Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids


Healthy fats

Fish is healthy - mainly because it contains a lot of Omega 3 fatty acids that benefit the health on many levels. For many people, however, the ratio of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids is completely out of balance these days.

The Inuit, the natives of Greenland, traditionally feed almost exclusively on the meat of fish, whales and seals. Despite this rather monotonous, high-fat diet, they are surprisingly healthy. That might also be because fat is not just fat after all. The Inuit's staple foods contain high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, which has led researchers to take a much closer look at the health effects of unsaturated fatty acids.

It is now clear that during the course of evolution, the Inuit have developed a gene mutation that provides their bodies with a unique lipid metabolism. Their high-fat diet is far less healthy for most people around the world than it is are for them. But thanks to the Inuit, we now know more about unsaturated fatty acids and their positive effects on our bodies[1, 2].

Read this article to find out how the unsaturated fatty acids Omega 3 and Omega 6 interact and what effects they have on your health. You will learn about the problems that arise when you have too much Omega 6 and too little Omega 3 in the body, how to test your values, and how to optimise them through dieting and nutritional supplements.

What are fatty acids?

Fatty acids such as Omega 3 and Omega 6 are chemical compounds which are important component of the fats in our diet. A fat molecule is usually made up of the alcohol glycerol as well as three fatty acids. These fatty acids are so-called monocarboxylic acids containing a long carbon chain.

In general, all types of fats have the following functions in the body:

  • Energy source: One gram of fat provides just under nine kilocalories
  • Taste enhancer: fatty food tastes better to many
  • Heat generation
  • Energy reserves
  • Components of cell membranes and necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K)

What are unsaturated fatty acids?

Fatty acids can be divided into two different categories: namely saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids, the latter of which include Omega 3 and Omega 6. Unsaturated fatty acids have double bonds between their carbon atoms and therefore differ in their chemical structure from saturated fatty acids.

The type of fatty acid critically determines for the properties of a fat. It decides whether a fat is liquid or solid and whether it can be heated. Fats that predominantly contain unsaturated fatty acids are usually liquid at room temperature - with oil being a good example of this. Saturated fats, however, take on solid form, such as they do in meat and butter.

Saturated fats

Unsaturated fats

Butter

Olive oil

Coconut oil

Rapeseed oil

Palm oil

Sunflower oil

Red meat and greasy sausages

Fish

Saturated fatty acids are considered to be unhealthy fats. They stimulate the body's own cholesterol production and increase the level of triglycerides in the blood. Triglycerides serve as sources of energy, but they can also promote the development of cardiovascular diseases when present in high quantities. They are not harmful to health in general - with recent studies having even proven positive effects for saturated fatty acids. Because they have the capacity to raise cholesterol levels, saturated fat should not account for more than ten percent of your daily calorie intake.

Trans fatty acids

Trans fatty acids occur in small amounts in beef and cow's milk. More of them arise when oils are industrially hardened or unsaturated fatty acids are heated intensively for a long time, for example when frying. Trans fats are not only found in fried foods such as chips, but also in spreads, biscuits and many bakery products.

Larger amounts of trans fatty acids are harmful to your health and increase the risk of arteriosclerosis and other diseases. They can quickly lead to clots in the blood so that the blood circulation is impaired. In addition, trans fats increase the levels of the ""bad"" LDL cholesterol, causing micro-inflammation in our cells[3]. Trans-fatty acids are really unhealthy fats.

Omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, i.e. fatty acids with multiple double bonds on their carbon atoms. The position of the first double bond between the carbon atoms determines whether it is an Omega 3 or an Omega 6 fatty acid. If the first double bond is at the third carbon bond, it is an Omega 3 fatty acid. When it occurs at the sixth carbon bond, it is then referred to as an Omega 6 fatty acid.

Which Omega 3 fatty acids are important?

Individual fatty acids differ in how many carbon atoms they have. The most important representatives of the Omega 3 fatty acids include:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) - 18 carbon atoms
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) - 20 carbon atoms
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) - 22 carbon atoms

What are unsaturated fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids, such as the Omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and the Omega 6 fatty acid linoleic acid, can not be produced by the human body. They need to be consumed in the diet.

