Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: The Essentials

The potential benefit of omega-3 fatty acids was first documented by several researchers studying the Inuit Eskimos in the 1970s. Despite their high fat diets and resulting obesity, the Inuits had a low rate of death from heart disease. Given that the Inuits’ diet consisted primarily of cold-water fish, the researchers concluded that this type of fat—omega-3 fatty acids—mattered more than how much fat was eaten.

Since then, thousands of studies have made similar conclusions: omega-3 fatty acids provide considerable health benefits for the gastrointestinal, neurological, cardiovascular, circulatory, and other systems. But what are fatty acids?

Essential Fatty Acids

The essential fatty acids—called essential because the body cannot make them on its own—are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These essential fats must come from the diet. And they must come from the diet in a balanced ratio.

When the ratio of the essential fatty acids becomes imbalanced—that is, when the omega-6s overwhelm the omega-3s or vice versa—the body experiences inflammation which can result in serious chronic inflammatory conditions.

It’s precisely an imbalance between the essential fats that’s wreaking havoc on our health today. Americans get substantially more omega-6 fats than omega-3s. And the more omega-6 fats are consumed, the more the body is unable to utilize the powerfully healthy omega-3s when it does get them.

In fact, before trans fats and processed foods were added to our diets, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats was about 4:1—a ratio associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality rate in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Today, one study found that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats consumed was closer to 16:1. Other researchers say that the typical American diet contains 11-30 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats.And in a study of asthmatic patients, a 10:1 ratio was associated with adverse consequences.

So it’s clear that, to stay healthy, we need to balance our consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. One expert suggests a 1:1 ratio—and never more than 2:1.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids
The healthiest type of omega-6 fats contains linoleic acid which, inside the body, converts to gamma lineolic acid or GLA. GLA converts to hormone-like substances that can either block or promote inflammation in the cardiovascular, circulatory, neurological, and gastrointestinal systems.

Good dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids can be found in cereals, eggs, poultry, whole-grain breads, and some vegetable and seed oils.

However, as was discussed previously, Americans consume 11-30 times MORE omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s—mostly in the form of vegetable oils (corn, safflower, etc.) that have been partially hydrogenated. Consuming high quantities put the body at risk for some of today’s most life-threatening conditions: heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and some autoimmune disorders.

Unfortunately, these partially hydrogenated oils are all too often “hidden” in highly processed, packaged convenience foods like cookies, cakes, crackers, fried foods, fast foods, chips, granola bars, candy bars, and more.

Clearly, avoiding processed, convenience, and fast foods not only promotes better health, but it allows the body to get the most benefit from the heart-healthy omega-3s.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are three major types of omega-3 fats used by the body: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

ALA. While ALA comes from plants and plays a different role in the body than do EPA and DHA, enzymes in the body can convert ALA to EPA if needed. Dark green leafy vegetables—and flax, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, and their oils—are all excellent sources of ALA.

Adults should get about 1.6 grams of ALA each day. If a pregnant woman or a breast-feeding mother has enough ALA, her fetus or infant should have enough. For infants who are not breast-fed, look for formulas with 1.5% ALA.

EPA and DHA. The animal-based EPA and DHA fatty acids have reaped the most attention, particularly for their heart-healthy benefits. Unfortunately, because the richest sources of EPA and DHA fatty acids are generally unavailable, they’re not often found in the American diet.

Oily cold-water, wild-caught fish (salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovy, halibut) and wild game (particularly, venison and buffalo) are excellent sources of EPA and DHA fats. And because of its powerful health benefits, some farmers are now feeding their chickens plants instead of grain in order to produce omega-3 enriched eggs.

For those who don’t eat wild fish and game, though, there are some healthy alternatives. Daily doses of fish oil have been shown to provide the equivalent of 2-3 or more servings—as recommended by the American Heart Association—of wild fish or game each week.

Most fish oils come in a concentrated liquid or capsule form, and adults should take at least 3,000-4,000 mg per day (a 1,000 mg fish oil capsule contains 180 mg EPA and 120 mg DHA).

Pregnant women need lots of omega-3s to nourish the developing brains of the fetus. If the mother does not get enough omega-3s, the growing fetus will take all that’s available, depleting the mother and leaving her susceptible to depression.

A breast-feeding mother also needs an adequate supply of omega-3s to continue nourishing her child’s brain. If breastfeeding is not possible, then look for infant formulas containing 0.35% DHA, 1.5% ALA, and less than 0.1% EPA.

Clearly, a balance of the essential fatty acids—omega-3 and omega-6—is critical to fighting the invisible inflammation that occurs inside the body and leads to more serious conditions. While omega-6 can block or promote inflammation, it only does so in response to the amount of omega-3 received by the body. So let’s take a look at how omega-3s positively affect inflammation in the body.

The Role of Omega-3s in Inflammatory Conditions

Inflammation used to be considered a sign of infection. The body’s normal defense system would turn “on” to fend off everything from cuts to colds to cancer, then turn “off” when the threat had passed.

