There are differing theories, some which suggest that omega-3 fats are better for overall health than omega-6. When consumed in excess, omega-6 is said to contribute to inflammation. However, recent theories suggest that both fatty acids are good for health in their own way.
Here we will see more about the benefits of both fatty acids, the issues surrounding them and the foods that contain these essential nutrients.
What is Omega-3: Omega-3 fatty acids or n-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that contain polyunsaturated fats. There are 3 main omega-3 fats – Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). They offer many health benefits especially for inflammation, blood clotting etc.
What is Omega-6: Omega-6 fatty acids or n-6 fatty acids are also essential nutrients that contain polyunsaturated fats. The 2 fatty acids that make up omega-6 are – linolenic acid (LA) that is found in almost all foods and arachidonic acid (AA) a potent omega-6 fat that can be manufactured by the body using LA, but is also found in animal foods.
Benefits of Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids are referred to as ‘structural sentries’ and are required for almost all critical bodily functions. Here are some of the key benefits of omega-3.
Gatekeepers of Cells: Omega-3 acts as a biological fence as they are part of the key architecture of cell membranes. Omega-3 affects the fluidity of cells and further influences other activities in the body. The fluid composition of cell membranes depends greatly on our diet.
Regulation of Genes: Genes in the body are turned on and off similar to an electric switch. Omega-3 fats regulate these genes.
Helps in Inflammation: Omega-3 is a nutritional version of NSAIDs like aspirin and helps to fight inflammation and auto-immune disorders like asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, arthritis, migraines, allergies, psoriasis, lupus etc.
Healthy Brain: Omega-3 fats are extremely vital for the functioning of the brain, since a major portion of the brain is made up of fats. It is needed for proper growth and development of the brain and is needed to keep cells in constant communication. Lack of such proper communication can lead to learning disorders, poor IQ, dementia, stress, anxiety, concentration, hostility and causes mood swings.
Great Vision: Starting from the development of proper eyesight of the fetus to prevention of eye diseases in old age, omega-3 is needed for eye health.
Healthy Heart: Omega-3 acts as a pacemaker for the heart by maintaining proper heart rhythm. This results in lesser risk of sudden cardiac death that is caused by heart arrhythmia.
Blood: Proper viscosity of blood must be maintained for the heart to pump it without any effort. Omega-3 not only helps to maintain proper blood thickness but also maintains the elasticity and flexibility of arteries. This results in lesser risk of suffering a stroke or heart disease.
Bone Health: Omega-3 aids in improved bone formation and calcium absorption, therefore preventing wear and tear of bone cartilage and osteoporosis.
Benefits of Omega-6:
Linoleic acid is converted to gamma linolenic acid (GLA) in the body. When taken in the right proportion to omega-3, omega-6 fatty acids could be helpful for the following conditions:
- GLA when taken for more than 6 months can reduce symptoms of diabetic neuropathy
- Some studies show that primrose oil that contains GLA can reduce rheumatoid arthritis symptoms like swelling, pain and morning stiffness. However, it does not prevent progression of the disease.
- Omega-6 can prevent certain allergies
- Attention deficient hyperactivity syndrome is said to be higher in children with lower levels of omega-6 and omega-3
- One study of women suffering from breast cancer found the patients responded better to tamoxifen when omega-6 was present in their diet. Other studies said that too much omega-6 may actually increase tumor growth
- Other medical conditions that can be benefited by the right intake of omega-6 include menopausal symptoms, hypertension, PMS, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and cyclic mastalgia or tenderness of the breast
Omega-3 Vs Omega-6
The relationship of omega-3 to omega-6 is likened to a see-saw. A seesaw effect, with omega-6 being higher than omega-3, can lead to many chronic health problems. A proper balance can help wounds heal, maintain regular heartbeat and avert mood swings. A diet high in omega-6 can lead to blood clots while an omega-3 rich diet can prevent blood clots.
Fats do not get broken down by the body unlike proteins and carbohydrates. Since they remain intact, they have far-reaching effects on bodily functions. Most people have a preponderance of omega-6 fats in their food since it is found so abundantly. The proportion of fat eaten will influence the working of body cells promoting health or disease. Since both fats require the same enzymes, a diet rich in omega-6 can use up all of them, not leaving enough for omega-3 to use.
Some researchers are strongly of the opinion that omega-3 rich foods protect health and prevent heart disease, inflammation, blood clots, cancer etc. Omega-6 rich diets on the other hand will have the opposite effect and there is increased risk of cancer, more fat storage, clogged arteries etc. Of these, it is arachidonic acid that is at the center of all the problems created by omega-6. So, what is the right balance of omega-3 and omega-6? This really depends on various illnesses. However, even a slight increase in the consumption of omega-6 can lead to a host of problems.
A study conducted of Greenland Eskimos and Danes found that the former had lower rates of heart disease although they ate twice as much cholesterol rich foods. The reason was found not so much in the increase consumption of omega-3 foods but also in lower intake of omega-6 fats. For example, a 4:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 improved symptoms of Alzheimer’s patients and reduced the risk of death due to cardiovascular diseases by 70%. A study by the Harvard Medical School on worms indicated that by balancing the omega-3/omega-6 ratio irregular heartbeats were decreased, inflammation of cells reduced, brain cells were saved from early death and cancer cells were naturally destroyed.
Yet, to date, the optimal balance between these fats has not been determined since scientists are of differing opinions whether it depends diet ratios or tissue ratios. What ought to be known is that omega-3 supplements are not so effective when there is too much of omega-6 in diets.
Omega 3 and Omega 6 Food Sources:
Omega-6 food sources are found in so called ‘healthy oils’ like soybean oil, corn oil, margarine, safflower oil, and cotton seed oil. Animal meats and poultry also contain omega-6 fats.
Omega-3 fats ALA is got from plant sources like flaxseed, walnuts, hemp, canola, walnuts and green leafy vegetables. EPA and DHA are got from fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, halibut, tuna, sardines and herring and in plant sources like seaweed.