As a species, humans can’t create certain fatty acids in the body. Called ‘essential’ fatty acids, these have to be obtained from our diet. Omega-6 and omega-3 are essential fatty acids.
In the human body, they play several roles relating to structure and function. For example, omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important for the brain, including that of a growing fetus.1 Omega-6 fatty acids are essential for the immune system. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Together, one of their main functions is to protect the body, by modulating ‘inflammation‘ – which is the way our body’s immune system copes with injuries and infections.2
The Balance between the Two
Omega 6 fatty acids are responsible for the compounds that enable inflammation. In spurts, such as during injuries and infections, this is very important. However, chronic inflammation creates a host of problems. So, we need compounds that reduce inflammation, which are mostly created by omega-3 fatty acids.3
The same set of enzymes are responsible for converting both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids into their more efficient forms. Consequently, when there is too much omega-6, these enzymes are busy making pro-inflammatory compounds, and not enough anti-inflammatory compounds.2
The ratio gets unbalanced.
Our body now tries to make the best of the situation, by using the omega-3 compounds where they are needed the most: the vital organs that keep us alive (for example, the brain).
Because of this, the least prioritised parts of the body (like the hair, nails and skin) don’t get their supply of omega-3. Hair thinning, dry skin, dandruff, and brittle nails are all signs of an unbalanced omega-6 to omega-3 diet.
Chronic inflammation has been known to lead to allergies, gum disease, heart blockages, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer.3
The Evolution of our Diet
Many of the chronic diseases we encounter today are being called “diseases of civilization”. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 1:1. They did not die of heart disease, but due to infectious diseases that we now control.4
Gradually, our diets started including more grains and vegetable oils, while reducing the high meat and fish consumption of pre-industrial man. So, considering our lifestyle today, the (realistic) recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is between 3:1 and 2:1.
The modern diet’s ratio is as high as between 20:1 and 40:1. You can see why this could be giving rise to these diseases of civilisation.5
Getting Enough Omega-3
Remember, we must bring the ratio back into balance by reducing our consumption of omega-6 foods and simultaneously eating more foods that contain omega-3. That said, the recommended intake for the more efficient omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is 650 mg/day.6
This may be easier said than done. If you’re eating any industrial seed oils (like refined safflower oil), you’ll be way over the optimal ratio in no time. But, we can do our best to try improving this ratio by:
– Eating out less
– Avoiding processed food
– Eating fatty fish (like mackerel, herring, tuna, and salmon) around twice a week
– Taking omega-3 supplements
– Avoiding products that state a high level of omega-6
1. Coletta JM, et al. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology 2010, 3(4): 163-171.
2. Calder PC. Biochem Soc Trans 2005, 33(Pt 2): 423-427.
3. Simopoulos AP. Exp Biol Med (Maywood) 2008, 233(6): 674-688.
4. Konner M, Eaton SB. Nutr Clin Pract 2010, 25(6): 594-602.
5. Sancilio FD. Prevention is the Cure!: A Scientist’s Guide to Extending Your Life. Morgan James Publishing, 2015.
6. Kris-Etherton PM, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2000, 71(1 Suppl): 179s-188s.