More specifically, omega 6 is a ‘polyunsaturated’ fat, meaning its chemical structure consists of multiple double chemical bonds. The principal difference between omega 6 and its close relative omega 3 is the location of the final double bond. In omega 3, this is three carbon atoms from the end – the ‘omega’ – of the molecular structure, and in omega 6 the last bond is located (you guessed it) six molecules away.
Both omega 3 and omega 6 are classified as ‘essential’ fatty acids because the body cannot synthesise them, so they must be absorbed from the foods we eat.
There are four principal types of omega 6 fatty acid:
- Linoleic acid
- Arachidonic acid
- Gamma linoleic acid
- Conjugated linoleic acid
What does omega 6 do in our bodies?
Our bodies need omega 6 to fuel multiple biological processes fundamental to health. This crucial nutrient is a basic building block of every cell in our bodies, helping to ward off the molecular damage that can lead to disease. It could not play a more important role in our health.
This cellular involvement means that omega 6 is vital to:
- Brain development and healthy function.
- Physical development.
- Hair growth.
- Skin health – omega 6 has been linked to a lower risk of dermatitis.
- Bone development.
- The control of blood pressure.
- Our body’s metabolic rate – i.e. the speed at which the physical processes which sustain us take place.
- The production of biological energy.
- Reproductive health.
- Heart health.
Researchers have also linked omega 6 to a decreased risk of such autoimmune illnesses such as arthritis. Studies have also linked omega 6 to a decrease in fat mass.
Omega 6 triggers inflammation – a natural response to pathogens and infection. By contrast omega 3 reduces inflammation. This makes a balance of omega 6 and omega 3 an important component of health. Nutritionists recommend a 6:3 ratio of four to one or less – ie at least a quarter of your essential fatty acid intake should come from omega 3 rather than omega 6.
The effects of insufficient omega 6
If a person is not eating a sufficient quantity of omega 6, they may experience a variety of alarming symptoms. These can include:
- Dry skin, often with bumps around hair follicles
- Skin conditions, eczema
- Lank hair
- Brittle nails
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- The onset of allergic reactions like hayfever or asthma
- Visual disturbances – poor low light vision, sensitivity to bright light, difficulty focus on letters while reading
- Short term memory problems, poor concentration
- Difficulty sleeping
- Mood disturbances – depression, anxiety
There is a significant overlap between omega 6 and omega 3 deficiencies: many of the symptoms are identical.
Can you have too much omega 6?
So just how much omega 6 per day is safe? Can you have too much? The answer is yes, and this is a surprisingly common problem. Many people on typical western diets consume too much omega 6 and too little omega 3. Processed foods are often made with oils high in omega 6 and this is a major contributor to excessive consumption of this nutrient.
Common symptoms of an omega 6 excess are:
- High blood pressure
- Water retention, swelling
- Chronic inflammation of tissues
How to increase your intake of omega 6
If you believe your symptoms may be related to an omega 6 deficiency, it is sensible to fine tune your diet.
Good sources of omega 6 include;
- Nuts and seeds (for example almonds)
- Sunflower oil and seeds
- Maize (corn)
- Oils like blackcurrant seed and evening primrose
Test your omega 6 levels
Since essential fatty acids are so central to health, it makes a lot of sense to investigate your current levels of these crucial nutrients.
It’s surprisingly easy to do so. An omega 3 and 6 test from Health Hub provides a simple and rapid way to discover your own balance of omega 6 to omega 3.
Send in a blood sample for a full, professional laboratory analysis and you’ll soon have the information you need to get right on top of your unique nutritional needs.