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Oh My Megas, Why Essential Fatty Acids are Important

Updated: Oct 23, 2022

Essential Fatty Acids- Omega-6, Omega-3… What does it all mean?

Fats can either be classified as saturated or unsaturated. These terms “saturated” and “unsaturated” refer to their chemical structure. A quick way to determine this is by remembering that unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, for example, olive oil. Polyunsaturated fats are a class of unsaturated fats and are named “poly” because they have two or more chemical bonds in their structure. Omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are the only two types of fatty acids that the human body is unable to make. BOTH must come from the diet and are therefore named “essential fatty acids." The terms omega-3 and omega-6 don't signify anything mysterious. They describe the position of the first carbon-carbon double bond in the fat's chemical structure. This influences the shape of the molecule and how it functions in the body.


What is Omega-6?

The four types of omega-6 fats include arachidonic acid (ARA), linoleic acid (LA), gamma linoleic acid (GLA), and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Of these, the most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid (LA). Omega-6 fats are primarily found in vegetable oils, such as soy, corn, and canola oil. Omega-6 fatty acids are also a type of healthy polyunsaturated fats that are important components of cell membranes. The omega-6 fats, which we get mainly from vegetable oils, are beneficial in moderation. They lower harmful LDL cholesterol and boost protective HDL. They help keep blood sugar in check by improving the body's sensitivity to insulin. Although they are not spoken about as highly as omega-3s, they are an essential part of our diet because they promote inflammation, which is essential to healing but can be “too good”. Eating too many of these fats can increase inflammation in the body. One of the major sources of omega-6 fatty acids are vegetable oils, including sunflower, safflower, soy, sesame, and corn oils. Omega-6s are also found in cashews, almonds, eggs, hemp & sunflower seeds, peanut butter, cereals, whole grain bread, and tofu.

What is Omega-3?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fats that you get from different foods (or supplements) to help maintain a healthy body. They are healthy unsaturated fats, and they are an integral part of cell function omega-3 fatty acids are divided into three main types: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Most of the health benefits you get from omega-3 fatty acids can be attributed to EPA and DHA. Omega-3s protect your cardiovascular system, they reduce inflammation big time, inhibit clot formation, and have lower levels of triglycerides (fat carrying molecule in blood). ALA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in your diet, as it’s found in plant foods like flaxseed, spinach, kale, or canola oil, while EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, such as salmon, sardine, and anchovies. You can also get omega-3 fats from other plant-based sources, such as seaweed, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, kidney beans, soy foods, and pumpkin seeds. We need to have a healthy balance of both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats in the body to help ensure inflammation is well balanced and controlled in our bodies.

What are symptoms of an essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency?

Most EFA deficiencies in the U.S. come from an imbalance in the consumption of omega-3s and Omega-6s in the diet. Generally, the deficiency is seen in omega-3s, which means too much inflammation is allowed by the body’s cells. This could be for numerous reasons including food access, geographical location, socio-economic status, or the Standard American Diet (SAD). The SAD diet is characterized by high intakes of pre-packaged foods, saturated fats, fast food, sodas, candy, refined sugar, and refined grains. While these foods are not meant to be the main constituents of our diets. Since omega-6s are found in vegetable, soy, and corn oils it is typically much more challenging to be deficient in these. A deficiency in both EFAs typically points to malabsorption of fat, restrictive eating patterns, lack of diversity in food choices, and/or food insecurity.

Common symptoms of an EFA deficiency….

  • General pain and fatigue

  • Poor memory, concentration, lack of attentiveness

  • Cognitive decline

  • Depression

  • Dry skin, dermatitis, irritation

  • Increased incidence of autoimmune disease

  • Dry, brittle hair and/or nails, changes to scalp i.e., sensitivity, flakey skin

  • Dry eyes

  • Joint pain and stiffness

  • High cholesterol and increased incidence of cardiovascular disease

  • Decreased growth (infants and children)

  • Poor wound healing

Why is the omega-6: omega-3 ratio important?

The omega-6 vs. omega-3 fatty acid ratio refers to the amount of omega-6s we consume in comparison to omega-3s in our diet. A low intake of omega-3 fats is not good for cardiovascular health and inflammation, so bringing the two into better balance is needed. Do not do this by cutting back on healthy omega-6 fats, instead, add some extra omega-3s. Anthropological studies show that humans have evolved eating a 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which means equal parts omega-3 and omega-6 fats in the diet. Today for most Americans is 16:1!!! We are eating 16x more omega-6 fats than we should! Historically, hunter-gathers consumed ratios of 2:1 to 4:1, and Inuit tribes (with seafood rich diets) consumed a 1:4 ratio. There is varying research on which ratio is the best, but ideally, it’s just about eating less processed foods, minimizing use of vegetable oils, and eating fatty fish a couple times per week. Just these few habits will skew your intake in the right direction. The ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 4:1. This means that you should aim to eat 1 gram of omega-3s for every 4 grams of omega-6. Following the 4:1 ratio, that would be up to 6.4 grams a day of omega-6s. Monounsaturated and saturated fats would comprise the remainder of a person's daily fat intake. Although it is important to consume both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, too much or too little of one of the two can affect how the other functions in the body. Therefore, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio helps determine if there is a proper balance between the two to ensure optimal health outcomes.

