Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids. Our bodies cannot produce them, making our diet the primary source of these nutrients, followed by supplementation. These fats play crucial roles in every cellular function, regulating blood pressure, fortifying our immune system, and ensuring brain health. Yet, the significance lies not just in their intake but also in maintaining an appropriate balance between the two.
Understanding Omega-3 and Omega-6
Omega-6 fatty acids, predominantly found in vegetable and seed oils, eggs, and some nuts, play a pro-inflammatory role within the body. Conversely, omega-3 fatty acids, primarily sourced from oily fish, seeds, and certain different nuts, possess anti-inflammatory properties.
Before you drop the omega-6 fatty acids in a panic, inflammation is essential for our immune response and healing process. However, chronic inflammation can lead to severe diseases like heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases or just a general malaise that impacts your day-to-day performance, mentally and physically.
The Importance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio
The scientific community in general believes the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in our bodies should be around 3:1. However, some studies indicate that an even lower ratio of 2:1 or 1:1 could be more beneficial. The typical Western diet, rich in omega-6 (predominantly from seed oils in processed foods) and poor in omega-3 (lacking in fish), often results in an unhealthy ratio of approximately 16:1, contributing to excess inflammation and associated health risks. In some cases,
How Diet Affects Omega-6 and Omega-3 Levels
Diet directly influences the concentrations of omega-3 and omega-6 in our bodies. While animal products provide omega-3 fatty acids in the form of EPA and DHA, plant-based foods supply ALA omega-3. However, converting ALA to EPA and DHA in our bodies is somewhat inefficient, leading to lower levels of these beneficial fatty acids, especially in vegans and vegetarians.
Effect of Omega Imbalance and Chronic Inflammation
An imbalance in the omega-6 and omega-3 ratio can lead to chronic inflammation, aka wandering around feeling constantly lacklustre and struggling to be your best. Chronic inflammation is a prolonged state where the body's inflammatory response goes unchecked, making everyday life feel harder and potentially leading to a variety of health problems.
Chronic inflammation is believed to play a significant role in the development of conditions like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's and even certain cancers.
Signs of Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can often be silent, with no apparent symptoms (although if you're used to tuning into your body's signals, you should be able to notice it). However, some signs may include:
Constant or persistent fatigue
Persistent pain and niggles
Skin problems including sensitivity and acne
Digestive issues varying from constipation to diarrhea to intolerances cropping up "out of nowhere"
Weight fluctuations both from water retention and easily gained fat
If you're experiencing these symptoms persistently, it could be a sign of chronic inflammation. A certified health coach can help you identify and adjust your diet to test your hypothesis. If you have serious medical symptoms, seek medical advice and let them know you are going to work with a health coach to address lifestyle factors (a good coach will work in tandem with your doctor with open communication).
High Omega-3 and Omega-6 Food Sources
Omega-3 rich foods include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, along with flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. For those on a plant-based diet, algae can be a good source of omega-3, but it is worth knowing that the conversion from vegan sources is extremely limited and individual too.
Conversely, omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in foods like seed and vegetable oils, poultry, eggs, and nuts. If you are following a Western diet you almost certainly are currently eating an excess of omega-6 fats... or at least not balancing it out with omega-3!
Improving the Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio
Enhancing your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is fairly easy to do. You will need to increase your intake of omega-3-rich food, such as oily fish and flaxseeds, and in most cases, a robust omega-3 supplement is a great tool too.
If you are happy to take supplements and don't have any medical contraindications, I recommend adding good-quality fish oil that focuses on DHA. The humble cod liver oil your granny used to use is a great budget-friendly choice. I use NOW Foods, Double Strength DHA-500 Fish Oil for me and my family as it has an impressive DHA profile for the cost.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, you can buy algae supplements for omega-3, but please bear in mind that you may need a large dose to see effects due to bioavailability issues.
While omega-6 is essential, moderating its intake by choosing healthier sources, like avocado and sesame oils, can help maintain a balanced ratio. Choose non-processed foods where you can and don't believe the hype of products that offer an omega 3-6-9 blend. The chances of you needing to supplement omega-6 are excessively low. Grab some nuts if you think you're missing out!
Omega balance for performance
Balancing your omega-3 and omega-6 intake is fundamental to sustaining optimal health. It protects your heart, brain, and so much more while helping you slam on the breaks of aging. Through mindful dietary choices, and supplementing where needed, we can achieve a healthier balance and potentially lessen the risk of chronic diseases while maximising the chance of high mental focus and performance. Remember, a balanced diet is not just about eliminating unhealthy foods—it's about fueling your body with the nutrients it needs to thrive.