Alpha-linolenic acid is converted into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in the body. DHA and EPA are also known as active Omega 3 fatty acids - the body can utilise them directly to unleash their effects.

Which foods contain Omega 3 fatty acids?

Omega-3-rich foods

Alpha-linolenic acid is found in certain plant foods, and in larger quantities especially in linseed oil, rapeseed oil, chia seeds and walnuts. In the body, ALA is converted into the two fatty acids DHA and EPA. However, losses can occur during this transformation, meaning that the ALA will often only produce small amounts of EPA and DHA.

Foods

Alpha-linolenic acid in mg/100 g

Linseed oil

52,800

Chia seeds

19,000

Walnuts

10,172

Rapeseed oil

8,584

It is more effective to consume EPA and DHA directly. However, the two Omega 3 fatty acids are usually only found in high-fat cold-water fish. Salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna and sardine are the Omega 3 richest fish species.

Fish species

EPA in g/100 g

DHA in g/100 g

Omega 3 (total) in g/100 g

Tuna

1.4

1.2

2.6

Salmon

0.7

1.9

2.6

Matjes herring

0.7

1.2

1.9

Mackerel

0.6

1.1

1.7

Sardine

0.6

0.8

1.4

This is good to know - why do fish contain so much Omega 3? Coldwater fish feed mainly on algae and crustaceans that contain large amounts of the Omega 3 fatty acids ALA, EPA and DHA. The fish depend on these fatty acids, since otherwise their cell membranes would solidify at the low temperatures in the sea[4].

How much Omega 3 do I need per day?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommend at least 250 milligrams of Omega 3 fatty acids per day – that's what the body needs to effectively maintain cardiac function. However, according to both organisations, two to four grams of Omega 3 fatty acids per day are optimal. As one example, such amounts have been shown to improve the condition of people with coronary heart disease and depression.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends different amounts of Omega 3 according to age group:

Daily Omega 3 requirement in milligrams (mg) according to the NIH:

Age

Men

Women

From birth to 6 months

500 mg

500 mg

From 7 to 12 months

500 mg

500 mg

From 1 to 3 years

700 mg

700 mg

From 4 to 8 years

900 mg

900 mg

From 9 to 13 years

1,200 mg

1,000 mg

14 years and older

1,600 mg

1,100 mg

To consume more than two grams of Omega 3 per day, you would need to consume 5 grams of linseed oil per day. But this is easier with fish: Just two meals a week containing sea fish are enough to meet your needs.

Status of Omega 3 levels

In the Western world, most people so not consume enough Omega 3. For example, the German Nutrition Society estimates that Germans only consume just under 200 milligrams of Omega 3 fatty acids a day, and children even only eat 100 milligrams a day[12].

If you are vegetarian or vegan or if you do not eat fish for other reasons, it may be a problem to consume enough EPA and DHA fatty acids through your diet. In this case you should consider supplementing with Omega 3 supplements.

Why do people need Omega 3?

Omega 3 fatty acids, like other fats, are energy sources and components of cell membranes. In addition, they perform a wide range of functions in the body. These include[3]:

  • The formation of tissue hormones
  • Antioxidant activity
  • Blood dilution (anticoagulating) and lowering of blood pressure
  • Strengthening of the immune system and protection against infections
  • Vasodilation

The body seems to be better able to perform all these tasks when it is sufficiently supplied with Omega 3. Several studies have shown in recent years that fatty acids can help to prevent or treat certain diseases.

Omega 3 and heart health

Much research has been done on the effects of Omega 3 fatty acids on the cardiovascular system. The American Heart Association and researchers at Harvard University recommend eating Omega 3 rich fish regularly to prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of premature death[33].

In studies, Omega 3 was shown to[29-31]:

  • Lower the risk of a heart attack by 19 to 45 percent.
  • Lower the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases by 45 percent.
  • Bring cardiac arrhythmias under control.

In animal studies involving mice, Omega 3 fatty acids counteracted inflammation in the blood vessels - which could be an indication that they might be effective for preventing and treating arteriosclerosis. However, no clinical studies on humans have confirmed this[32].

