The recent article I wrote on fats, drew a lot of requests to the Colgan Institute to explain a bit more about prostaglandins. Since the advent of a rash of so-called “zone” diets the terms “prostaglandins” and “eicosanoids” have been bandied in sports nutrition, but what they are and how they work is seldom covered.

Named after the prostate gland, where they were first found, prostaglandins are short-lived, hormone-like compounds, that your body makes in a series of steps from the two essential fats cis-linoleic acid (omega-6) and cis-alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3). In healthy folk, prostaglandins work in exquisite harmony with each other. For folk deficient in essential fats, however, they run rampant.

In my new book Essential Fats, I explain how some 85% of the US population is now deficient in omega-3 essential fats because modern methods of oil processing have destroyed most of them in the food chain.¹ The magnitude of disease produced by this deficiency is only starting to be appreciated by our health authorities.

You should be concerned because, as the US National Academy of Sciences states, the amount of essential fats required for health is larger by far than for any vitamin or mineral, running in the range of 6-10 grams per day.² And that's for couch potatoes. Athletes require even more because of the multiple uses of essential fats during exercise. You better get your essential fats right to control your prostaglandins, otherwise they will control you, because prostaglandins regulate every cell, every organ and every bodily function.

To date researchers have identified more than 30 different types of prostaglandins, divided into three series according to the fat they are made from. Series 1 prostaglandins are made from dihomogammalinolenic acid, an intermediate in the omega-6 chain. Series 2 are made from arachidonic acid, the end point of the omega-6 chain. Series 3 are made from eicosapentaenoic acid, last step but one on the omega-3 chain.³ Many functions of prostaglandins are still being discovered. Those I can sketch in this short article are dubbed E1, E2, and E3. In action they variously complement or oppose each other.
E1— The Protector

Prostaglandin E1, helps to stop your platelets sticking together to form clots, lower your blood pressure, inhibits development of osteoarthritis, reduse pain and inflammatory reactions, and promotes excretion of excess sodium via your kidneys.

E1 also inhibits release of arachidonic acid from cell membranes where it is stored. As long as it stays in store, arachidonic acid can't be converted to prostaglandin E2. By this important mechanism, E1, prevents excess E2 production.³

Adequate production of prostaglandin E1, is vital to protect your cardiovascular system and your joints. It's also essential to rid your body of excess sodium. Each molecule of sodium excreted, pulls 21 molecules of water along with it. Thus prostaglandin E[sub1] prevents water retention and bloating.

E[sub1] also reduces blood pressure. There's no longer any doubt that our epidemic of hypertension (25,000,000 in the US), for which no medical cause can be found, is partly due to the widespread dietary deficiency of cis-essential fats.[sup4] By our own hand we created this deficiency and the consequent deficiency of prostaglandin E[sub1]. Bad news.

Worse news. Even if you do get enough cislinoleic acid, you still may be unable to produce sufficient prostaglandin E[sub1]. To make it, first your body has to be able to turn linoleic acid into gamma-linolenic acid. This conversion requires activity of an enzyme delta-6-desaturase. High levels of saturated fats, cholesterol, or trans-fats in your diet, zinc deficiency, excess alcohol consumption, a host of other factors all compromise delta-6-desaturase, and inhibit production of prostaglandin E[sub1].[sup5] It's especially important to prevent this problem in Western diets, because without enough of the Protector E[sub1], prostaglandin E[sub2] quickly gets out of control.
E[sub2] — The Grinch

Prostaglandin E[sub2] is made from the end fat of the omega-6 chain, arachidonic acid. It promotes platelet clumping, tells your kidneys to retain salt, and increases pain and inflammation. It is almost exactly opposed in action to prostaglandin E[sub1].

Sounds like a design mistake in the human body, but it isn't. E[sub2] is necessary to stop bleeding in injuries, to warn you with pain not to exert an injured bodypart, to promote immune action in infections and illnesses, and to prevent dehydration. But in Western Society, widespread overproduction of E[sub2] yields hypertension, sodium and water retention, and chronically inflamed bodies with swollen painful joints. For us E[sub2] is a Grinch that steals health and performance.

Astute readers may tell me here to back up the truck.

Prostaglandin E[sub1] and E[sub2] are both made from cis-linoleic acid. So how can athletes be deficient in E[sub1] while overproducing E[sub2]? The answer lies in our diet.

Prostaglandin E[sub2] becomes the Grinch mainly because of athletes' high meat consumption. The saturated fats in meat, which inhibit delta-6-desaturase, are only part of the problem. Even the leanest meat is loaded with preformed arachidonic acid, the direct precursor of E[sub2]. So our flesh-eating penchant deals us a double whammy. The saturated fats inhibit the conversion of linoleic acid, leaving us short of anti-inflammatory prostaglandin E[sub1]. Then the meat loads the body with arachidonic acid, thereby boosting production of the pro-inflammatory Grinch, prostaglandin E[sub2].

