Omega-6 is an essential fatty acid that the human body cannot make on its own. It’s a polyunsaturated fatty acid, which means it has multiple double bonds. The fatty acid plays a crucial part in brain and heart function, besides contributing to their normal development and growth. Primary omega-6 fat sources are seeds, nuts, legumes, dairy, grains, corn oil, soy oil, canola oil, and margarine. Omega-6 deficiency, which is not common, could cause irritated, dry skin or eczema, water loss, drying eyes, hair loss, high cholesterol and arthritis. Kidney damage, growth issues, sterility, miscarriage and behavior issues are the more serious problems that could occur due to omega-6 deficiency.
Unlike omega-3 fat, omega-6 is not as sought after as omega-6 fatty acid because there is already sufficient amounts of omega-6 in the modern diet, as it’s found in most cooking oils. This is not the case with omega-3. Therefore, the aforementioned health conditions are unlikely to affect most people. Generally, a normal American diet comprises 14-25 times more omega-6 fatty acid than omega-3 fatty acid. In fact, most people in America are guilty of not maintaining a healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fat ratio. The ideal ratio should be 1:1, but it is now much higher in favor of omega-6.
The omega-6 fatty acid, similar to all fatty acids, comprises a chain of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This chain has two ends: alpha (carboxylic acid end), which is the beginning of the chain; and omega (methyl end), which is the tail of the chain. The number 6 in the omega-6 fatty acid denotes the first double bond (carbon-carbon) when starting from the omega end is at the sixth carbon.
The two primary types of omega-6 fatty acids are:
- Linoleic Acid (LA)
LA is an omega-6 fatty acid, which helps make signaling molecules that trigger immune responses. These responses help decrease fluid accumulation, and counter depression, mood swings, schizophrenia and similar brain disorders. Linoleic acid is also crucial to the nervous system, as it transmits nerve impulses.
LA is abundantly found in soybean, corn, sunflower and safflower oil. The human body needs a fatty acid enzyme called delta 6 desaturase to convert LA into arachidonic acid (AA), which is another type of omega-6 fat. This is the same enzyme the body uses to convert alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-6 fatty acid, into other omega-3 fats: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
- Arachidonic Acid (AA)
Arachidonic acid, when consumed modestly, helps with heart health; excess AA consumption could cause inflammation issues. AA is largely found in animal fats and meats and diary. The acid needs to be in the right balance with omega-3 fatty acid. If not, chronic inflammation issues may arise, causing arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and several mental disorders.
The standard American diet (SAD) has no shortage of omega-6 fat as processed food offer plenty of omega-6. Increased levels of omega-6 means increased risks of all inflammatory disorders. Omega-6 could cause Alzheimer’s and confused behavior as excessive levels of omega-6 can interfere with the nerve cells of the brain, resulting in over-stimulation. Cancer, heart disease, depression, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, psychiatric disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases, etc. are a host of other health conditions linked to excess omega-6 fat in the body.
The omega-3 fat deficiency is a major health issue in the modern society, in addition to the lack of vitamin D. However, on the other side, the basic issue lies in consuming too much damaged and processed omega-6 fatty acids. Primitive men were immune to modern inflammatory health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. as their diets were primarily seafood-rich, which comprised omega-3 fatty acids in copious amounts but comparatively low levels of omega-6 fats. As a result, their omega-3 and omega-6 consumption ratio was roughly 1:1.
Competing Omega-6 and Omega-3
Omega-6 fat’s presence also interferes with omega-3 fatty acid’s secondary functioning, which is converting alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All the three are types of omega-3 fatty acids and offer unique benefits. However, EPA and DHA are more beneficial to the body than ALA. The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA with the help of enzymes, besides acquiring it from food sources. However, omega-6 also uses up the enzymes, directly affecting the ALA to EPA and DHA conversion process.
Creating the Right Balance
By now it should be clear that omega-3 is anti-inflammation and omega-6 is pro-inflammation. However, inflammation is not completely bad for the body as it safeguards the body from injury and infection. But marginally excessive inflammation could cause diseases and major damage to the human body. It therefore makes sense to consume more omega-3 than omega-6 fat. The more the amount of omega-3 in the body, the lesser would be omega-6’s presence.
Vegetable and processed seed oils (such as soybean, sunflower, cottonseed and corn oil) are rich in omega-6, along with processed foods. They should be replaced by coconut oil, olive oil, organic butter, avocados, lard, etc. that have a relatively low omega-6 content. Changing the kind of meat consumed would also help. Meat of grass-fed cattle who graze freely and aren’t restricted to specific diets is more healthy. Grass-fed or free-range beef have better omega-6 and omega-3 fat ratios. Several nuts and seeds also have high levels of omega-6, but they should not be avoided as they are huge repositories of essential nutrients.