People with cardiac insufficiency should exercise care with Omega 3, however. The fatty acids can reduce the excitability of heart cells, which lowers the heart activity and can present problems in an already weak heart[3].

Effect of Omega 3 on the brain and psyche

Effects of omega fatty acids on the brain

Omega 3 fatty acids also find their way into brain cells - and may, according to some studies, exert positive effects on the development of the brain and the psyche. In a number of studies, fish oil supplements have been shown to lower the risk of depression and anxiety disorders and to improve the course of psychoses[34, 36-39].

Omega 3 may also have effects on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's dementia. An Omega 3 rich diet may, according to some studies, slow the progression of Alzheimer's and improve the mood of those affected[41-43].

Studies on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have also shown that Omega 3 supplements might enhance alertness and reduce hyperactivity[27, 45].

Have Omega 3 fatty acids made humans more intelligent? Some scientists have suggested that humans have only become so intelligent over the course of evolution because the unsaturated fatty acids in our diet have caused our brains to grow faster[40].

Omega 3 strengthens the immune system

The anti-inflammatory effect of Omega 3 fatty acids may also help to relieve the immune system. This might have a positive impact on immunodeficiency as well as autoimmune diseases such as rheumatism, asthma and Crohn's disease - the last of these was revealed to benefit from high-dose Omega 3 supplements in studies[46-49].

Omega 3 for pregnant women and children

In children, fatty acids are thought to play a key role in the development of the brain. Studies have found that among other effects Omega 3 positively influences reading, concentration and attention. So as a parent, it's worth making sure that your child is getting enough Omega 3 fatty acids[13, 14]. Pregnant and breastfeeding women can also pay attention to their own diet in this context. Already in the womb, Omega 3 probably promotes the physical and mental development of the child[53].

Fish does, however, have a catch: Certain Omega 3 rich fish species, especially large predatory fish such as tuna, halibut, swordfish and eel, often contain high levels of the toxic heavy metal mercury. Health authorities recommend that pregnant women and children avoid these fish species because mercury can disrupt the development of the nervous system. Species such as salmon, herring and cod are less contaminated.

Put briefly: Various studies have shown that Omega 3 might help prevent cardiovascular disease and mental illnesses including depression, and that it has a positive effect on the immune system and brain development.

Omega 6 fatty acids

Like Omega 3 fatty acids, Omega 6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids. The difference between them chemically: for Omega 6 fatty acids, the atomic double bond is located at the sixth carbon atom.

The most important Omega 6 fatty acids are:

  • Linoleic acid - 18 carbon atoms
  • Gamma-linolenic acid - 18 carbon atoms
  • Arachidonic acid - 20 carbon atoms

Among the Omega 6 fatty acids, linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid that our body cannot produce on its own. If we take linoleic acid through our diet, the body can use it to form gamma-linolenic acid and arachidonic acid.

Why do people need Omega 6 fatty acids?

Omega 6 fatty acids in many represent the antagonists of Omega 3 fatty acids. The functions of Omega 6 include:

  • Vasoconstriction
  • Coagulation of the blood
  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Lowering cholesterol levels
  • Growth and repair processes

Omega 3 fatty acids are said to have an anti-inflammatory effect, whereas Omega 6 fatty acids are said to promote inflammation. This is because arachidonic acid forms certain tissue hormones, which in turn generate free radicals. The free radicals attack the body's own cells, and inflammation results.

Which foods contain Omega 6 fatty acids?

Omega 6 fatty acids are found primarily in plant foods:

Foods

Omega 6 in mg/100 g

Safflower oil

74,500

Corn oil

53,510

Soybean oil

50,418

Pumpkin seed oil

50,000

Olive oil

9,763

Sunflower oil

3,606

Coconut oil

1,800

Avocado

1,689

Beef

310

How much Omega 6 do I need per day?

The Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine recommends that adult men take 14 grams of linoleic acid per day, and that women take 11 grams. The German Society for Nutrition (DEG) advises to cover 2.5 percent of their daily calorific intake with Omega 6 fatty acids[15].

