The Balancing Act of Omega Fatty Acids
by: Greg Post
Generally it can be said that most of us do not get a good balance of essential fatty acids
in our diet. Perhaps this does not sound like late breaking news. However most of what
we consider news does not directly impact our lives. An earthquake half way around the
world will make the headlines. But in reality most of us are insulated from its effects.
Essential fatty acids on the other hand will never make a reporter’s career. However,
many of us are affected by these little buggers more than we may suspect.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are called essential because we need them to survive and
our bodies cannot manufacture them. Deficiency and imbalance of EFAs are blamed for
an impressive list of chronic health conditions. But, unlike the distant earthquake, EFA
deficiency is unlikely to make the headlines.

Two very notable essential fatty acids that are worth our attention are omega-3 and
omega-6. They get their names because of the placement of the first of multiple double
carbon bonds in the molecule. Though the chemistry is important it is not the focus of
this essay. What is important to us now is the potential health impact of these two fats.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these essential fatty acids separately and then consider
their relation to each other.


In reverse order we will consider omega-6 first. Perhaps we do not hear as much about
omega-6 as we do its counterpart. But consider this impressive resume. Omega-6 has
been useful in the treatment of anorexia nervosa, ADHD, osteoporosis, diabetes, eye
disease, certain skin conditions, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis and even
cancer. Not bad for an unsung hero. Go over that list again. These are all serious
conditions that have been tied to omega-6 deficiencies. So why do we hear so little about
this little gem? Perhaps it is because health issues only become exciting once there is an
obvious problem. Then we usually look for a pill to take. But if this is a reason for our
ignorance it is not the biggest reason.

The plain truth is most of us are getting plenty of omega-6 in our diets. In fact most of
us get way too much. Over ten times too much. That’s a switch isn’t it? Too much of a
good thing. The reason we get so much of it is because many of the foods we buy are
processed with some type of linoleic acid which is a popular form of omega-6. In
addition many oils we use are high in omega-6 such as sunflower, safflower, soybean,
corn and cottonseed oils.

So what’s the rub? Why worry about too much omega-6? Our bodies have the ability to
convert linoleic acid into longer chain fatty acids which lead to the production of
eicosanoids. Eicosanoids depending, on their source, can have positive and negative
influences on our bodies. They can slow intravascular clotting which helps to prevent
heart attacks and strokes. They suppress inflammation preventing us from overreacting
to allergens. They dilate blood vessels reducing hypertension and increasing good blood
delivery. They can also control cell growth slowing the rapid growth of cancer cells.

On the other hand they might increase blood clotting which leads to heart attack and
stroke. They suppress the immune system leaving us more open to infection. They
increase cellular growth thereby promoting the growth of cancer cells. And they create
new blood vessels which can feed cancer cells. Unfortunately eicosanoids produced by
an overabundance of omega-6 in the system cause many of the negative factors
mentioned above.


Omega-3 has the opposite story. Like omega-6 it is essential to proper health and is
useful in the treatment of many chronic diseases. Among these conditions are heart
attacks, cancer, lupus, schizophrenia, accelerated aging, stroke, insulin resistance,
asthma, postpartum depression, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, ADHD, and Alzheimer's

But unlike omega-6 most diets are deplorably deficient in omega-3. Most of us get only
a small amount of what we need for optimal health. Though it can manifest itself in
many ways this deficiency may be most noticeable in chronic heart disease. Entire
cultures are known to have very low incidence of heart disease because of diets high in
omega-3 rich foods. Most notorious among these are Eskimos. Danish researchers first
learned this secret from the Eskimos. Of course the Eskimos did not realize they had a
secret. They were just eating large amounts of the fatty foods that were available to
them. That’s right, fatty foods. Foods like salmon which are high in omega-3.

Once the secret was out researchers rolled up their sleeves and produced a flurry of
studies and trials to test the hypothesis that omega-3 reduces heart disease. The studies
continue to go on. But the overwhelming conclusion is consistent with the original
observations. That is: omega-3 reduces incidence of heart disease. In fact the
conclusions are so certain the even the American Heart Association now recommends
fish oil supplements for any one with documented coronary heart disease or high
triglycerides. That was no small concession for the AMA.


Of course we all understand that the key to everything is balance. Perhaps this familiar
sentiment is nowhere more important than it is to the topic at hand. Both omega-6 and
omega-3 are essential to health. But the ratio at which we ingest these fatty acids is key.
Scientists differ on the optimal ratio. One recommended ratio is 5 parts omega-6
compared to 1 part omega-3. Some would stretch that to a 10:1 ratio. The more
conservative estimates place the optimal ratio somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1.
Unfortunately the average American diet includes an omega-6/omega-3 ratio between 14:
1 and 20:1. This imbalance contributes to many of the chronic health problems
mentioned above.

So what do we do? Assuming you are a reader who takes this seriously there are some
steps you can take to assure better health for you and your family. You can begin by
avoiding foods prepared with linoleic acid and some of the linoleic acid rich oils
mentioned above. Buy less prepared foods and do more home cooking. Then make
every effort to increase omega-3 consumption. Cold water fish like salmon and tuna (not
the canned varieties) are very high in omega-3. But you need to eat these fish more than
once per week. I have met people who eat salmon every day for breakfast. If you are
not a fish lover or are concerned with marine pollutants try fish oil supplements. The
good ones are completely free from contaminants. Our diets have contributed to the
increase of chronic conditions like heart disease. Our diets can go a long way toward
resolving the problems.

For more information on the omega fatty acids and heart health please see the links

Omega-6 and omega-3:
Omega-3 and triglycerides: Triglycerides: About The Author

Greg Post has degrees in science, divinity and philosophy and is currently an I.T.

This article was posted on November 06, 2005

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