We know we should take our omegas (fatty acids). We know omegas are good for us, yet many of us know very little about omegas.
When we hear omegas, we might think of omega 3 and omega 6, the ones mentioned most often in health news. Some of us might even relate omegas to fatty fish, fish oil, nuts, and cod liver oil.
Fact is, our body needs omega 6 and omega 3 – yet balance is crucial
But few of us recall or understand that an excess of one omega (omega 6) can actually increase inflammation while a deficiency in another omega (omega 3) can actually increase the risk of cancer or depression.
So, today, we’ll talk about omega fatty acids, focusing on omega 3 and omega 6.
The right omega fatty acid in healthy amount can support health; the “wrong” omega in excess can support illness & disease.
Before we get started let’s quickly review each omega or put differently, let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first:
Background: omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids:
When we talk about fatty acids, we differentiate between saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Omega 3 and 6 both belong to the group of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
Omega 3 (ω-3) and Omega 6 (ω-6) Fatty Acids:
- must be consumed through diet as we cannot make them ourselves (= essential fatty acids; EFAs)
- are metabolically and functionally distinct
- act as precursors to many other processes in the body that regulate for example blood pressure and inflammatory responses
- have opposing physiological functions
- are essential in growth and development throughout the life cycle
- influence the polyunsaturated fatty acid composition of cell membranes
- their balance is important for homeostasis and normal development
- and can’t be interchanged
Omega 3 Fatty Acids:
- a-linolenic acid (LNA), which can be converted to EPA & DHA
- conversion is less effective in people with hypertension (Singer et al., 1984) or diabetes (Honigman, et al., 1982)
- may play an important role in the prevention and treatment of coronary artery disease, hypertension, arthritis, other inflammatory and autoimmune disorders (Casanova et al., 2017)
- may reduce risk of cancer and prevent or extend time of reoccurrence (Lunn & Theobald, 2006)
- can support healthy HDL cholesterol levels
- in elderly diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, omega 3 fatty acids have been found to be an effective treatment (Bae & Kim, 2018)
- deficiency can increase the risk for depression or anxiety (Thesing et al., 2018), negatively influence memory and brain health
Effectively, fatty fish is the best source of EPA and DHA but given environmental sustainability and access it might not be possible for many of us to consume high quality fish 2-3 times per week, as suggested. Hence, focus on other omega 3 rich food source. (see poster below).
Think of fish and marine algae as fabulous omega 3 source.
Although, I too am a huge fan of seeds: chia and flax. If you don’t know how to increase your intake, give this Chia-Coconut Mix a try or how about Chia Water. Alternatively, try homemade flax and chia seed power balls.
More, the effect of omega 3 within the body differs from person to person and might not only be contingent on one’s gut bacteria but also the amount of saturated fatty acid intake in one’s diet.
Clinically, in patients with hyperlipidemia, omega 3 (fatty acids):
- decrease low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol if the saturated fatty acid content in their diet is decreased
- slightly increase LDL if diet is higher in saturated fats yet in high doses (omega 3 of ~32 g) they lower LDL cholesterol (regardless of saturated fat intake)
- consistently lower serum triglycerides in normal subjects and in patients with hypertriglyceridemia
- might only have a small (increasing) influence on high-density lipoprotein (HDL)
Replacing saturated fats with omega 3 fatty acids may lower serum cholesterol concentrations.
Omega 6 Fatty Acids:
- linoleic acid (LA)
- are precursors to potent lipid mediator signalling molecules, termed „eicosanoids,“ which have important roles in the regulation of inflammation (Patterson et al., 2012; Fritsche, 2015)
- consumed in moderation can reduce nerve pain and fight inflammation
- excess intake increases inflammation which is the base of many diseases such as:
- cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis both due to arterial inflammatory lesions
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) as it’s thought that the lipid profile of one’s diet might influence or trigger IBD, and
- neurodegenerative disease (Patterson et al., 2012)
- Alzheimer’s disease & Parkinson (Calder, 2011 & 2013)
- excess intake in pregnant women was found to increase the risk for childhood emotional problems at age 5 (Miyake et al., 2018)
Think of most vegetable oils and conventional meats & eggs and processed food as „fabulous“ omega 6 source.
Our body needs omega 6; and omega 6 is much better than saturated fats found in meats and dairy products. Yet, a severe imbalance (as it’s currently the case in most people’s diet) favors obesity and a myriad of other health problems.
Imbalance of omega 6 and omega 3 leads to health issues (Patterson et al. 2012; Zárate et al. 2017):
Excess omega 6 intake and low omega 3 intake favors obesity and is pro-inflammatory.
Additionally, it stimulates arthritis, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer, Parkinson, allergies, and and and.
For optimal health the ratio of 4:1 (omega 6:3) or even lower is encouraged. Many sources suggest however that our diet is close to a ratio of 10:1 or even 20-25: 1 (Zárate et al. 2017; Patterson et al., 2012; Lynn, 2006).
Meaning, our diet has become excessively high in omega 6 and unbelievably low in omega 3 which is thought to contribute to a variety of diseases.
Now, I KNOW we all follow different dietary patters: paleo, keto, vegan,……..