E[sub2] also increases blood clotting and platelet aggregation. Blood clotting is essential to stop unwanted bleeding. But excessive levels of E[sub2], easily cause blood clots where you don't want them, in your arteries or brain. A good chunk of America's staggering rates of heart attacks and strokes caused by blood clots, point to excess E[sub2] as a leading player.³

Many folk with arthritis or that deliberately court inflammatory situations, such as athletes, also show excess E[sub2] production. This excess puts their bodies on the edge of inflammation 24 hours a day. Aspirin works against arthritis, precisely by lowering E[sub2] levels. As we will see, the right balance of essential fats can do a much better job.
E[sub3] — The Defender

Your body manufactures E[sub3] from eicosapentaenoic acid, the last step but one of the omega-3 chain. Eicosapentaenoic acid and E[sub3] both prevent production and activity of arachidonic acid even more strongly than the Protector E[sub1]. So they are even more important in controlling production of the Grinch E[sub2]. The whole hypothesis of Dr. Barry Sears popular Zone Diet, hinges on this control function of eicosapentaenoic acid.[sup6]

As I show in my book Essential Fats,[sup1] we have destroyed the cis-alpha linolenic acid in our food chain to such an extent, that 85% of the population is now deficient. So most folk don't get sufficient to maintain E[sub3] production. Athletes are especially deficient.

Worse, as with prostaglandin E[sub1], the saturated fats and trans-fats, excess alcohol and mineral deficiencies in the usual American diet, inhibit activity of the delta-6-desaturase enzyme. So even if you do take enough cis-alpha-linolenic acid, your body may be unable to make the conversion to the rest of the omega-3 chain. No conversion, no eicosapentaenoic acid, no E[sub3] and the Grinch runs rampant again.

Athletes fare worse for three reasons. First, they eat even higher amounts of animal protein than the American average, thereby increasing the arachidonic acid burden. Second, intense exercise itself increases prostaglandin production, especially E[sub2].[sup7] Third, E[sub2] is catabolic to muscle. In animal studies, high levels of E[sub2] consistently produce muscle degradation.[sub8]

As a direct result of high protein diets and intense exercise, many athletes have high circulating levels of E[sub2] in the blood, putting them always on the edge of inflammation and muscle loss. Not a good way to be, if you deliberately beat up your body every day.

The extra protein in sports diets is essential to maintain and build muscle and strength against the catabolic forces of heavy training.[sup9] Thus the best way for athletes to reduce excessive E[sub2] production, is to supplement the diet with essential fats.
More Troubles With Meat

Unfortunately, the athletic body doesn't become anti-inflammatory automatically, just by eating essential fats. Many athletes follow diets that reduce their ability to convert essential fats to prostaglandins. One big problem is fat in meats. Athletes consume far more saturated fats in high-meat diets than they think.

Gulled by commercial smoke and mirrors advertisements, they believe some meats to be very low in fat. As I've shown before, what the US Dept. of Agriculture calls one of the leanest cuts of beef, a sirloin steak, is over 40% fat.[sup9] And lean cuts of “the other white meat,” pork, are over 50% fat.[sup9] Eating a 1 lb steak each day for a week, loads you with 200 grams of saturated fats. What about those deli turkey slices that claim to be 95% fat-free. The label states fat by weight, the legally allowed description.

Here's the real analysis per 100 grams:

Even a low-fat turkey sandwich every day, with “low-fat” bread and no mayo, gives you 5 lbs of toxic fats per year. Combining that with two other lean meat meals a day, as many athletes do, lards your body with 95 lbs of saturated fats per year! Once this hard fat is deposited in cell membranes and other tissues, it's a tough job to get it out. Now you know the origin of that stubborn pudge, those “smooth” arms, and the love handles you just can't shift.

Worse, all that fat also inhibits the delta-6-desaturase enzyme required for conversion of both omega-6 and omega-3 essential fats.³ No conversion, no E[sub1] or E[sub3], and no protection against inflammation. Meat is a poor sports food.

