A healthy diet contains a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and some omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. In fact, some studies suggest that elevated intakes of omega-6 fatty acids may play a role in Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
The human body can synthesize all the fatty acids it needs from carbohydrate, fat, or protein except for two – lineleic acid and linolenic acid, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids respectively. Both Omega-3 & -6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Both are known as essential fatty acids as both cannot be made from other substances in the body and must be obtained from food.
Omega-3 & 6 fatty acids are found in small amounts in plant oils, and the body readily stores them, making deficiencies unlikely. From both of these essential fatty acids, the body makes important substances that regulate a wide range of body functions: blood pressure, clot formation, blood lipid concentration, the immune response, the inflammatory response to injury and many others. These two essential nutrients also serve as structural components of cell membranes.
Omega-6 fatty acid is found in the seeds of plants and in the oils produced from the seeds. Any diet that contains vegetable oils, seeds, nuts, and other whole-grain foods provides enough Omega-6 fatty acid to meet the body’s needs.
There are several different types of omega-6 fatty acids, and not all promote inflammation. Most omega-6 fatty acids in the diet come from vegetable oils, such as linoleic acid (LA) — not to be confused with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid. Linoleic acid is converted to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) in the body. It can then break down further to arachidonic acid (AA). GLA is found in several plant-based oils, including evening primrose oil (EPO), borage oil, and black currant seed oil.
GLA may actually reduce inflammation. Much of the GLA taken as a supplement is converted to a substance called DGLA that fights inflammation. Having enough of certain nutrients in the body (including magnesium, zinc, and vitamins C, B3, and B6) helps promote the conversion of GLA to DGLA.
Omega-6 fatty acids may be useful for the following health conditions:
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Breast cancer
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Menopausal symptoms
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Precautions of Omega-6 intake
Do not take omega-6 if you have a seizure disorder because there have been reports of these supplements causing seizures. Several reports describe seizures in people taking EPO. Some of these seizures developed in people with a previous seizure disorder, or in people taking EPO in combination with anesthetics. People who plan to undergo surgery requiring anesthesia should stop taking EPO 2 weeks ahead of time.
Avoid doses of GLA greater than 3,000 mg per day. At that level, an increase in inflammation may occur.
Side effects of EPO can include occasional headache, abdominal pain, nausea, and loose stools. In animal studies, GLA is reported to decrease blood pressure. Early results in human studies do not show consistent changes in blood pressure.
Laboratory studies suggest that omega-6 fatty acids, such as the fat found in corn oil, promote the growth of prostate tumor cells. Until more research is done, health professionals recommend not taking omega-6 fatty acids, including GLA, if you are at risk of or have prostate cancer.
Omega-3 fatty acid was first recognized during the 1980s when research began to unveil impressive roles for EPA and DHA metabolism and disease prevention. DHA is one of the most abundant structural lipids in the brain, and both EPA and SHA are needed for normal brain development. EPA and SHA are also specially active in the rods and cones of the retina of the eye. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal growth and development and they play an important role in the prevention and treatment of heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, and cancer.
Of the polyunsaturated fatty acids, the omega-3 fatty acids appear to reduce blood cholesterol the most. The effect was first noticed when researchers learned that Eskimos, despite high-energy, high fat, high-cholesterol diets, enjoyed relative freedom from heart diseases – especially atherosclerosis. Analysis of the foods common in their diets, which derive primarily from marine animals, revealed that they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA.
Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for brain memory and performance, as well as behavioral function. In fact, infants who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at the risk for developing vision and nerve problems.
The relationship between Omega-3 and Omega-6 in your diet
It is important to have the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. Inflammation is essential for our survival as it helps protect our bodies from infection and injury, but it can also cause severe damage and contribute to disease when the inflammatory response is inappropriate or excessive.
Studies suggest that higher dietary omega-6 to omega-3 ratios appear to be associated with worsening inflammation over time and a higher risk of death among hemodialysis patients. Hence it is important to ensure that your diet consist of more omega-3 in proportion to omega-6.