Yet, look at the list below.
Based on your preferred food choices, what can you trade to increase your omega 3 and reduce your omega 6 intake?
Harris (2018) concludes, it may be time to replace the n-6:n-3 ratio with a newer metric that focuses on the primary deficiency in Western diets – the lack of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids (EPA and DHA).
Thus, rather than focusing on ratio, let’s focus on increasing our omega 3 fatty acid intake while reducing our (particularly from unhealthy sources) omega 6 fatty acid intake.
Omega fatty acid imbalance is thought to be a contributor to increases in chronic inflammatory diseases such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
(Patterson et al., 2012)
Societal Increased Intake of Omega 6 Fatty Acids:
Reason intake of omega 6 has increased is due to two major changes:
- increased intake of (cheap) vegetable oils
- increased intake of grain fed animal products (grains are rich in omega 6)
- grain fed animals are fattier and then to be richer in omega 6 fatty acids (Daley et al., 2010; van Elswyk & McNeill, 2014)
- increased consumption of animal fat
Additional, changes in modern agriculture with a short sighted view towards production (increased) have reduced omega 3 fatty acids content in previously omega 3 rich foods, such as green leafy vegetables, animal meats, eggs, and even fish (Simopoulos, 1991).
But please don’t read this as ALL omega 6 fatty acids are bad. No! There are healthy omega 6 fatty acid sources. After all, our body NEEDS omega 6; but we also need MORE omega 3.
Healthy omega 6 fatty acid food sources:
- hemp and grape seeds
- borage or primrose oil
(unhealthy sources include fatty meats, highly processed food such as junk food, processed cake mixes, fried food and snacks, mayonnaise, creamy ready to eat salad dressings,…….)
If you consume MORE omega 6 food items and suffer from a few diet related disease or if you’d like to prevent diseases switch your food choices from omega 6 rich to omega 3 richer food items.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to share and like.
Other articles that might be of interest to you:
Bae JH, Kim G. (2018). Systematic review and meta-analysis of omega-3-fatty acids in elderly patients with depression. Nutr Res, 50:1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2017.10.013. Epub 2017 Dec 8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29540267
Calder PC. (2011). Fatty acids and inflammation: the cutting edge between food and pharma. Eur J Pharmacol, 668(Suppl):50–58. doi: 10.1016/j.ejphar.2011.05.085 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21816146
Calder PC. (2013) Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory processes: nutrition or pharmacology? Br J Clin Pharmacol. 75(3):645–662. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04374.x. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575932/
Casanova MA, Medeiros F, Trindade M, et al. (2017). Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation improves endothelial function and arterial stiffness in hypertensive patients with hypertriglyceridemia and high cardiovascular risk. J Am Soc Hypertens, 11(1):10-19. doi: 10.1016/j.jash.2016.10.004. Epub 2016 Oct 26. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27876342
Daley CA, Abbott A, Doyle PS, et al. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutr J, 10;9:10. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-9-10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20219103
Fritsche KL. (2015). The science of fatty acids and inflammation. Adv Nutr, 6(3):293S–301S. doi: 10.3945/an.114.006940. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4424767/
Harris WS. (2018).The Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio: A critical appraisal and possible successor. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids, 132:34-40. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2018.03.003. Epub 2018 Mar 20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29599053
Honigmann G, Schimke E, Beitz J, et al. (1982). Influence of a diet rich in linolenic acid on lipids, thrombocyte aggregation and prostaglandins in type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes. Diabetologia, I 982:23: 175
Lunn J, Theobald H. (2006) The health effects of dietary unsaturated fatty acids. Nutrition Bulletin, 31:178-224.
Miyake Y, Tanaka K, Okubo H, et al. (2018). Maternal fat intake during pregnancy and behavioral problems in 5-y-old Japanese children. Nutrition. 2018 Jun;50:91-96. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2017.12.001. Epub 2018 Feb 2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29549849
Simopoulos A. (1991). Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and in growth and development. Am J Clin Nutr, 54:438-463. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/54.4.771 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/21246620
Thesing CS, Bot M, Milaneschi Y, et al. (2018). Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid levels in depressive and anxiety disorders. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 87:53-62. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.10.005. Epub 2017 Oct 6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29040890
Patterson E, Wall R, Fitzgerald GF, et al. (2012). Health implications of high dietary omega-6 polyunsaturated Fatty acids. J Nutr Metab, 2012:539426. doi: 10.1155/2012/539426 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3335257/
Singer P, Jaeger W, Voigt S, al. (1984). Defective desaturation and elongation of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids in hypertensive patients. Prostaglandins Leukot Med , 15:159-65.
Van Elswyk ME, McNeill SH. (2014). Impact of grass/forage feeding versus grain finishing on beef nutrients and sensory quality: the U.S. experience. Meat Sci, 96(1):535-40. doi: 10.1016/j.meatsci.2013.08.010. Epub 2013 Aug 14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24018274
Zárate R, El Jaber-Vazdekis N, Tejera N, et al. (2017). Significance of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in human health. Clin Transl Med, 6(1):25. doi: 10.1186/s40169-017-0153-6. Epub 2017 Jul 27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28752333