Omega 3-6-9 fatty acids are one of the most popular supplements on the market. Typically derived from plant and fish oils, they are well researched and relatively free from side effects. A recent survey suggests that as much as 10% of all supplements consumed are omega-3/fish oil supplements. Only multivitamins and minerals (32%) and calcium supplements (12%) are more popular.1
So, what exactly are omega 3-6-9 fatty acids? Why are they important? This article is a little bit technical, but will help you understand the dynamics of how these fats are different.
The Basics of Fatty Acids
Fatty acids (FA) have several roles in the body. In addition to being the primary component of stored fat, they also serve as important building blocks of cell membranes and regulate inflammatory processes.2
There are two main types of fatty acids: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature, you’ll find in animals and tropical plants. Unsaturated fats, which are usually liquid at room temperature, you’ll find in vegetables, seeds, and fatty fish.
Unsaturated fats are classified as either polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), which mainly include omega-3 omega-6 fatty acids, or monounsaturated fats (MUFA), which include omega-9 fatty acids.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
The most important omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Alpha-linolenic acid is an essential fatty acid: “essential,” meaning that it must be provided in the diet or through supplementation.
The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA; however, the conversion is very inefficient, so dietary intake of EPA and DHA is important. EPA and DHA both play a crucial role in the development of the brain and central nervous system. They also have potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Because omega-3 fatty acids are so critical to neurological development, it is theorized that supplementation may aid in the treatment of neurological disorders. In addition, the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids may lead to improvements in some inflammatory conditions. Unfortunately, in both cases, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have found that supplementation shows mixed results, no benefits, or clinically insignificant benefits, with one exciting exception. Daily supplementation of 3g EPA/DHA can lead to improvements in the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. In some RCTs, patients have been able to reduce or completely eliminate RA medication.3
What Are Omega-6 Fatty Acids?
The primary omega-6 PUFA found in the diet is linoleic acid (LA). Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid, which is converted to another type of omega-6 PUFA called arachidonic acid (AA). Arachidonic acid and EPA serve as precursors to an important group of signaling molecules known as the eicosanoids.
Eicosanoids derived from AA increase inflammation and can increase the intensity and duration of pain and fever. The eicosanoids derived from EPA are what gives omega-3 PUFA its anti-inflammatory properties.4 The balance of these two types of eicosanoids has important implications for your body’s inflammatory response. Inflammation increases as the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 FA in your diet increases.
What Are Omega-9 Fatty Acids?
Omega-9 MUFA are components of animal fat and vegetable oil. The main type of omega-9 FA is oleic acid, which is found in olives, nuts, seeds, and animal fats. Because omega-9 fatty acids are non-essential, supplementation is not necessary.
Relationship of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Since omega-3 and omega-6 FA are a part of every cell in the body, changes in dietary composition of fatty acids has a direct effect on the concentration of fatty acids in your cell membranes. This in turn has an effect on the amount of inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory eicosanoids produced by your cells.
Historically, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet was roughly 2:1; however, recently, an increase in the use of vegetable oils in the western diet has raised that ratio to as high as 20:1. The current recommendation to improve the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. As you might suspect, reducing the amount of omega-6 FA (vegetable and seed oils) will also help to improve this ratio.5
Natural Sources of Omega 3, 6, & 9 Fatty Acids
Since the benefits of Omega 3-6-9 supplements are inconclusive and open to debate, here are some natural, non-supplement sources of omega fatty acids:
Remember, the goal is to eat more omega-3 and less omega-6!
- Animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids include: herring, sardines, salmon, mackerel, swordfish, mussels, tilapia, halibut, flounder, and pollock.
- Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include: flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, pecans, and hazelnuts.
- Sources of omega-6 fatty acids include: safflower oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and sunflower oil.
- Sources of omega-9 fatty acids include: olive oil and animal fat.
Do you have any favorite sources of omega 3, 6, or 9 fatty acids?
- Bailey RL, Gahche JJ, Miller PE, Thomas PR, Dwyer JT. Why US Adults Use Dietary Supplements. JAMA Intern Med.2013;173(5):355-361 ↩
- Major Roles of Biological Lipids. Themedicalbiochemistrypage.org, LLC. 2013. ↩
- Kremer, j. N-3 fatty acid supplements in rheumatoid arthritis 1’2. Am J ClinNutr January 2000 vol. 71 no. 1 349s-351s ↩
- Introduction to the Eicosanoids. Themedicalbiochemistrypage.org, LLC. 2013. ↩
- Christie, W. Fatty Acids: Methylene-Interrupted Double Bonds. AOCS Lipid Library. 2012. ↩