Omega 3 and omega 6 are essential fatty acids (EFA) meaning your body can’t make these, so you need to get them from foods. What is the difference between these? I find it so confusing. Why do so many people say omega 6 is bad?
Omega 3 abbreviations
ALA = alpha linolenic acid
EPA = eicosapentaenoic acid
DHA = docosahexaenoic acid
Omega 3 is alpha linolenic acid (ALA). It turns off inflammation in your body. We can get ALA from plants. The ALA is then converted to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and the EPA is converted to DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
ALA 👉 EPA 👉 DHA
The problem is that our bodies are not very efficient at converting ALA to EPA. Only about 5% is converted. Therefore it is recommended that you get EPA and DHA directly from the biggest source, which is fish.
Omega 3 serves as cell lubricants and is beneficial for conditions such as reducing risk of heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, colitis, crohn’s, high blood pressure, slows proliferation of cancer cells. It is also beneficial for early brain development, vision, reducing inflammation, cognitive function, maintaining heart rhythm, etc. Studies have also shown that omega 3 is effective against depression, bipolar and schizophrenia. It is a natural blood thinner, so consult your doctor if you take other blood thinners, you may need to be monitored.
Omega 6 abbreviations
LA = linoleic acid
AA = arachidonic acid
Omega 6 is linoleic acid (LA). It turns on inflammation. We get linoleic acid from plants. Linoleic acid converts to AA (arachidonic acid).
Omega 6 has cardiovascular benefits. It is beneficial for brain growth, muscle development and transmits nerve impulses.
AA causes inflammation like swelling and pain. Inflammation is good, your body should be able to launch and attack when necessary.
GLA (Gamma- linoleic acid) is a special type of Omega 6 that may reduce inflammation. It is available from borage oil , evening primrose oil, and black currant seed oil. It may still have LA in it.
How Omega 3 and Omega 6 work together.
When something happens, say you hurt you leg, AA (omega 6) turns ON the inflammation switch which causes pain and swelling. This is good. It keeps you from injuring it further. Then after a period of time, EPA (omega 3) turns OFF the inflammation switch because it’s better. And that’s how it is supposed to work.
So What’s the Problem?
The problem is that we typically have SO much omega 6 in our system AND we are deficient in omega 3 that the inflammation switch doesn’t get shut off and it becomes chronic. Our bodies are chronically inflamed. In large amounts, this chronic inflammation can cause conditions like heart disease, arthritis, mental disorders, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune conditions, etc.
AA (omega 6) also creates leukotrienes which are super inflammatory, thousands of times more inflammatory than AA, but they cause no pain. That is silent inflammation. Silent inflammation is the pathway to many chronic conditions. Examples of this would be obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, asthma, etc. Part of this is triggered by painkillers. Pain killers force the AA down a different conversion pathway, creating the leukotrienes.
Why do we have excessive omega 6? Because our typical American diet has it everywhere. It is in all our processed foods (which we eat way too much of) and our cooking oils, because it is cheap.
Why are we deficient in Omega 3? First, we mostly eat (if any) sources of ALA which is omega 3. However, our bodies don’t convert it to EPA very well. It only converts about 5% of the ALA to EPA. It is believed that omega 6 and omega 3 compete for the same resources and pathways to convert. Because we have such excess LA (omega 6), the ALA (omega 3) is displaced not able to convert to EPA.
Poor absorption of nutrients from an unhealthy digestive tract can also increase the risk of deficiency.
How Much Should We Get?
The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 should be roughly even about 2:1 or some say even as much as 4:1. However, due to the change in the American diet, eating so many processed foods, and the start of the use of manufactured vegetable oils our ratio average is 16:1! Even more for some people. It is even found in the meat of the livestock that eat the grains these oil come from.
So we need to eat much less of the omega 6 foods, and much more of the omega 3 foods to even it out.
Here’s an example
Below is an omega 3 index in blood cells lab result
This person is very low in EPA and DHA. This puts them at high risk for cardiovascular disease. It is believed the optimal level is above 8%. They need to bring up their levels.
Omega 6 : Omega 3 ratio
The total ratio is 35.7 / 5.7 which works out to 6.26 : 1. Not bad but still slightly on the high side. Remember your ratio should be between 2:1 and 4:1.
Sources- remember foods have a combination of oils
Omega 6 sources- reduce these
Reduce these, but don’t eliminate completely, your body still needs to create inflammation when required. The worst source of AA is soybean oil (as well as soybeans) because it is in so many processed foods and it is cheap to make. The other three runners up are corn oil, cottonseed oil and sunflower oil.
Omega 3 sources- increase these
Meats listed are grass-fed, pastured meats. When animals are fed corn and soy their meat is mostly, you guessed it, omega 6.
(pre-converted omega 3)
(final form of omega 3)
Choose wild caught fish from cold waters. Stay away from farmed fish, or fish from warmer waters.
Because of the poor conversion of ALA to EPA, it is recommended that you get EPA and DHA directly from the source, which is fish. You should eat fish at least 2-3x a week. Since few people eat fish that often, it is recommended that you take a fish oil supplement. 1000mg 1-2x/day. Be sure to get fish oil that passed purity standards and is distilled to be free from metals and toxins. Cod liver oil is not recommended because it usually contains vitamin A. Too much vitamin A is not good.
The 1000 mg should come from adding only the EPA and DHA together. Don’t count the other omega 3 sources on the bottle.
Take 1 gram daily for prevention, 3 grams if you have arthritis, up to 5 grams if you never eat fish according to nutrition writer Jack Challem.
Don’t take too much omega 3. Less inflammation means less immune response. Which could lead to increase of other conditions.
Don’t take a fish oil supplement with a 3 and 6 combination. Your body has too much 6 as it is.
To see which my favorite fish oils are, read here My Fish Oil Choice
Did this give you a better understanding of those omegas or did it give you a headache? Let me know in the comment section whether this was understandable or if it was too confusing. I can try to improve upon this.
Have you ever checked the ingredients in your processed foods, even the “healthy” ones?
Are you getting too much AA? What steps will you take to level out your omega ratio?
(Update June 2017)
Allport, Susan. The Queen of Fats
Challem, Jack. Inflammation Syndrome.
3 thoughts on “When Good Turns Ugly – Omega 3 and 6”
Very helpful thanks! May I share some info?
Thank you! Yes, you may.