Why you need both omega-3s and omega-6s

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You need both omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids

When a scientific topic is complex it is easy for incomplete information to be conveyed to the public. This is what has happened with the omega-3 and omega-6 scientific story, especially as regards the omega-3 and omega-6 advice that people have been given.

The advice to consume foods and supplements that contain omega-3s, and shun those that contain omega-6s has been based on misinformation. This advice came about because of a lack of knowledge about how these two polyunsaturated, essential fats work together, and because most people eating a modern diet get very little omega-3s and more omega-6s.

These omega polyunsaturated oils are unique, in that they contain Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). They are called essential because the body cannot manufacture them, unlike the other fatty acids, monounsaturated and saturated oils, which the body can synthesize from carbohydrates.

We didn’t always know that these fats were essential to our health

The essential nature of omega-6 and -3 oils was discovered in 1929, although researchers back then thought they were only important for growth and skin health and didn’t realize the overall importance to all cells in the body and brain. Later, in the 1960s, they discovered that serious symptoms of deficiency arose when these unique oils were not consumed in the diet. But only in the last decade has the importance of omega-3 become very apparent. However, forgetting about the role that omega-6 plays in our health, is a big mistake.

We need essential fats because …

Essential fats are a critical component in every cell membrane that covers every single one of the 60 trillion cells in our bodies. The essential fats have a unique structure, which allows them to perform specific functions within the cell membrane, whereas saturated and damaged fats cannot perform the same tasks.

Membranes are the working surfaces of all our cells, so if they are deficient in the right kinds of essential fats, they will be unable to function properly. Nutrients will be unable to get into the cells and toxins will be unable to leave. Furthermore, fat is the second largest compound in our body, and makes up to 60% of the weight of our brain, with up to 30% of that 60% being made up of essential fatty acids. The tiny components that reside inside our cells also need these essential fats to work properly, especially the mitochondria, which is the energy-generator of the cell. So, these essential fats are required in every single cell, otherwise your health will be compromised.

Where do omega-3 oils come from?

These oils are found in flax seeds, as well as dark green leafy vegetables, and although pumpkin, walnuts, soya, and hemp seeds also contain some of these omega-3 fatty acids, they have more of the omega-6s, so they are classified as omega-6 oils. The omega-3s contain the EFA Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA). They are called omega-3 oils because they have a double bond at the third carbon atom along from the Omega (or right-hand end) of the fatty acid molecule. They are five times more sensitive to damage through light, oxygen and heat than the omega-6s.  The derivatives of this essential fatty acid,  docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are 25 times more sensitive to damage than the omega-6s. DHA and EPA are also found in fatty cold-water fish, like salmon, mackerel and herring.

Why don’t we get enough omega-3s?

At the end of the nineteenth century, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the average person's diet was 2:1 – 4:1. The latest research into our modern diets indicate that those eating a typical western diet consume more in the ratio of 10:1 to 20:1. Some figures are even closer to 50:1.The reason for this is that more warm weather oils, namely the omega-6s, are consumed nowadays. These are safflower oil, sunflower oils, corn oil, and products that contain these oils, such as margarine, mayonnaise, peanut butter, ready-made meals, and other mass-produced convenience, processed foods. This is because farmers realized about 60 years ago that it was a lot easier to grow these warm weather crops, which include omega-6 oils.

Where do omega-6 oils come from?

Oils rich in omega-6s include safflower seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, soya beans, as well as pumpkin and walnut seeds. They contain the EFAs called Alpha Linoleic Acid, sometimes referred to as LAs. These oils are called omega-6 oils because they have a double bond at the sixth carbon atom along from the Omega end (or right-hand side) of the fatty acid molecule. It is estimated that up to 95% of people, are getting too much omega-6 simply because it has become the most popular oil to use in food processing.

So, does that mean we are getting enough omega-6s?

No, we are not, because the omega-6s that we are eating today have undergone extensive, cost-effective, damaging processing to get them shelf stable. And during this careless processing, these delicate fats are damaged, because they do not like being exposed to heat, light or oxygen. So, although most people are getting a lot of omega-6s, these are damaged omega-6s, which can’t work effectively in our bodies because they are damaged. And many of the products that contain these essential fats are partially hydrogenated, which means they are even more stable, but much more damaged, containing trans fats. When people don’t know that omega-6s are damaged through processing, they mistakenly believe that they are getting enough in their diet.

Is taking fish oil alone the solution?

