University.  Hopefully, they have a copy machine!
 
Incidentally, that author, Kevin Fritsche, seems to have published other worthwhile  articles:
 
The adverse effects of an in vivo inflammatory challenge on the vitamin E status of rats is accentuated by fish oil feeding:
http://www.jnutbio.com/article/S0955-2863(96)00126-X/abstract
 
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids impair in vivo interferon- gamma responsiveness via diminished receptor signaling:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15633108

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Roger Kaza June 12, 2010 at 11:28 am

I’ve e-mailed the author and requested a free copy or link.

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Roger Kaza June 13, 2010 at 11:43 am

He kindly sent me a PDF of the article.  It says “Author’s Personal Copy” on it, so I don’t think I should post it, but send me an e-mail address and I will forward it.

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Hans Keer June 13, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Hi Roger Kaza,

I would love to get a copy. You can find my email via the hyperlink at the right (CutTheCarb logo)

Thanks a lot.
Hans

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Chris Kresser June 15, 2010 at 7:11 am

Roger,

Below is a response from a communication I had with Stephan Guyenet from Whole Health Source about this study:

Regarding omega-6. There are a few issues here. One is the studies that show that the people who eat the most n-6 “have the least inflammation”. IIRC, he’s talking about observational studies showing that people with the highest n-6 intake have lower levels of circulating markers of inflammation. First of all, it’s highly susceptible to “healthy user bias”; as I’m pretty sure if you looked at those studies most of the smokers would be in the low n-6 category. These studies are typically conducted in populations in which nearly everyone has an excessive n-6 intake and a poor n-6:3 balance, so it’s hard to make any broad conclusions. But also, circulating markers of inflammation (CRP, IL-6 etc) really are a poor surrogate for tissue inflammation, which is much more complex and difficult to measure.

He mentions that some n-6 eicosanoids are involved in resolving inflammation, which is true. However, n-3 are involved in it as well. The more n-6 you eat, the more it blocks EPA and DHA production from ALA, which you need to make inflammation-resolving n-3 eicosanoids. So even though you still have the resolving n-6 eicosanoids, that’s only half the puzzle.

By the way, I think there are also likely to be negative effects of excess n-6, and particularly veg oils, on health that don’t depend on eicosanoids.

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Jane July 4, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Get your facts straight. You are spewing complete misinformation. EPA and DHA are not essential fatty acids.

The only essental fatty acids are ALA and LA. We need more PARENT omega 6 . Look into Brian Peskin. SCIENCE , NOT opinion.

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Chris Kresser July 4, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Read the articles and the studies I cited. I’ve read Peskin. I’ve also read hundreds of studies that contradict his view. The entire point of this series of articles is that the FAs considered to be essential are not essential. You might want to actually read an article before you leave a comment on it.

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chuck perez July 5, 2010 at 10:19 pm

I watched the Brian Peskin video, and I will say it’s interesting, however, it would be nice if he linked to the actual studies he’s talking about!
http://localhostr.com/files/4c1479/Brian%20Peskin-1.avi
http://localhostr.com/files/c173f4/BrianPeskin-2.avi
http://localhostr.com/files/82bb5d/BrianPeskin-3.avi
 
 

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Tom October 1, 2010 at 8:28 pm

I couldn’t post my full message.
This post is just a test, to see if the simplest one possible works, with no formatting or links etc.

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Tom October 1, 2010 at 8:30 pm

 

Omega-3 is shown by ZERO evidence to have ANY health benefits.

Sorry, suckers! (Now flame me.)

“Anthropological research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1.”
Bollocks! How could they know a thing like that? Educated guesses about available food? What anthropologists (including archaeologists) find from empirical evidence is that humans today and in the past have survived equally well on a very wide range of diets.
“How could they know a thing like that?” is a question this article keeps provoking in me. Perhaps they should ask such questions themselves? One thing the article certainly is not, is ‘healthy skepticism’.
Even if it weren’t full of such objectionable statements as that one, it would still only amount to a desperate, elaborate validation of this damned fish oil hypothesis, not confirmation.

This post will continue in a moment. Something in the content is stopping it from posting! Just working out what.

 

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Tom October 1, 2010 at 8:38 pm

 
Now to be clear, I do not claim that these are five different sources. There are five links because I’m labouring the point. It is just the one, very good source. He’s a doctor and I’m not, and he has more access to journals than I do, so maybe on reflection you should flame him instead of me. He likes it, anyway!
Update: There are only two links, after all. I suspect that this website simply doesn’t allow links from ‘bad science dot net’. If you can see this, I was probably right! to get the others just do what I did. I typed ‘badscience omega 3′ into Google.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/05/bad-science-omega3-fish-oil
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2006/oct/07/badscience.comment
And no, I don’t mention Ben Goldacre being a doctor in order to say, “Therefore he is right.” I judge his authority in many ways, none so simple. If another doctor disagrees with him, I won’t be suddenly confused. I will scrutinise what they say, just as much as I do for Ben Goldacre.
My current preconception is that they would fail to convince me!
 

