Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids; meaning that the body needs them and can’t make them. According to the University of New Mexico, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids should be consumed in a ratio of about 2:1 or 4:1 to balance them out. This is because the omega-6 acids have some inflammatory properties while the omega-3 acids can counteract these properties.
Where Do You Find Omega-6 Fatty Acids?
The primary place that omega-6 fatty acids are found is in unsaturated fat. These types of fat are found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. These types of fats are also found in red meat and fish in lesser quantities. The primary type of omega-6 fatty acid is Linoleic acid. This acid is an 18 carbon acid and cannot be made in the human body.
How Much Should I eat?
Omega-6 fatty acid consumption recommendations vary from around the world. The WHO recommends that 5%-8% of total calories come from omega-6 fatty acids while the American Dietetic Association only recommends 3%. The general consensus among all of the agencies is that the maximum amount of consumption of omega-6 fatty acids should be less than 10% of your total caloric intake. The American Heart Association would place a higher emphasis on overall eating pattern than a specific macronutrient target to ensure healthful eating.
What are they used for?
Medically omega-6 fatty acids have a wide array of uses when consumed as either evening primrose oil (EPO) or as Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA). The University of New Mexico cites several studies that link the use of these substances with the treatment of many health conditions.
Diabetic Neuropathy – Taking GLA for 6 or more months may reduce nerve pain for those with diabetic neuropathy.
Rheumatoid Arthritis – EPO may reduce symptoms of RA, but it does not stop the spread of the disease, so joint damage will still occur.
Allergies – GLA and EPO have long been used to treat allergies in folk medicines.
ADHD – Clinical studies show that kids with ADHD had lower levels of both omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids. Introducing these essential fatty acids into the diet may have some effect on the behavior though clinical results found that EPO was no better at reducing symptoms than placebo.
Breast Cancer – GLA in combination with other cancer-fighting medications can inhibit tumor activity in breast cancer cells. The introduction of any fatty acid supplements should be done with the express permission of your doctor!
Eczema – EPO can reduce the symptoms of eczema in short-term studies, however, in longer term studies there were no improvements in symptoms. The science may still be out on this one!
High Blood Pressure – Evidence suggests that GLA alone and with a combination of omega-3 fatty acids can successfully reduce the symptoms of hypertension. This was a reduction in both diastolic and systolic blood pressures and compared against placebo.
Menopause – EPO is a common home remedy for hot flashes. However, you may want to talk to your doctor about this one. There is little evidence that evening primrose oil is going to do anything to help you with your hot flashes.
As you can see, there are many health ailments that Omega-6 fatty acids have claimed to help treat. For some, the science is there and provides sound support that these essential fats will contribute to improving the condition. For most, however, there isn’t much more than folk evidence that these fatty acids can help to improve your health status.
The one thing that is clear is that omega-6 fatty acids should be consumed in moderation and in balance with omega-3 fatty acids.
These two essential fats seem to work together to help balance out essential functions within the body that regulate things like blood pressure and inflammation.
As with any supplement or nutrient if you have questions about how much you should be getting as part of your diet, consult your doctor or a board-certified dietitian. They can help you decide the right levels for your lifestyle and activity level.