How to take control of your own EFA ratio?

While many experts have not come to a solid agreement on what is the “perfect ratio”, as this is the case for most nutritional information. Here only facts are presented. We know omega-6 in excess can cause inflammation, but we also know our bodies cannot make this EFA. We also know that as much as we fight it, most of us eat too many pre-packaged convenience foods, fast food, saturated fats, refined sugar, and refine carbohydrates. It is part of the Western culture, and it is unavoidable at times. Typically, inflammation in the body is caused by more than just one factor, you must zoom out. Exercise, stress management, and quality sleep are all important.

  • Do not fear fat, it is an essential macronutrient that protects your body and must be present for absorption of Vitamins A, D, E, and K

  • Limit use of vegetable oils high in omega-6s.

  • Use olive, avocado, flax, walnut, and organic canola oil (these are high in omega-3s).

  • Limit consumption of highly processed foods that contain omega-6s.

  • Limit consumption of fast food and sugar-sweetened beverages (soda).

  • Get omega-6s from nuts and seeds.

  • Eat animal protein high in omega-3s at least 2 times per week.

  • When eating red meat, enjoy grass-fed options, if this is available to you, they have a much higher omega-3 fat content.

  • Supplement with an omega-3 if you are unable to consume the food sources.

  • There are vegan omega-3 algae supplements available, but supplementation with these does make it more difficult to reach optimal Omega-6 : Omega-3 ratios.

How can I find out if I have an EFA deficiency…

You can take an Essential Fatty Acids profile test (OmegaCheck). The test will take a measurement of the fatty acids in your red blood cells. The results will provide ratios that will help you and your health care team determine any imbalances. Long term fatty acid imbalances play a role in many chronic health conditions i.e., cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, cancer, depression, hypertension, thrombosis, and more.

Common Supplementation for an EFA deficiency…

Omega-6 supplementation is not common since we typically get enough of these through our diet. However, there are a plethora of omega-3 supplements available. Nutritional Fundamentals for Health and Nordic Naturals Omega-3 are quality brands that we’ve trusted for quite some time. Speak with your health care provider to find the supplementation that is right for YOU and proper dosing.

Tips for omega-3 supplementation:

  • Omega-3 supplements providing EPA and DHA, can include products made from fish, seafood, and algae.

  • Free of heavy metal contaminants.

  • Store in a dark and cool place (refrigerator is perfect).

  • General recommendation is 1000 milligrams/day of EPA at a minimum.

Dietary Recommendations (eat these now)

  • Salmon, trout, halibut, tuna, mackerel, herring – wild caught is IDEAL.

  • Eating 8oz. of cold-water fish per week is the most impactful change you can implement when trying to improve your omega-3 ratio.

  • Sardines, anchovies

  • Oysters

  • Grass fed beef

  • Pasture raised eggs

  • Edamame

  • Kidney beans

  • Walnuts

  • Flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds

  • Brussel sprouts, kale, spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower

  • Limit consumption of refined sugar, refined carbohydrates, and fast food.

Lifestyle Recommendations

  • Reducing stress and/or prioritizing stress management

  • Exercise or movement for 30 minutes at least 3 times per week.

  • Enjoy nature or being outdoors at least 1 time per week.

  • Improving sleep hygiene- minimize disturbances, especially with screens- TV, phone, computer while in bed or 1-hour prior to sleep.

Hydrotherapy… How can it help?

You can learn about our hydrotherapy treatments here. Hydrotherapy has numerous benefits that can support nutrient absorption and reduce inflammation. It works by stimulating the body’s own healing mechanisms by improving or restoring normal organ function and circulation. It aids in the strengthening and healing of the digestive system. It nourishes the respiratory and digestive systems which both bring nutrients (via digestion and respiration) into the system.

All therapies, treatments, and recommendations are made based on an individualized care. At PCNM you will work with a team of providers who take each part of your life into consideration when making a solution focused plan for YOU.

We want to see you heal and help implement change, not create a temporary fix.


Disclaimer: The entire contents of this website are based upon the opinions of physicians at Pacific Clinic of Natural Medicine, unless otherwise noted. Individual articles are based upon the opinions of the respective author, who retains copyright as marked. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of our physicians and their community. PCNM encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional. If you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition, consult your health care professional before using products based on this content.

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