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Chris Kresser October 2, 2010 at 7:38 am

Tom: I approved a couple of your comments and spammed the rest. I’m happy to entertain different points of view here, but this isn’t your personal soapbox. If you want one of those, feel free to start your own blog.

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Stan November 2, 2010 at 8:31 am

I didn’t see any mention of krill oil… what are your viewpoints on krill oil as a source of omega 3?

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Chris Kresser November 2, 2010 at 10:23 am

Stan,

I wrote about krill oil here. But please see this article for my latest thoughts on fish oil supplementation.

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Alex S November 7, 2010 at 12:34 am

Tom, what is your website?

Even if I don’t agree, I like to keep up with what people like David H. Freedman, or Ben Goldacre have to say!

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Rob December 11, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Chris,

Enjoyed reading your article, and appreciate the skepticism. Two questions for you: You stated “Throughout 4-5 million years of hominid evolution, diets were abundant in seafood and other sources of omega-3 long chain fatty acids…”. This really contradicts the paradigms I have of the hunter-gatherers that did not live along a coast. Assuming many of these were migrant groups, is it realistic that they would be able to catch that much seafood as they moved from lake-to-lake or river-to-river? (And if so, I wish they’d passed that knowledge on to me – I have enough trouble catching fish with a rod and reel!).

You also stated “(Anthropological research) indicates that both ancient and modern hunter-gatherers were free of the modern inflammatory diseases, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, that are the primary causes of death and morbidity today.” While the modern examples are intriguing, isn’t it reasonable to think that the average lifespan of our ancient ancestors was such that would make comparisons quite skewed? You are suggesting that a single change “…perhaps more than any other dietary factor, has contributed to the epidemic of modern disease.” Yet the average life expectancy has continued to rise, (almost doubling since the Industrial Revolution). There seem to be too many variables here to use the lack of certain diseases in our ancient ancestors as evidence to support your argument.

Finally – ha! – please share the magic ratio of olive oil to canola oil mentioned in your article: “One study showed that replacing corn oil with olive oil and canola oil to reach an n-6:n-3 ratio of 4:1 led to a 70% decrease in total mortality.” That’s going to put a big dent in the life insurance business…

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Adlok Huuungry February 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Rob,

I may be slightly off topic, but I thought I’d respond to the lifespan concern in order to help clear up your doubts about the context of the main topic (n-6:n-3 ratios in the diet).
I’ve recently read a bit about the oft referenced “Lifespan Issue” when discussing our pre-agricultural ancestors. Many of us assume that the average life span (more specifically Average Life Expectancy At Birth) of around 35 – 38 of pre-historic people means 35 – 38 represented ripe old age. This simply is not the case. Average life span is heavily skewed by infant and child death (of which there was much more). When measuring Average Life Expectancy at age 15, for example, many modern hunter gatherers, and those ancient ones for which such data is attainable, match or exceed modern industrial people; and that all without the help of modern sanitation, antibiotics, dental care, etc.
I do wish I could point to all the relevant sources for this point, but I cannot a this time, so I encourage you to take what i say with a grain of salt and look into it when/if you can. I believe you will find that my main point stands up to scrutiny.

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Nigel - Africa February 25, 2011 at 5:47 am

I will go with chris’ research conclusions as I have seen in this part of the world what over consumption does to people and that actually grilled meats and fishes along with lots of dark & green vegetables boiled or cooked with very little oil is most healthy. Yes I can see how consuming more n6 oils will negate the effects of n3 body assimilation effects. I have 2 people who are aged 90 and have used just the above formula above that I am talking about in confidently going with Chris here. In fact the 2 subjects that I have been observing seem to be doing something else very unique that I see more the reason that they are bright, fully functional and standing walking human beings still very much contributing to society and a total inspiration to me. I won’t divulge the secret of their longevity but you are free to email me if you like..well done Chris!!

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Anonymous March 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm

What is the difference between Fish Oil with Omega-3 and Omega-3 and Omega-6. Which is better. I am confused.

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Bridget Nichols April 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Great information! I’d learned about the imbalance of fats and inflammation in my Nutrition Masters program, and appreciate the depth of information you presented. What is the best strategy for decreasing inflammation – increase omega-3, decrease omega-6 or both?

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“The best fats to consume and cook with are those that are the most saturated: butter, coconut oil, ghee, tallow, duck & goose fat. Pretty much the opposite of what we’ve been told.”

I’m so confused now. Aren’t saturated fats bad for you? I understand that to cook with it’s best to use saturated fat, as the smoke point in vegetable oils can be lower than the cooking one, thus harmful by creating more free radicals. Not to mention they could cause an imbalance in the omega 3 and 6 ratio. However, consuming saturated fats, I thought, would be s different matter, giving room, in this case, to monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, as long as not used for cooking. Could you please clarify that? Am I killing myself and loved ones trying to be healthy?

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