No, fish oil is not the complete solution for your Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) needs, for a number of different reasons:

Firstly, fish oil is omega unbalanced, which means that it only contains the important omega-3 derivatives (DHA and EPA), but no omega-6. This means that a diet supplemented only with fish oil would still lack the necessary undamaged omega-6s, which are also essential, as described above.

Secondly, nearly all fish oils contain toxins, such as PCBs and heavy metals, like mercury. In the process of trying to remove these dangerous toxic compounds, the fish oil has to be heated to very high temperatures, subsequently damaging the delicate omega-3 derivatives, DHA and EPA.

Thirdly, fish oil is not as efficient as a plant based omega-3 supplement, such as flax seed oil, because fish oil only contains about 50% of the omega-3 derivatives (DHA and EPA) that flax seed oil does. Fish oil is also exposed to light, heat and oxygen during the extraction process, which leads to the damage of these delicate oil molecules. So, you would have to take double the amount of fish oil to get the same amount of omega-3 as compared to a plant based omega-3 product, which also means a higher intake of toxins as described above.

Therefore, taking a fish oil supplement does not supply all your omega needs. You also need to take a supplement that contains undamaged omega-6s.

Is flax oil alone the solution?

Unfortunately not, because although an omega-3 deficiency will be cleared up by using flax oil, generally in about two to eight months, a deficiency in omega-6 will present itself. This is simply because the body needs both of these essential fats, because they work together in a unique way. If you only use flax oil, the omega-3 crowds out the omega-6 oils that you may be getting elsewhere in your diet, and leads to an omega-6 deficiency, which is indicated by skipped heartbeat, fragile, thin, slow-to-heal skin as well as a lowered immune system and painful finger joints, with the comprehensive list of deficiencies found below, under ‘signs of having too little omega-6.’

Signs of having too little omega-3

When you have too much omega-6, you will end up having a deficiency in omega-3, because of the special balancing relationship these two essential fats have. The following list is not comprehensive, but it highlights the main deficiencies:

  • Learning and growth problems
  • Behavioral and mood changes
  • Poor muscle growth and muscle weakness
  • Allergies
  • Water retention
  • Dry or irritable skin
  • Low metabolic rate
  • Leaky gut
  • High blood pressure and high triglycerides
  • Insulin resistance
  • Tingling in arms and legs
  • Inflammation in tissues
  • Depression
  • Poor motor coordination

 Signs of having too little omega-6

When you have too much omega-3, which some people are consuming exclusively, if they are only supplementing with fish oil or flax oil, you will end up with an omega-6 deficiency. Although the following list is not comprehensive either, it highlights the main deficiencies:

  • Hair loss
  • Eczema-like skin disorders
  • Behavioral changes
  • Growth retardation
  • Lowered immunity
  • Failure of wounds to heal
  • Heartbeat abnormalities
  • Dry, thin skin, dry hair, as well as brittle nails
  • Dry eyes
  • Sterility in males
  • Miscarriage in females
  • Kidney malfunction
  • Arthritis-like conditions
  • Fatty infiltration of the liver

 So what is the right ratio between omega-3 and omega-6?

One of the foremost researchers in this field, Dr Udo Erasmus, has found that the best ratio for overall health – both physically and mentally, is 2:1, in favor of omega-3. This is because the omega-3s are involved in very biological active organs, like the brain, the retina, the heart and reproductive organs, so they need to be available in greater quantities. On top of that, 95% of people are seriously deficient in the omega-3s, whereas they do still obtain omega-6’s (even though most of them are damaged), so the ratio has to favor omega-3. This ratio has been shown to be effective in most health conditions, where essential fats are deficient, or being taken in the wrong ratio.

References

Bang HO, Dyerberg J, Sinclair HM. The composition of the Eskimo food in north western Greenland. Am J Clin Nutr 1980 Dec; 33(12): 2657-61.

Bourre JM. Roles of unsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3 fatty acids) in the brain at various ages and during ageing. J Nutr Health Aging 2004;8(3):163-74.

Erasmus U. Fats that heal, fats that kill. Burnaby BC, Canada: Alive Books;1993.

Holman RT. The slow discovery of the importance of omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids in human health. J Nutr 1998 Feb; 128(s Suppl): 427S-433S.

Schmidt MA. Smart Fats – how dietary fats and oils affect mental, physical and emotional intelligence. Berkeley, California: Frog Ltd Pub; 1997. 

Uauy R, Mena P, Rojas C. Essential fatty acids in early life: structural and functional role. Proc Nutr Soc 2000 Feb; 59(1): 3-15.