Smarter athletes shy away from meats, but make the equal mistake of eating processed vegetable oils. Most margarines, cooking oils, processed vegetable foods such as soyburgers, and almost all baked goods are full of trans-fats. A whole-grain, hi-bran muffin for example, beloved of the diet brigade, can contain 15 grams of processed vegetable oil, most of it converted by the processing and cooking into trans-fats. And all those vegetable dishes, cooked in oil — forget it! Many vegetarian athletes are loaded with trans-fats, which equally inhibit delta-6-desaturase and leave E[sub2] free to run amok.[sup5]
The Preformed Solution

Without laboring the details, about 45% of athletes we test, have compromised their ability to process essential fats. To solve this problem, we use two preformed fats, in addition to the essential fats. We use preformed gamma-linolenic acid from organic borage oil, to boost E[sub1] production, and preformed eicosapentaenoic acid from fish oil, to boost E[sub3] production. Vegetarians who refuse to take fish oil, can use eicosapentaenoic acid from seaweed or marine algae.

Combining these preformed fats with other supplements, mainly multiple antioxidants, glucosamine sulfate, and the anti-inflammatory flavonoids, including proanthocyanidins from grape seed oil, we have evolved a potent remedy for tendinitis, sore, inflamed joints, and rapid recovery from grueling workouts.

No one knows the ideal supplementary amounts of preformed gamma linolenic acid, and eicosapentaenoic acid. Likely they vary widely with individuals, depending on their degree of inhibition of delta-6-desaturase. Our estimate is a range of 2–4 grams of each. Taking the higher amount every day will do no harm. Nature designed your body with exquisite controls to take care of it.
More Growth Hormone And Blood Flow

Increased production of prostaglandin E[sub1] from supplementary linoleic acid and preformed gammalinolenic acid, offers more goodies for athletic performance. It has the unique ability to increase brain levels of the hormone somatotropin.[sup10] Especially pertinent for strength and power athletes, somatotropin increases growth hormone output, and thus increases production of insulin-like-growth-factor-1 (IGF-1).

Readers unfamiliar with IGF-1 and the anabolic sequence of muscle growth, should read The Anabolic Drive in my book Optimum Sports Nutrition? Suffice to say here, that any way to increase IGF-1 without drugs, toxicity, or side effects is a decided boon for athletes. Even more goodies. Adding omega-3 fats on the top of the IGF-1, increases the binding of IGF-1 to muscle and boosts anabolism.[sup11]

Pertinent for endurance athletes, prostaglandin E[sub1] also increases blood flow, and thus oxygenation of muscles, organs, and brain. This effect is now confirmed not only in folk with cardiovascular disease,[sup12] but also in healthy volunteers.[sup13] In healthy subjects made ischemic (short of oxygen), an infusion of prostaglandin E[sub1] dramatically increases blood flow by up to 250%.[sup13]
Improved Sports Performance

With all the above physiological effects, you might expect essential fats to improve sports performance. Very few studies worth talking about have been done, however. Two studies on strength, brought to my attention by my friend Dr. Luke Bucci, deserve mention. The Liberty University football team were given a blend offish and vegetable oils, including gammalinolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid, totaling approximately 4 grams a day, for 8 weeks. Their average bench press increased 10%, chins 9%, vertical jump nearly 3% and shuttle run 3%.[sup14]

Good but not startling, though 10% on a 250 lb bench is 25 lbs. Problem is, effects of essential fats may take months to appear. In a three-year study of essential fats on patients with chronic conditions, Dr. Donald Rudin found that the big improvements didn't show for 3–6 months or more.[sup15]

A second double-blind placebo-controlled study used the Boise State University football team, but again only for 8 weeks. Supplemented players showed a significant gain in strength above gains made by the placebo group.[sup14]

Another study, done recently at Western Washington University, examined endurance. Researchers gave healthy, young men fish (salmon/menhaden), supplying 4 grams of omega-3 fats per day, and compared them with a placebo group. The fish group improved V0[sub2] max by 11% compared with 4.5% in controls.[sup16] Elite athletes I know would give their eye teeth for 11% WO[sub2] max.

Though these studies confirm the fiction of essential fats on athletic performance, they show only a tiny part of the wide range of benefits. A few weeks ago I received a letter from an Australian Olympic coach thanking me for promoting them. He confirmed other reports I received, that British, Scandinavian, and British Commonwealth Olympic Committees have finally recognized the widespread deficiency of essential fats in athletes and have approved supplementation.
How Much Essential Fats?

The US National Academy of Sciences estimates, that a sedentary male can obtain sufficient cis-linoleic acid at 2% of total calories, and just sufficient cis-alpha-linolenic acid at about 0.7% of total calories.[sup2] That's about 6 grams per day of linoleic and 2 grams per day of alpha-linolenic.

