Omega 3, 6 and 9 are all types of polyunsaturated fatty-acids - these are fats that are good for you. Omega 3 and omega 6 are called 'essential' as our bodies cannot produce these by themselves so we have to get our needs met through our diet.
Where do I find omega 3, 6 & 9?
Omega 3: Omega-3 fats are a particular type of polyunsaturated fat, usually found in oily fish, including salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel. Another rich source is cod liver oil (usually taken on a spoon or as a capsule). Omega-3 is also found in flax seeds and nuts such as walnuts. Some white fish and shellfish contain some omega-3 including mussels, oysters, squid and crab.
Omega 6: Omega-6 is found in more foods than omega-3. Rich sources include: green leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts and cooking oils such as linseed, corn and soybean oil.
Omega 9: Omega-9s are the most plentiful of the fatty acids. Unlike omega 6 and omega 3 they are not considered 'essential' as we can make omega-9s from unsaturated fat in our bodies. Omega-9 can be found in animal fats and vegetable oils. Main sources include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil and sunflower oil. Fish oils can also be taken in supplement form on a spoon or in capsules.
Why do I need omega-3, omega 6 & omega 9
Omega 3: Omega 3 fatty-acid thins the blood and so reduces the risk of blood clots and helps to protect the heart. As a result the British Heart Foundation recommends eating oily fish at least once a week and to increase this to two to three portions weekly if you have had a heart attack. Omega-3 intake is also thought to be associated with healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
In addition, omega-3 reduces inflammation and may lower the risk of certain diseases such as arthritis. A recent study* has also shown that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of hip fractures in postmenopausal women. Omega 3-fatty acids is found in concentrated levels in the brain and is believed to improve cognitive functions such as memory and reasoning. For this reason, some experts believe omega 3-fatty acids may be protective against dementia and improve concentration in children. According to research, children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) appear to have low levels of essential fatty acids. Some trials suggest omega-3 supplements may benefit these children by helping to improve their concentration and behaviour. A recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry* linked low levels of omega 3 to increased levels of anxiety, poor memory and increased hyperactivity in adolescents. More research is needed in this area.
Furthermore, omega-3 fatty-acids are important for growth and development. In pregnancy omega-3 assists with the development of the baby's nervous system. Infants who get too little omega-3 in the womb may be at risk of developing vision and nerve problems. Other signs of an omega-3 fatty-acid deficiency include fatigue, mood swings, poor circulation, poor memory, dry skin and heart problems.
Omega 6: Omega-6 fatty acid does the opposite to omega 3 - helping our blood to clot which is important for wound healing. Omega-6 also boosts the immune system and is believed to help dry skin conditions such as eczema.Like omega-3, omega-6 fatty acid is important for normal brain function and behaviour. Children with ADHD appear to be deficient in both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Few people have a shortage of omega-6 fatty acids as it is found in most cooking oils.
Omega 9: Although not a perfect replacement, Omega-9 fatty acids can be used by the body as a substitute for omega 3 and omega 6 if these essential fatty-acids are in short supply. Olive oil is a rich source of omega 9 and is linked to many health benefits. However, it may be the high polyphenol content in olive oil rather than omega 9 itself that holds the key to good health. Polyphenols are thought to have anti-inflammatory, anti-clotting and antibacterial properties.Omega-9s may play a role in helping to reduce LDL ('bad') cholesterol and raise HDL ('good') cholesterol and to control blood sugar levels.
Can omega-3, omega-6 & omega-9 ever be harmful?
Omega 3: Because omega-3 thins the blood you should consult your doctor before taking supplements if you are already on blood thinning medication such as warfarin or aspirin. Likewise, you should seek advice if you are taking omega-3 supplements and are due to have surgery as this may put you at risk of excess bleeding. Very high doses of omega-3 fatty acids can also cause nosebleeds and blood in the urine.The University of Maryland Medical Center* in the US, recommends that adults not take more than 3 grams daily of omega-3 fatty acids from capsules without supervision, due to an increased risk of bleeding.
Omega 6:Too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 can contribute to obesity and possibly other conditions including coronary heart disease. It’s important to get a balance of both omega 3 and omega 6 as they play opposing roles (for example omega-3 thins the blood, while omega-6 helps with clotting, omega-3 reduces inflammation while some forms of omega-6 increase it). This is why a Mediterranean diet is so healthy as it balances omega 3 and omega 6 perfectly.The recent study* linking omega-3 intake to reduce risk of hip fracture, revealed that as the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s increased, so did the risk for hip fracture. Evening primrose is an omega-6 supplement which in too high doses has been linked to headaches, nausea, abdominal pain and loose stools (poo). It has also been linked to seizures so you should not take omega-6 supplements if you have a history of seizures.
Omega 9: Our bodies can synthesise omega-9 fats from the things we eat - so an omega-9 shortage is unlikely. If you are consuming too much omega-9 then chances are your diet is high in fat and dietary cholesterol putting you at risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.