Now, it appears to be more complicated than that. Conditions that once seemed to defy reason have now become leading killers—and it appears chronic inflammation is to blame. Read more about inflammation as a “silent” killer.

Coronary Heart Disease
In systematic reviews of the available evidence, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) reported that eating fish or taking a fish oil supplement high in omega-3 fatty acids offers powerful benefits for heart health by reducing:

  • Heart attack and other issues related to heart and blood vessel disease in those who already have the disease.
  • The risk of death in those with heart and blood vessel diseases.
  • The level of triglycerides, a fat in the blood that may contribute to heart disease.
  • Blood pressure.
  • The risk of coronary artery re-blockage after angioplasty.
  • The risk of irregular heart beats or arrhythmia.

Clearly, the evidence for using omega-3s for controlling inflammation and having better heart health is compelling!

Diabetes affects more than 18 million people—and 90% of those suffer from the preventable type 2 diabetes. Diabetic adults are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease. But with a combination of dietary changes, supplements, and exercise, those with diabetes are can learn to manage their condition.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water, oily fish and fish oil supplements may help manage diabetes. In one trial of overweight individuals with insulin resistance, 50% of participants showed a clinically significant change in insulin-related function after taking DHA. Another study found that diabetic women who regularly ate fish reduced their risk of heart disease by as much as 64%.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Inflammatory Bowel Disease is an umbrella term for ulcerative colitis—an inflammation of the colon—and Crohn’s Disease, an inflammation of the small intestine.

IBD affects many people and genetics, infectious agents, and nutrition all appear to play a role. In fact, nutritional deficiencies often account for the majority of Crohn’s sufferers.

Considerable research has been done using omega-3 fatty acids to reduce the inflammation and ease the symptoms associated with IBD. Some examples:

  • A Japanese epidemiological study found a correlation between a higher than normal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the body and incidence of Crohn’s Disease.
  • Another Japanese study showed that an omega-3 enriched diet resulted in a decrease in CRR, a measurement of inflammation.
  • Another study found that fish oil supplements decreased inflammation of the colonic mucosa in IBD patients.
  • Fish oil capsules proved to have positive, anti-inflammatory effects in Crohn’s disease patients according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Based on the evidence above, it appears that omega-3 fatty acids have a beneficial effect on those with IBD.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for omega-3 fatty acids in treating depression can be found in the widely-acclaimed book, The Omega-3 Connection: The Groundbreaking Omega-3 Antidepression Diet and Brain Program written by Harvard faculty member Andrew L. Stoll, MD.

In his book, Stoll referred to a 45-year-old bipolar patient who had difficulty with personal and professional relationships and, in her most depressed state, had a tendency toward angry outbursts.

Numerous attempts to control the condition with anti-psychotic medication over 23 years resulted in the patient feeling worse than the disorder itself. Desperate, she entered Dr. Stoll’s study where he used omega-3 fatty acids as the primary treatment. Within two weeks, all of her symptoms disappeared.

But this is not an isolated case. Numerous studies offer similar conclusions. For example:

  • One study found that eating more omega-3 fats actually boosted the levels of serotonin, known to fight depression, and made brain cell membranes more effective.3
  • A study at the Centre for Mental Health Research in Australia found that high levels of omega-6 fats coupled with low levels of omega-3 fats led to more severe depression.3
  • The University of Sheffield linked low omega-3 levels in red blood cell membranes to depression.
  • A study in the Archives of Psychology indicated that bipolar patients on a high omega-3 fat diet remained symptom-less longer than those on conventional diets.

Clearly, there’s an epidemic. Those born before 1945—when diets contained more omega-3 fats in the form of wild fish and game—were less likely to suffer from major depression than those born after 1945.

Autoimmune Disorders
Autoimmune disorders—like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, and lupus—have also responded favorably to increased levels of omega-3 essential fats.

  • Animals that are genetically prone to autoimmune diseases are less susceptible when they get plenty of omega-3 fats.3
  • More than 13 studies of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers have shown that increasing the consumption of omega-3 fats or fish oil supplements significantly improved joint pain and stiffness.

Therefore, including more omega-3 fats and decreasing the level of omega-6s can help those with autoimmune disorders better manage their conditions.

Researchers believe that omega-3s can help reduce the risk for breast, prostrate, and colon cancers. Some recent studies suggest that even small amounts of fish (as part of the diet) can reduce the risk for these and may, in its early stages, help prevent the spread of them.

The evidence is so persuasive that in 2004, the American Heart Association advocated a special diet for women that would help fight breast cancer. Eating two to three servings of fish—a rich source of omega-3 fats—each week was at the top of the list.

Balance the Essentials for Better Health

In conclusion, eating rich sources of omega-3 fats like wild fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, anchovy), game, fish oil, flax, and walnuts offers powerful heart-healthy benefits—especially when taken in a 1:1 ratio with omega-6 fats. It’s essential!

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