Omega-3 and omega-6 are types of essential fatty
acids meaning we cannot make them on our own and have
to obtain them from our diet. Both are polyunsaturated fatty
acids that differ from each other in their chemical structure.
In modern diets, there are few sources of omega-3 fatty acids,
mainly the fat of cold water fish such as salmon, sardines,
herring, mackerel, black cod, and bluefish. There are two critical
omega-3 fatty acids, (eicosapentaenoic acid, called EPA and
docosahexaenoic or DHA), that the body needs. Vegetarian sources,
such as walnuts and flaxseeds contain a precursor omega-3 (alpha-linolenic
acid called ALA) that the body must convert to EPA and DHA.
EPA and DHA are the building blocks for hormones that control
immune function, blood clotting, and cell growth as well as
components of cell membranes.
By contrast, sources of omega-6 fatty acids are numerous in
modern diets. They are found in seeds and nuts, and the oils
extracted from them. Refined vegetable oils, such as soy oil,
are used in most of the snack foods, cookies, crackers, and
sweets in western diets as well as in fast food. Soybean oil
alone is now so ubiquitous in fast foods and processed foods
that an astounding 20 percent of the calories in the American
diet are estimated to come from this single source.
The body also constructs hormones from omega 6 fatty acids.
In general, hormones derived from the two classes of essential
fatty acids have opposite effects. Those from omega-6 fatty
acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component
of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation,
while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions.
Both families of hormones must be in balance to maintain optimum
Many nutrition experts believe that before we relied so heavily
on processed foods, humans consumed omega-3 and omega-6 fatty
acids in roughly equal amounts. But to our great detriment,
most North Americans and Europeans now get far too much of the
omega-6s and not enough of the omega-3s. This dietary imbalance
may explain the rise of such diseases as asthma, coronary heart
disease, many forms of cancer, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative
diseases, all of which are believed to stem from inflammation
in the body. The imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty
acids may also contribute to obesity, depression, dyslexia,
hyperactivity and even a tendency toward violence. Bringing
the fats into proper proportion may actually relieve those conditions,
according to Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., a psychiatrist at the National
Institutes of Health, and perhaps the world's leading authority
on the relationship between fat consumption and mental health.
At the 2006 Nutrition and Health Conference sponsored by the
University of Arizona's College of Medicine and Columbia University's
College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Hibbeln cited a study
showing that violence in a British prison dropped by 37 percent
after omega-3 oils and vitamins were added to the prisoners'
In general, you can cut down on omega-6 levels by reducing
consumption of processed and fast foods and polyunsaturated
vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, and cottonseed,
for example). At home, use extra virgin olive oil for cooking
and in salad dressings. Eat more oily fish or take fish oil
supplements, walnuts, flax seeds, and omega-3 fortified eggs.
Your body and mind will thank you.