Two faces of arachidonic acid

Sometimes I face the accusation that I don’t give simple answers – instead of throwing in some recipe for therapy, I philosophize, circle around the subject, create more questions than answers. Well – only for extremely simple people the world is uncomplicated. As a rule, what will help one person will harm another, this applies to almost everything without exception, including such seemingly harmless supplements as iodine, vitamin C or D3.

Arachidonic acid (AA) is a particularly infamous representative here – in some cases it seems to be one of the most effective supplements, while in others it seems to be a major cause of fatal diseases of civilization.

It is one of the “pro-inflammatory” varieties of omega 6, meaning that in theory it should be the bad guy. And indeed, most epidemiological studies show quite clearly that its high concentration is asking for problems:

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa025079

Admittedly (as you can, or could some years ago read on Wikipedia), studies in which people were given its pure form did not clearly show harmful effects, but the duration of these experiments was limited. However, what if someone is exposed to it all his life? For example, in theory it should promote the formation of atherosclerotic plaques in a vulnerable part of the population – something that epidemiological studies have confirmed. A simple clinical trial will not show this, as atherosclerosis develops over a decade or more. I advise you to be very careful when reading wikipedia articles – by definition, it is not so much an encyclopedia, but rather a collection of opinions. For example, you can read there that this acid is not carcinogenic – although there is no study that has shown the lack of carcinogenicity, there are only opinions.

I should write here about the fatty acid cascade, prostaglandins, desaturation, saturate the article with scientific terms, but I consider such an approach inappropriate for two reasons. First, why would anyone need it? And so the average reader will not be able to understand such a thing unless he or she first assimilates the basics of biochemistry, it would be a show-off on my part and would not do anything for the people to whom the entry is directed. Secondly, and much more importantly – looking through blogs or even books in which the authors have adopted such tactics, I noticed that in almost every case these are arguments fraught with errors on the level of “since the car has a max speed of 100 km/h, if we add four more wheels, it will have 200 km/h.” I’m writing about this because this topic begs to mention the dual role of some prostaglandins produced from arachidonic acid. I’m sure that in some blogs or studies you will be able – depending on whether the author wants to show a positive or negative effect – to find descriptions of passages taken out of context.

Finding correlations and drawing a good conclusion in all this tangle of interdependent reactions in our bodies is nightmarishly difficult. So much so that even the best of the best scientists don’t try to put their conclusions for granted. They create some theories and conduct experiments based on them, if the results are good – we have a new therapy, until another experiment proves that it has side effects. And that’s really what we – the people who want to get something out of this – should be interested in. In this final experiment, did overeating arachidonic acid have an effect? In epidemiological studies (that is, where – in this case – one looks at what a person has eaten and compares how often they get sick as a result), did eating foods rich in it carry a risk?

So let’s focus on the facts. Above, I already cited a study that confirmed something that was supposed to work in theory – an excess of this substance can promote atherosclerosis. Cancer studies have yielded contradictory results. People suffering from inflammatory bowel disease have increased levels of it in that region, but experimental administration of it to mice did not exacerbate the disease, and in fact had the opposite effect:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20440721

In contrast, a diet devoid of the ingredient muted rheumatoid arthritis. However, it is hard to decide here whether it was the key factor:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12548439

There is a lack of research on whether reducing intake protects against asthma – although there is a very strong hypothesis positing its excess as a major cause of developing the disease.

You can often find the thesis that it is the exclusion of this substance from the diet that is the reason why people on a vegetarian diet live longer and are less likely to develop lifestyle diseases. This is a very important and interesting issue – the vast majority of vegetarians and vegans do not follow the rules of supplementation on this diet, they have deficiencies and should get sick even more often than the population average – and yet they have better health. The answer to the question “is arachidonic acid healthy” will be important for both the average sausage eater and those on a meatless diet – as they could then add another supplement to ensure even better health and an even lower risk of disease.

It’s time to move on to the positives. Here there is a problem, which, by the way, can be encountered with almost any non-patentable substance. Lack of research. The theory tells us that “there is something to it,” but no one will test what can be done with it further.

It is known that this fat is one of the main components of the human brain – one could even say that this organ is made of it. The question imposes itself – can mental and emotional problems be related to a deficiency or excess of this substance?

And here it is worth looking at one of the most popular – bipolar disorder. The levels of fatty acids in the membranes of red blood cells in patients and in healthy people were checked. What does it turn out? Bipolar mania patients have less than half of arachidonic acid in their bodies compared to healthy people:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10843705_Polyunsaturated_fatty_acid_deficit_in_patients_with_bipolar_mania

It’s worth noting – in a disease that affects one in thirty people, the level of a certain nutrient is more than half that of healthy people. What has been done about it? Nothing, of course. Bipolar patients are a gold mine. I’m not saying that supplementation would definitely help them, without a clinical trial it’s impossible to know, one can only guess. But given the frequency of the disease and the weight of evidence, the lack of testing is simply a crime against humanity.

Parents of children suffering from autism are slightly luckier. Here, there is no way to make that kind of money on the disease, so clinical trials were pushed through – as there were deficiencies in this condition as well. In one of them, supplementation with AA along with DHA (a popular omega 3) yielded fairly good results. The therapy was short-lived and the doses there were quite low, equivalent to 2-3 eggs a day, but the effect was noticeable:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22370992

I think it’s worth trying supplementation in schizophrenia – patients have reduced levels of AA:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10709034_Membrane_Pathology_in_Schizophrenia_Implication_for_Arachidonic_Acid_Signaling

Of course, it is not known whether it will have a positive effect or even the opposite, but the golden rule should be that when a nutrient is found to be deficient in an incurable disease, and no one has ever done any serious research on it – we try it, because the balance of possible losses and gains is very favorable to us.

It has been suggested that supplementation can inhibit degenerative brain changes associated with aging (this is a rather bold interpretation of this study):

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19752581

But on the other hand – there are very serious suspicions that its excess in the diet can cause senile degenerative brain diseases:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21920632

It is sometimes recommended for people training at the gym. It actually works, by increasing the degree of muscle damage, and as a result, training brings better results, as building muscle mass is literally destroying tissue, which is then rebuilt more than enough. However, I would be careful with it – potential joint and tendon damage, low effectiveness and high price puts the wisdom of supplementation into question. On the other hand, there are people for whom every kilogram is literally at a premium – such a difference guarantees a win at competitions.

Time for a small summary. All indications are that even if someone develops deficiencies of this substance, they are not due to dietary deficiencies (vegans have no health problems despite practically zero consumption), but to the problems the body has with producing it from “intermediates”. Supplementation would be masking symptoms in such a situation. However, if it were to cure someone of theoretically incurable diseases such as autism, schizophrenia or bipolar – why not try it? The whole article was written precisely because of these several conditions – there is a possibility that in this case AA supplementation is the only really working cure.

Leave a Comment