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You may have seen the term ‘essential fatty acid’ bandied around on TV or in articles about health and nutrition. But just what is omega 6?

An ‘essential’ fatty acid is a type of fat that our bodies are unable to synthesise and must therefore be consumed through the diet. Omega 6 and its close cousin omega 3 are actually a subcategory, called ‘polyunsaturated’ fatty acids, a reference to the molecular structure of these substances: a complex sequence of double chemical bonds. In omega 6, the ‘omega’ – the end of the molecular chain – is six carbon atoms from the last of the double bonds.

By contrast, the final bond is just three carbon atoms from the end of the chain in omega 3.

Omega 6 is found in a wide variety of foods, in four principal forms: linoleic acid, arachidonic acid, gamma linoleic acid, and conjugated linoleic acid. The first – linoleic acid – is the most widespread.

Why is omega 6 important?

  Omega 6 plays multiple roles within the body. It is used to power several of the most fundamental elements of our metabolism. The latter is the complex matrix of complex chemical reactions, which keep our bodies functioning and healthy.

The roles played by omega 6 includes in our metabolism include :  
  • Building the membranes of cells throughout our bodies
  • Brain function
  • Growth – including our bones, hair and skin
  • The regulation blood pressure
  • The release of chemical energy
  • The functioning of our reproductive organs
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Inflammation in response to infection and disease
  • Cholesterol regulation

What happens if we don’t eat enough omega 6?

As we saw above, omega 6 is involved in some foundational functions within the body. This means that a deficiency in this essential fatty acid can trigger dramatic symptoms. These include: 
  • Sudden onset allergic reactions like asthma and hayfever 
  • Skin problems – for example eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression 
  • Brittle, easily damaged nails
  • Hair thinning
  • Excessive thirst 
  • Excessive urination
  • Dry skin
  • Difficulty seeing in low light and/ or sensitivity to bright light
  • An increased risk of heart attack
  • An increased risk of blood clots
  • Obesity
Low levels of omega 6 have also been linked to cognitive issues like difficulty concentrating on tasks, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

Which foods are omega 6 found in?

  Many of the principle dietary sources of omega 6 are common in the modern diet:
  • Fish
  • Red meat
  • White meat
  • Almonds, walnuts and cashews
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Nuts – in particular almonds and walnuts
  • Hemp seeds
  • Sunflower seeds and sunflower oil
  • Foods made from maize
  • Soya products – for example milk, tofu
  • Avocados 
  • Blackcurrant
  • Evening primrose oil

Can too much omega 6 be harmful to your body?

  It is not only possible to consume too much omega 6, it is concerningly easy to do so. As we saw above, foods rich in this fatty acid are abundant in the typical modern western diet and many people consume far too much. 

Such symptoms as high blood pressure, water retention and tissue inflammation may point towards an omega 6 excess.

The best way to counter the problems of excess omega 6 is consuming a healthy balance of omega 3. As we saw above, omega 6 plays a role in the body’s natural inflammatory response to pathogens. Specifically, omega 6 is a precursor (substance used to create) chemicals which trigger this response – so an excess of omega 6 over a prolonged period could lead to chronic inflammation in parts of the body, significantly increasing a person’s risk of developing serious illnesses like arthritis, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome and even cancer.

By contrast, omega 3 has the opposite effect: it is a precursor to chemicals which switch off the inflammation response to pathogens. As a result, nutritionists recommend ensuring that you carefully balance your omega 6 intake with omega 3 for maximum health. Instead of the 20: 1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 seen in some contemporary western diets, aim for a ratio of around 4: 1. In other words: try to ensure that at least a quarter of your daily fatty acid intake comes from omega 3. Good sources of the latter include oily fish, seeds and nuts.

Test your omega 6 levels

The important role played by essential fatty acids in our health makes monitoring our consumption of these vital nutrients a sensible move – and thanks to the latest developments in medical technology, it is now much easier to do so. There is no need to wait weeks to see your GP or months for an appointment with a nutritionist. You can take a quick and simple omega 3 and 6 test at home. Collect a blood sample via a painless finger prick and send this back for chemical analysis at a medical laboratory. 

The Omega 3 and 6 test from Health Hub is specifically focused on the balance of these two nutrients within your body. Once you receive your results – accessible online or via an app – you will be able to use this valuable information to take control of our health and start planning any dietary adjustments you may need to undertake.

Sian Baker

Medically reviewed by Sian Baker, Dip ION mBANT mCNHC – Written by Beth Giddings

Updated on 1st December 2021