In fact, most people in America and Europe consume sufficient amounts of Omega 6, and a deficiency is extremely rare. It is much more common that inadequate amounts of Omega 3 are eaten so that the fatty acids get out of balance.

Ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3

If you want to fully benefit from the healthy effects of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in the diet, the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids is crucial.

What should the ratio between Omega 6 and Omega 3 look like?

Some scientists assume that our ancestors as hunter-gatherers still managed to maintain a ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of 1 to 1 - and evolution has tuned our bodies to this ratio.

However, this ratio is barely achievable with our modern diet, which includes a plethora of Omega 6 containing foods. An Omega 3 rich fish lands much less frequently on our plate than a piece of bread with Omega 6 rich margarine or as food that is fried or dressed with a plant oil. Specialist societies such as the German Nutrition Society therefore recommend a ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of 5 to 1[16].

But most people in the Western world deviate considerably from these recommendations. It is estimated that the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is 15 to 1 on average, and other figures even report values of up to 30 to 1[17, 18, 19]. In Europe and America in particular, many more Omega 6 containing foods are consumed than Omega 3 containing foods. For most people, it makes sense to deliberately consume less Omega 6 fatty acids and more Omega 3 fatty acids.

In this table you can see the relationship between these two types of fatty acids in various foods[20]:

Foods

Omega 6 and Omega 3 ratio

Salmon (100 g)

1:12

Canned tuna (preserved in oil) 100 g

15:1

Canned tuna (without oil) 100 g

1:20

Almonds 20 g

1987:1

Sunflower seeds 20 g

312:1

Sunflower oil 1 tsp

120:1

Margarine

80:1

Linseed oil 1 tsp

1:4

Olive oil 1 tsp

11:1

Spinach 100 g

1:5.4

Carrots 100 g

57:1

Cereals in general

10:1


Did you know? The Inuit, who feed on Omega 3 rich fish, seals and whales, eat more Omega 3 than Omega 6. Their ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 lies between 1:2 and 1:4[21].

Why is the ratio between Omega 6 and Omega 3 important?

Both Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids regulate processes in the blood vessels and are involved in inflammatory processes. Omega 3 fatty acids dilate blood vessels, improve blood flow and inhibit inflammation, while Omega 6 fatty acids have the opposite effect. They constrict the blood vessels, promote blood coagulation and are pro-inflammatory.

Omega 3 (eicosapentaenoic acid)

Omega-6 (arachidonic acid)

vasodilator

vasoconstrictor

anticoagulant

coagulation-promoting

anti-inflammatory

pro-inflammatory

When both fatty acids are in a state of equilibrium, this is referred to as an inflammation-neutral state - with this being considered to be conducive to health. It can help keep your blood vessels stable, help keep your immune system running smoothly, and help your blood supply the body with essential nutrients[25].

An excess of Omega 6 fatty acids can lead to vasoconstriction and blood clots. In such a case, blood can flow less effectively through the arteries and veins so that nutrients are supplied to the organs and muscles less effectively. In addition, an excess Omega 6 fatty acids will increase the risk of developing inflammation, e.g. in the heart and lungs[22]. Similarly, overweight people often have high levels of Omega 6, and a ratio in the favour of Omega 6 might promote fat cell formation and increase the risk of weight gain[50, 51].

Omega 3 and Omega 6 effects on blood vessels

A severe excess of Omega 3 fatty acids may also present its own problems. Studies have linked high levels of Omega 3 with, among other things, an increased risk of prostatic cancer and a weakened immune response to viruses and bacteria. However, it is certainly difficult to eat too much Omega 3 with the food we eat. Such cases only occur when people consume high-dose Omega 3 supplements[23, 24].

What are the symptoms of an Omega 3 deficiency?

If there is a deficiency of Omega 3 and an excess of Omega 6, the following problems may occur[26]:

  • Fatigue and depression
  • Bad memory performance
  • Dry skin
  • Heart problems, high blood pressure and vasoconstriction
  • Higher susceptibility to infection

Test Omega 3

The ratio between Omega 3 and Omega 6 can be measured in the blood - a laboratory analysis depicts the different fatty acids and their relationship with each other.

