Demystifying Omega-3 and Omega-6

If you’re confused about the details of getting enough omega 3, I’ve compiled information from several sources including an online article from the University of Maryland to help us out.  Apparently, our bodies’ require a proper balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids to achieve good health. However, we can’t produce them; we have to get them through food or supplements. These so-called “essential fatty acids” play a crucial role in brain function, normal growth and development, aid in the stimulation of skin and hair growth, bone health, metabolism, and maintenance of our reproductive system.

Balance is critical.  While these fatty acids work together, they function differently. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, while some omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation (an important component of the immune response) necessary for blood clotting and cell proliferation.

The University of Maryland article suggests that for general health, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should range between 2:1 – 4:1. Unfortunately, several sources agree that the typical American diet delivers 14 – 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids!  Yikes!

According to an article in SUPERMARKET GURU Food and Health News, the excess omega-6 results from over-consumption of refined nut and seed oils used in fast foods and certain snack foods like sweets and  crackers. On the other hand, a diet consisting primarily of fatty fish, fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts, and grass-fed meats delivers more Omega-3.

Because the average diet provides sufficient omega-6 fatty acids, supplementation is not usually necessary, but check with your doctor.  There are a variety of conditions that omega-6 may treat, such as eczema or psoriasis.  Checking with your physician is best in all cases, as supplementation can interact with other medications you may be taking.

Getting back to omega-3, JoAnn Manson, M.D., Dr.P.H. of Brigham and Women’s Hospital did a great little write up in the Harvard Healthbeat Newsletter.  She says that not all omega-3s are created equal.  There are three main types; the first two, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found mainly in fish, so they’re often called marine omega-3s. The third is alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA, found in plant-based foods, such as flaxseed, walnuts, and canola and soybean oils).

Additionally, there is currently more evidence that marine omega-3s (EPA and DHA) offer more health benefits than plant-based ALA. Studies show that EPA and DHA help protect against heart attacks and strokes and that they have anti-inflammatory effects, often useful in preventing or treating conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Manson says there are some studies of ALA under way, but right now there just isn’t enough data to be sure that ALA has the same effects as marine-based omega-3s for heart health.

She adds that the American Heart Association recommends adults eat two servings of omega-3-rich fish (salmon, for example) per week, which works out to about 400 to 500 milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHA per day. People with heart disease are advised to double that, so their daily intake is 1,000 mg. Taking fish oil capsules is often the most practical way to get that amount of omega-3s. If you choose to take fish oil capsules, note that the amount of EPA and DHA provided is often only about a third of that listed on the front of the bottle. Check the Nutrition Facts label on the back for the actual amount.

An article in June’s Eating Well Magazine  also mentions that it may be helpful to pay attention to toxins (like mercury) in fish and supplements. Generally, according to the article, omega-3 supplements are very low in toxins associated with some fish.

“The health risks of [omega-3] deficiencies are much greater than the minimal increase in health risk from exposure to the low levels of PCBs and methylmercury,” says Joe Hibbeln, M.D., Acting Chief, Section on Nutritional Neurosciences at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism  and an authority on omega fatty acids and mental health. Quoted in the Eating Well article, he says you can minimize exposure by choosing supplements made from smaller fish, such as sardines, or algae and use brands that rate well in independent testing: or

An article in the March 2010 print edition of Eating Well also mentions that wild, oilier, cold water fish usually have higher levels of omega-3s than other types of fish.  For more information on toxins in fish, visit the FDA site  on mercury or the EPA site for more details. 

Hope that helps! Be healthy, be well.

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Date: Thursday, 4. November 2010 19:26
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    […] Omega-3 helps to ameliorate this issue, make sure you are getting what you need.  Check out my  November post for more information about Omega-3 and dosage requirements if you want more […]

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