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What are Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s?

Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids are called polyunsaturated fats because they have many double bonds (poly=many). The human body doesn’t have the enzymes to produce them, so they must be consumed through diet. And because the body can not synthesize them, they are referred to as “essential” fatty acids.

Omega 3 health benefits

They are responsible for numerous cellular functions, such as signaling, membrane fluidity, and structural maintenance (1).

A number of health benefits are associated with Omega 3’s, including, reduced risk cardiovascular disease (2,3) by means of reducing blood pressure, inflammation, blood triglyceride levels, blood clotting, and atherscloritic plaque as well as improving HDL levels (good cholesterol) (4). 

 

 

Omega 3 and 6 structure
Further benefits include, Improved mood regulation (5), maintenance of retina health (6), brain growth and development in early life, particularly during pregnancy (7), improved insulin sensitivity (8), reduced risk of cancers via reductive effects on chronic inflammation (9), improved immune function via inflammation regulation (10) and numerous skin health benefits (11).
Different types of Omega 3

The three most important types of omega-3 fats:

  • ALA (alpha linolenic acid)
  • DHA (Docosahexanoic acid)
  • EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid)
ALA is the most commonly consumed, and is typically found in plants. However, most health benefits are associated with DHA & EPA. ALA can be converted into these forms, however the body’s ability to convert ALA is limited. Less than 6% of ALA is converted to EPA, with between 0.5 – 3.8% converted to DHA (12). Therefore consuming foods that contain DHA and EPA is recommended in order to obtain the associated health benefits.
Omega 6 vs Omega 3

Both Omega 3 & 6 fats play an important role in immune response: Omega 6’s have pro-inflammatory effects, while omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory. Research shows numerous extended health benefits from omega-3’s, as well as some benefits from omega-6’s, however because a typical western diet consists of far more omega-6’s, they are mainly used for energy. 

Although research remains inconsistent as to whether high omega-6 intake has a detrimental effect on health, there is a lot of evidence on the benefits of omega-3 fats and therefore consuming a balanced ratio by adding foods high in omega-3 is advised.

Omega 3:6 ratio

Research suggests that human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) of approximately 1:1 whereas in Western diets the ratio is about 16:1 (13). Dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids has declined by 80% during the last 100 years (14). Western populations typically eat large amounts of processed seed and vegetable oils which are very high in omega-6s.
A healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids appears to be between 1-to-1 and 4-to-1 (15,16).

Why we need a balanced ratio

Dietary omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) influence systemic inflammation; high proportions of omega-6 to omega-3 boost inflammation, while omega-3 has anti-inflammatory properties. While acute (short term) inflammation is necessary for effective immune function, chronic (long lasting) inflammation can cause numerous health issues. Research has shown that chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (17).
Inflammation is essential for your survival. It helps protect your body from infection and injury, but it can also cause severe damage and contribute to disease when it’s chronic or excessive.

Foods high in omega 3

Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout)

Flax seeds (one of the the richest whole-food sources of ALA)            Chia seeds, Hemp seeds

Walnuts

Brussels sprouts

Algae oil (one of the few vegan sources of EPA & DHA)

Foods high in omega 6

Vegetable oils

Corn

Nuts & Seeds

Tofu

Meat, poultry, fish & eggs

Increased importance of Omega 3’s in athletes

Exercise induces physiological stress accompanied by temporary inflammation, oxidative stress, and immune system disturbance, all of which omega- 3 fatty acids play a role in regulating. Therefore, a balanced omega-3 to 6 ratio may play a very important role when trying to optimize recovery from exercise. (18)

What about Omega 9?

Omega 9’s are non essential and can be constructed within the body from other fat sources and therefore there is no recommended intake of omega- 9. Omega-9’s are contained in a variety of foods and therefore will be consumed alongside other dietary fats.

Supplementation

You may see supplements marketed that contain omega 3, 6 and 9. However, as our diets typically contain plentiful amounts of omega-6 and 9, an omega-3 supplement is likely more beneficial. Research does support health benefits through omega-3 supplementation (19), although the effects of supplementation may be less effective than food sources (20). Algae oil supplementation offers an alternative EPA and DHA source for vegans (21)