How can I test my own Omega 3 levels?

Omega_3_TestHow status of your omega fatty acid supply can be determined using a self-test. Using the cerascreen® Omega 3 Test you can perform such an analysis in the comfort of your home. To do this, take a blood sample yourself by pricking your finger and send it to a specialist laboratory. The laboratory then determines the profile of fatty acids in your blood and calculates the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 as well as the Omega 3 index, i.e. the proportion of Omega 3 fatty acids in your total fatty acid content. You will also be given advice on how to improve your values through dietary intake or taking supplements.

Omega 3 supplements

Fish oil capsules with omega 3

If you want to create a balance between Omega 6 and Omega 3 through your diet, there is really only one option: You must eat a coldwater fish meal at least twice a week. This is also a common recommendation from professional societies such as the World Health Organization and the German Nutrition Society.

For people who are not partial fish, this might of course be difficult, as it would also be for vegetarians and vegans. In this case, Omega 3 supplements can be used to rebalance your values.

Which Omega 3 supplements should I take?

Good supplements should contain Omega 3 fatty acids in their active form, namely the fatty acids EPA and DHA. This will allow the body to directly utilise Omega 3 fatty acids. In addition, as few additives as possible should be present in the supplement so as not to interfere with the effect. Useful additives include antioxidants that make the product last longer.

Normally, dietary supplements are made with Omega 3 in the form of capsules or drops with measuring spoons. Many of the supplements are based on fish oil - so vegetarians and vegans need to pay attention to what the product is made of when buying. Vegan Omega 3 supplements are usually made with algal oil.

And this is good to know: Omega 3 for athletes. Scientists are currently exploring the question of whether Omega 3 supplements promote fitness. Preliminary studies have suggested that Omega 3 fatty acids can promote muscular growth and endurance, as well as shorten the recovery periods after exercise[52].

Omega 3 and Omega 6: At a glance

What are omega fatty acids?

Fatty acids like Omega 3 and Omega 6 represent a significant proportion of the fats in our diet. As unsaturated fatty acids they have a characteristic chemical structure: Certain atoms in their long carbon chains are linked by double bonds. For Omega 3 fatty acids, the first double bond is on the third carbon atom, while for Omega 6 fatty acids it is on the sixth.

What are unsaturated fatty acids?

Fatty acids are considered ""essential"" if our bodies can not make them on their own, and to obtain them we need to feed on them in our diets. The essential fatty acids include the Omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and the Omega 6 fatty acid linoleic acid.

Why are Omega 3 fatty acids important?

Omega 3 performs many important functions in the body. Among other things, these fatty acids contribute to the health of the cardiovascular system and the psyche, strengthening the immune system and playing a major role in the development of the brain in children.

Which foods contain Omega 6 fatty acids?

Omega-6 is found in many plant foods, such as in margarine, sunflower oil, olive oil, pumpkin seed oil and avocados. In the Western world, people tend to eat a lot of Omega 6 fatty acids.

Which foods contain Omega 3 fatty acids?

The active forms of Omega 3 that our body can directly utilise are found almost exclusively in fish including mackerel, tuna, salmon and herring. Some plant foods, including linseed oil, rapeseed oil and walnuts, contain alpha-linolenic acid which the body first needs to convert to active Omega 3 fatty acids. During this process some of the fatty acids are lost.

How much Omega 3 do I need per day?

Professional societies recommend one to two fish meals per week to ensure a supply of Omega 3 fatty acids. According to experts, at least 250 milligrams per day are required to ensure that enough Omega 3 is available to maintain cardiac function. Two grams or more are recommended. If you do not eat fish, Omega 3 can also be taken with food supplements that are usually based on fish oil or algal oil.

Why is the ratio between Omega 6 and Omega 3 important?

Omega 3 has a vasodilating, anti-inflammatory and anti-coagulant effect, while Omega 6 has a vasoconstrictive, pro-inflammatory and coagulation-promoting effect. Experts suggest a ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of 5 to 1 or lower in order to achieve a balance and thus an inflammation-neutral state, but in the western world the ratio is on average 15 to 1.

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