Athletes in hard training, however, use far more essential fats than couch potatoes, in oxygen use, insulin control, inflammation control, and other aspects of exercise.[sup8] Counting up all the uses of fats in training and recovery, and substracting the fats obtained from a good athletic diet, the Colgan Institute's best estimate of an athlete's minimal supplement needs, is 2.8% of calories as linoleic acid, and a whopping 6.2% of calories as alpha-linolenic acid. The 2–4 grams of preformed fats discussed above, gamma linolenic acid from borage oil, and eicosapentaenoic acid from fish oil, are an additional supplement on top of the cis-essential fats.

These requirements vary with bodyweight, calorie intake and level of training. Our estimate is based on a 175 lb male on 3,000 calories per day, training 2 hours daily, and maintaining correct body weight and composition. He requires a minimum supplement of 9 grams of linoleic acid and 21 grams of alpha-linolenic acid.

To work out your personal minimal daily requirement, Table 1 (page 16) is our crude, but serviceable best take on athletes' needs, divided by caloric intake and training levels, from weekend warriors to world champions. We have used this formula equally well, with Olympians such as Leroy Burrell and Regina Jacobs, and Mrs Amy Francis who successfully completed her first marathon in 1996, at age 63! It will work for you too.

“Smarter athletes shy away from meats, but make the equal mistake of eating processed vegetables.”

Water 75g 0
Fat 75g 45
Protein 20g 80
% calories from fat 45/125 = 36%, saturated!

Table 1. Minimum daily supplementary cis-essential fats required
by athletes at different caloric intakes and training levels, in
*[This character cannot be converted to ASCII text] Linoleic
Acid (g)
*[This character cannot be converted to ASCII text]
Alpha-Linoleic Acid (g)
Daily Caloric Intake
Hrs/week 1500 2000 2500 3000 3500 4000 4500
8 5 12 6 14 7 16 8 18 9 21 11 26 12 28
12 6 14 7 16 8 18 9 21 11 26 12 28 14 32
16 7 16 8 18 9 21 11 26 12 28 14 32 15 35
20 8 18 9 21 11 26 12 28 14 32 15 35 16 37
24 9 21 11 26 12 28 14 32 15 35 16 37 17 39
28 11 26 12 28 14 32 15 35 16 37 17 39 18 41
Source: © The Colgan Institute, San Diego, 1997


1. Colgan, M. Essential Fats. Vancouver: Apple Publishing, in press.

2. Recommended Daily Allowances, 10th Edition, Washington, D.C. National Academy Press, 1989.

3. Willis A. Handbook of Eicosanoids, Prostaglandins, and Related Lipids. Vols. 1 &2. Boca Raton: CRC Press; 1987 and 1989.

4. Schmidt EB, Dyerburg J. Omega-3 fatty acids. Current status in cardiovascular medicine. Drugs, 1994;47:405–424.

5. Erasmus Udo. Fats That Heal: Fats That Kill, Second Edition. Burnaby, B.C., Canada: Alive Books, 1993.

6. Sears B. Enter The Zone. New York, NY, Regan Books/Harper Collins, 1995.

7. Wennmalm A, Fitzgerald G. Excretion of prostacyclin and thromboxane A2 metabolism during leg exercise in humans. Amer J Physiol, 1988;255:1115–1118.

8. Rodemann HP, et al. The stimulation of protein degradation in muscle by Ca2+ is mediated by prostaglandin E2 and does not require the calcium activated protease. J Biol Chem, 1982;257:8716–8723.

9. Colgan M. Optimum Sports Nutrition. New York: Advanced Research Press, 1993.

10. Dray F, etal. Role of prostaglandins in growth hormone secretion. Adv prostaglandin Thromboxane Res, 1980;8:1321.

11. Liu S, et al. Dietary omega-3 and polyunsaturated fatty acids modify fatty acid composition and insulin binding in skeletal muscle sarcolemma. Biochem J, 1994;299:831–837.

12. Creutzig A, et al. Prospective open pilot study to investigate the effect of intermittant intra-arterial infusion of prostaglandin E1 in patients with intermittent claudication.. In Sinzinger H (ed). Prostaglandin E[sub1] in Atherosclerosis, New York: Springer verlag, 1986;57.

13. Rudofsky G. The:effect of intra-arterial infusion treatment with prostaglandin E1 in a model of iscemia in healthy volunteers. In Sinzinger H (ed). Prostaglandin E[sub1] in Atherosclerosis, New York: Springer Verlag, 1986;49.

14. Sears B. Biosyn Training Manual. Marblehead: MA, 1990.

15. Rudin DO. The Omega-3 Phenomenon. New York: Rawson Associates, 1987.

16. Brilla LR, Landerholm TE. Effect of fish oil supplementation and exercise on serum lipids and aerobic fitness. J Sports Med, 1990;30:173–177.

Share this with your friends