Omega-3 and omega-6 are both essential fatty acids, meaning your body needs them but cannot make them naturally. By contrast, omega-9 fatty acids aren’t essential because the body can make them. Each type has different functions and benefits. Let’s take a closer look at these three unique fatty acids…
The Omega Connection: 3, 6 & 9
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a high concentration in fish, olive oil, garlic, and walnuts. Though these foods are common, most people don’t eat them in adequate quantities it would take to get beneficial levels. But also, the body is very inefficient at converting plant omega-3s into the omega-3s the body needs, which are EPA and DHA.
Omega-3s are crucial for brain health. They are vital for our nerve cells and other brain cells to make and maintain the trillions of connections that our brain uses for information processing and for moving our limbs. Omega-3s are also vital for our brain cells – and all our cells – to make the energy they need in order to function.
Omega-3s play a crucial role in the body’s healthy inflammatory responses, which reduce the chances of having problems with your circulation, joints, and other organs. Omega-3s are also essential for healthy hair and skin. Also, because of how important it is during an infant’s development, pregnant women are encouraged to take it in order to minimize any potential for their children to have problems with vision or brain health including learning, attention, and behavior.
When considering the immense benefits that omega-3 essential fatty acids have on the body, it’s easy to see why they are recommended to nearly everybody for their preventative and wellness qualities.
EPA and DHA
Omega-3’s health benefits primarily come from their long-chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA). In fact, DHA is the most prevalent fatty acid found in the brain. DHA fatty acid is vital to the creation and maintenance of all the cells and the trillions of connections in both the brain and the retina (which functionally is an extension of the brain).
Omega-3 EPA fatty acid is less abundant than the omega-3 DHA fatty acid in the cells of the brain but is known to be essential for healthy inflammatory responses as well as for the production of new nerve cells. For reasons still not fully understood, omega-3 fish oils that contain more EPA than DHA are better at promoting healthy attention and behavior in children than higher-DHA fish oils.
As the body ages, it seems to become less efficient at using omega-3 EPA and DHA. But whether you’re young, middle-aged or getting on in years, it’s important to have your Omega-3 Index measured. An index value greater than 8 percent suggests you have adequate omega-3 status. It’s incredibly important that anyone looking to stay on top of their mental game incorporate omega-3s into their healthcare regimen and maintain their Omega-3 Index between 8 and 12 percent.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids are commonly found in today’s modern diet because of their content in:
- Vegetable oil (soybean, sunflower, safflower, corn, canola)
- Fast food items (such as French fries, popcorn chicken, onion rings)
- Dairy and eggs
- All meats
- Many baked items (such as muffins, cookies, bread)
The omega-6 fatty acids are essential for all our organ functions, but the important takeaway here is that they need to be balanced in the diet by adequate intakes of omega-3s and omega-9s.
Optimal Omega Levels
Only two fatty acids are absolutely proven essential for humans: linoleic acid (LA), the parent fatty acid of the omega-6 series, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the parent fatty acid of the omega-3 series. Having optimal omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is essential for health, and supplementing with omega-3s to balance out the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio can ensure many health benefits. But the body is very inefficient at making EPA and DHA from ALA, meaning that for all practical purposes, EPA and DHA are essential fatty acids: we have to get them in our diet.
Eating too many foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids is a problem because they can cancel out the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids when the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is too high. The optimal ratio is not known, except that we need at least an Omega-3 Index of 8-12 percent. However, most Americans are running an index under 8 percent, with an average index of 5.1!
Omega-3 EPA and DHA and certain omega-6 fatty acids are essential for our health, but the usual Standard American diet (SAD) gives us too little of the former and too much of the latter. The best way to balance the ratio is to eat fewer foods that contain omega-6 fatty acids and more that contain omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, because the body is so inefficient at converting plant ALA into EPA and DHA, we need to eat foods that contain these omega-3s performed, namely cold-water fish. Considering dollar costs, convenience, and the dangers of contamination of fish with mercury and hundreds of other environmental pollutions, many authoritative organizations recommend taking reputable concentrated fish oil supplements.
BrainMD recommends a minimum of 1000 mg per day of EPA+DHA to ensure reaching an omega-3 index above 8 percent within a few months. Read the supplement label carefully to find the EPA+DHA content, not the total fish oil content. Many budget fish oil supplements supply only 300 mg, not 1000 mg of EPA+DHA as their recommended daily dose.
Omega-9 Fatty Acids
Unlike omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats, omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated. Omega-9 fatty acids are essential for our cells to work but aren’t a dietary essential, because they can be produced by the body. Omega-9 fats are found in olive oil, some other plant oils, and some nuts and seeds. Since people tend to consume more omega-6s than they may need, and the body produces omega-9s, there isn’t a great need to supplement with either of these fatty acids.