Quantcast

Your Complete Guide to Omega-3-6-9 Fatty Acids

Popular

By Dr. Ruairi Robertson

Omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids are all important dietary fats.

Interestingly, each one has a number of health benefits for your body.

However, it's important to get the right balance of omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids in your diet. An imbalance may contribute to a number of chronic diseases.

Here is a guide to omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids, including what they are, why you need them and where you can get them.

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, a type of fat your body can't make.

Their name comes from their chemical structure, as "poly" means many and "unsaturated" refers to double bonds. Together they mean that omega-3 fatty acids have many double bonds.

"Omega-3" refers to the position of the final double bond in the chemical structure, which is three carbon atoms from the "omega" or tail end of the molecular chain.

Since the human body can't produce omega-3s, these fats are referred to as "essential fats," meaning that you have to get them from your diet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating at least two portions of oily fish per week, which is rich in the omega-3s EPA and DHA (1).

There are many types of omega-3 fats, which differ based on their chemical shape and size. Here are the three most common:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): This 20-carbon fatty acid's main function is to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation. EPA also helps reduce symptoms of depression (2, 3).
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): A 22-carbon fatty acid, DHA makes up about 8 percent of brain weight and is extremely important for normal brain development and function (4).
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): This 18-carbon fatty acid can be converted into EPA and DHA, although the process is not very efficient. ALA is mainly used by the body for energy (5).

Omega-3 fats are a crucial part of human cell membranes. They also have a number of other important functions, including:

  • Improving heart health: Omega-3 fatty acids can increase "good" HDL cholesterol. They can also reduce triglycerides, blood pressure and the formation of arterial plaques (6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
  • Supporting mental health: Taking omega-3s can reduce symptoms of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It can also reduce the risk of psychotic disorders for those who are at risk (11, 12, 13, 14, 15).
  • Reducing weight and waist size: Omega-3 fats play an important role in weight management and can help reduce waist circumference (16, 17).
  • Decreasing liver fat: Consuming omega-3s in your diet can help decrease the amount of fat in your liver (18, 19, 20).
  • Supporting infant brain development: Omega-3s are extremely important for brain development in babies (4, 21).
  • Fighting inflammation: Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, meaning they can reduce the inflammation in your body that can contribute to a number of chronic diseases (22, 23, 24).
  • Preventing dementia: People who eat more fish, which is high in omega-3 fats, tend to have a slower decline in brain function in old age. Omega-3s may also help improve memory in older people (25, 26).
  • Promoting bone health: People with higher omega-3 intake and blood levels tend to have better bone mineral density (27, 28).
  • Preventing asthma: Omega-3 intake can help reduce symptoms of asthma, especially in early life (29, 30, 31).

Unfortunately, the Western diet does not contain enough omega-3s. A deficiency may contribute to chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease (32).

Summary: Omega-3 fats are essential fats that you must get from your diet. They have important benefits for your heart, brain and metabolism.

What Are Omega-6 Fatty Acids?

Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids.

The only difference is that the last double bond is six carbons from the omega end of the fatty acid molecule.

Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential, so you need to obtain them from your diet.

These fats are primarily used for energy. The most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid, which can be converted into longer omega-6 fats such as arachidonic acid (ARA) (33).

Like EPA, ARA is used to produce eicosanoids. However, the eicosanoids produced by ARA are more pro-inflammatory (34, 35).

Pro-inflammatory eicosanoids are important chemicals in the immune system. However, when too many of them are produced, they can increase inflammation and inflammatory disease (36).

Although omega-6 fats are essential, the modern Western diet contains far more omega-6 fatty acids than necessary (37).

The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is 4:1 or less. However, the Western diet has a ratio between 10:1 and 50:1.

Therefore, although omega-6 fats are essential in the right quantities, most people in the developed world should aim to reduce their omega-6 intake (37).

Nevertheless, some omega-6 fatty acids have shown benefits in treating symptoms of chronic disease.

Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 fatty acid found in certain oils, such as evening primrose oil and borage oil. When consumed, much of it is converted to another fatty acid called dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA).

One study showed that taking a high dose of GLA supplements significantly reduced a number of symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (38).

Another interesting study found that taking GLA supplements in addition to a breast cancer drug was more effective at treating breast cancer than the drug alone (39).

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is another form of omega-6 fat that has some health benefits. For example, one large study found that taking 3.2 grams of CLA supplements per day effectively reduced body fat mass in humans (40).

Summary: Omega-6 fats are essential fats that are an important source of energy for the body. However, the Western diet contains too many.

Next Page

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Aerial assessment of Hurricane Sandy damage in Connecticut. Dannel Malloy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Extreme weather events supercharged by climate change in 2012 led to nearly 1,000 more deaths, more than 20,000 additional hospitalizations, and cost the U.S. healthcare system $10 billion, a new report finds.

Read More Show Less
Giant sequoia trees at Sequoia National Park, California. lucky-photographer / iStock / Getty Images Plus

A Bay Area conservation group struck a deal to buy and to protect the world's largest remaining privately owned sequoia forest for $15.6 million. Now it needs to raise the money, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
This aerial view shows the Ogasayama Sports Park Ecopa Stadium, one of the venues for 2019 Rugby World Cup. MARTIN BUREAU / AFP / Getty Images

The Rugby World Cup starts Friday in Japan where Pacific Island teams from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga will face off against teams from industrialized nations. However, a new report from a UK-based NGO says that when the teams gather for the opening ceremony on Friday night and listen to the theme song "World In Union," the hypocrisy of climate injustice will take center stage.

Read More Show Less
Vera_Petrunina / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Wudan Yan

In June, New York Times journalist Andy Newman wrote an article titled, "If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?" In it, he raised the question of whether or not travel by plane, boat, or car—all of which contribute to climate change, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers—might pose a moral challenge to the responsibility that each of us has to not exacerbate the already catastrophic consequences of climate change. The premise of Newman's piece rests on his assertion that traveling "somewhere far away… is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change."

Read More Show Less
Volunteer caucasian woman giving grain to starving African children. Bartosz Hadyniak / E+ / Getty Images

By Frances Moore Lappé

Food will be scarce, expensive and less nutritious," CNN warns us in its coverage of the UN's new "Climate Change and Land" report. The New York Times announces that "Climate Change Threatens the World's Food Supply."

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
British Airways 757. Jon Osborne / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Adam Vaughan

Two-thirds of people in the UK think the amount people fly should be reined in to tackle climate change, polling has found.

Read More Show Less
Climate Week NYC

On Monday, Sept. 23, the Climate Group will kick off its 11th annual Climate Week NYC, a chance for governments, non-profits, businesses, communities and individuals to share possible solutions to the climate crisis while world leaders gather in the city for the UN Climate Action Summit.

Read More Show Less

By Pam Radtke Russell in New Orleans

Local TV weather forecasters have become foot soldiers in the war against climate misinformation. Over the past decade, a growing number of meteorologists and weathercasters have begun addressing the climate crisis either as part of their weather forecasts, or in separate, independent news reports to help their viewers understand what is happening and why it is important.

Read More Show Less