The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is an established marker of long-term health status and low levels of omega-3 compared with omega-6 in our cells is now linked with chronic illness including CVD, depression, dementia, neurodevelopmental disorders and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and asthma.
Getting the right balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fats depends on the food you eat, as the body is not able to make these important fats itself. In addition, the fats that work the hardest and have the most functions in the body are also the ones that require the most ‘manufacturing’ energy in the body, so if we are only eating very small amounts of omega-3s the chances of deficiency are very high.
Pre-agriculture, around twelve thousand years ago, our ancestors obtained very balanced omega-6 and omega-3 from their unadulterated diet, consuming between one and two grams of omega-6 for every gram of omega-3. The types of omega fats eaten also varied widely: the broad range of animal and marine products, plants, nuts and seeds that they would have eaten throughout the seasons were rich in a broader spectrum of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Today, the average person living in the UK or USA consumes a ratio in excess of 20:1 omega-6 to omega-3 – very highly imbalanced and associated with long-term health risk.
Since the right balance of omega-6 to omega-3 determines the correct structure and functioning of the heart and blood vessels, the immune system and inflammatory process, brain and central nervous system, infant brain development, mood regulation, joints & bones and skin health, this modern and manmade imbalance has profound consequences for our health.
The dramatic changes in our omega-3 and omega-6 intake have occurred as a result of the huge shift in the types of food we eat. Since humans have cultivated grains such as wheat, rice and barley, these foods have not only dominated our own diet as a source of reliable energy, but are also fed to the animals we eat. Grains are naturally very high in omega-6 fats and are consumed at the expense of omega-3 rich green plants, fish, seafood and grass fed/pastured animal meats. In addition to the increase in grain consumption, humans now eat huge amounts of manmade omega-6 rich plant fats, such as sunflower oil.
The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is significantly out of balance due to the dominance of grains in Western diets. Long-term, high amounts of omega-6 coupled with low intake of omega-3 cause’s chronic ‘silent’ inflammation, associated with a wide range of health conditions.
The problem with high omega-6 intake
What, exactly, is the problem with this dominance of omega-6? Omega-6 and omega-3 fats use the same proteins and biochemical processes to be converted into useful by-products in the body. If one of these omega families dominates, it will grab all of the resources (enzymes and micronutrients) and capacity for conversion, thereby affecting the types of by-product being created. One of the major consequences of higher omega-6 levels is the dysregulation of the inflammatory response. Since the omega-6 and omega-3 fats are the precursors to the hormone-like substances (collectively called eicosanoids) that control when the body switches on and off the inflammatory response, the balance of these fats determines the body’s ability to control inflammation. In addition to inflammatory control, the type and amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fats present in cell membranes determines the structure of the cell and its ability to communicate, replicate and make up the structure of our organs, blood vessels and central nervous system.
The omega-6 fats ultimately convert to arachidonic acid (AA) via numerous intermediates. Arachidonic acid is the key pro-inflammatory eicosanoid precursor, and high levels of total omega-6 in the diet will hog the biochemical conversion process used by omega-6 and omega-3 fats, thus promoting levels of AA and subsequent inflammatory products. When we have enough omega-3 in the diet, the biochemical process favors the conversion of short-chain, plant-derived omega-3 fats to the longer-chain EPA and DHA fats, and so the omega-6 conversion chain is halted before it is able to reach AA.
Despite a collective bad reputation, those omega-6 fats higher up in the conversion chain are actually very useful and work with the omega-3 fats to reduce inflammation and promote cellular health and function. Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is a ‘good’ omega-6 that is converted to dihomo-GLA, before being converted to AA. It is at this point that the pathway splits and DGLA can either be converted to AA or into eicosanoids of its own, which are primarily anti-inflammatory. A more even intake of omega-6s in comparison with omega-3s prevents the conversion of DGLA to AA and thus helps to keep both omega families and their healthful functions balanced, preventing the overproduction of inflammatory AA.
Identify your ratio with our Optimal O-3 fatty acid test
Knowing your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio can be very helpful in understanding your general health status and potential risk of health complications later in life. Whilst you may not be suffering with any specific conditions, issues such as dry skin, poor focus and attention, high stress or anxiety and even frequent colds or poor wound healing can be related to an omega-6 and omega-3 imbalance and all signal an increased risk of developing more serious illnesses.