The nutritional fats known as essential fatty acids (EFAs) are very important for health, but they can't be made by the body. They must come from either food or supplements. Linoleic acid/omega-3 and linoleic acid/omega-6 are the most critical EFAs for human health. Today's diets lead to too much omega-6 fatty acids, animal fats, dairy and most vegetable oils, and too few omega-3s (fish oil, cold water fish, canola oil, flaxseed oil, walnuts). Because of this, most supplements are for omega-3.
Flax oil and fish oil are the most common sources for omega-3 supplements. While these products do contain some omega-6, omega-3 is in a higher concentration. The most common omega-6 supplements are black currant seed oil, borage oil and evening primrose oil.
How are Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids Used in the Body?
The body converts linolenic acid/omega-3 into fatty acids DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). They're believed to be responsible for most of omega-3's benefits, and are only found in cold water fish tissues, certain forms of algae and wild game. Omega-3 that comes from plants (canola oil, walnuts, flax) must be converted by the body into DHA and EPA, which isn't very efficient (10 to 40 percent). This is why eating fish is the easiest way to get this essential nutrient. Linoleic acid/omega-6 is converted by the body into fatty acids such as GLA (gamma linolenic acid).
Essential Health Benefits of EFAs
Both omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs are used in the body for many purposes. They produce compounds that control inflammation and maintain cell structures. EFAs are critical nutrients for maintaining healthy skin, clear vision, a healthy brain and a positive mood. An EFA deficiency in one's diet may cause chronic inflammation, poor mood, skin issues and cardiovascular problems.
Other benefits of EFAs include:
- Breaks down fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin K and Vitamin E, both important for heart health
- Supports the resolution of chronic inflammation caused by lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders (fish oil, especially)
- Reduces certain allergies (GLA supplements)
- Lessens the effects of eczema, psoriasis and systemic sclerosis
How to Use EFAs
Fish oil softgels are popular and effective for omega-3 supplementation. Vegetarians can use flaxseed oil. Those on low-fat diets who need omega-6 fatty acids as well can use a combination 3-6-9 formula that provides both omega-3 and omega-6, in addition to non-essential omega-9.