There’s an essential fatty acid that is necessary for optimal health but cannot be produced on its own by the body. I’m talking about omega-6.
Omega-6 fatty acids, like omega-3s, are essential fatty acids that can only be provided to us through food and supplements. Unlike omega-9, omega-6 is not produced in the body at all, yet omega-6 fatty acids are very important to the brain to help strengthen its much-needed function through healthy growth and development.
This polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) does even more than just keep the brain in good order, however. It also stimulates skin and hair growth, provides and maintains good bone health, helps regulate the metabolism, and helps keep the reproductive system healthy, among other benefits.
Benefits of Omega-6
1. Helps Reduce Nerve Pain
Studies show that taking gamma linolenic acid (GLA) — a type of omega-6 fatty acid — for a period of six months or more may reduce symptoms of nerve pain in people with diabetic neuropathy. People who have normal blood sugar control may find GLA more effective than those with poor blood sugar control, and GLA in primrose oil has been found to be helpful. Two trials studied GLA and its effects, demonstrating positive results on nerve pain after one year of treatment. (1)
2. Fights Inflammation
We know inflammation negatively affects our health and can exacerbate and even cause disease. In fact, most chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, are highly inflammatory. Because of this, the link between how we eat and disease is critical.
Eating healthy fats like PUFAs generally have a positive effect on health. These fats found in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can play significant role in health and disease. GLA is produced in the body from linoleic acid, which I’ve noted is an omega-6 essential fatty acid. GLA is further metabolized to DGLA, which makes it an anti-inflammatory nutrient. (2)
3. Treats Rheumatoid Arthritis
Evening primrose oil or primrose comes from the seeds of a Native American wildflower, containing 7 percent to 10 percent GLA. Preliminary evidence suggests that primrose may reduce pain, swelling and morning stiffness. While it likely takes one to six months to notice the effects, it may not go so far as to stop the progression of the disease, which means joint damage would still occur.
4. May Help Reduce Symptoms of ADHD
A study out of Sweden focused on assessing the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in subjects with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study included a total of six months of testing with 75 children and adolescents (8–18 years old). While a majority did not respond to omega-3 and omega-6 treatment, a subgroup of 26 percent responded with more than a 25 percent reduction of ADHD symptoms. After six months, 47 percent showed improvement in symptoms. (4)
5. Reduces High Blood Pressure
GLA alone or combined with omega-3 fish oil may help reduce high blood pressure symptoms. Evidence in one study of men who were borderline high blood pressure candidates suggests that GLA may help reduce high blood pressure in those who take six grams of blackcurrant oil. Subjects had a reduction in diastolic blood pressure compared to those who took the placebo.
Another study examined people with intermittent claudication, which is pain in the legs while walking caused by blockages in the blood vessels. Researchers found that those who took evening primrose oil had a reduction in systolic blood pressure. (5)
6. Lowers Risk of Heart Disease
The American Heart Association suggests that linoleic acid may decrease the risk coronary heart disease. By substituting vegetable oils rich in PUFAs instead of using saturated fats, you can greatly benefit and possibly prevent heart disease. (6)
As mentioned, linoleic acid is a PUFA that can be obtained from vegetable oils as well as nuts and seeds, but again, some choices are better than others so use caution and avoid GMO oils. Walnuts are a great source of omega-6s, providing about 11 grams of linoleic acid. As well, it contains alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, so you can get both at one time and avoid overconsumption of fats.
7. Supports Bone Health
Studies conducted in Southern California and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicate that PUFAs may help preserve skeletal formation as we age. Both men and women showed improvement in both the bones of the hips and spine when taking omega-6 and omega-3 fats, showing they can build bone health.
Researchers concluded: “An increasing ratio of total dietary n−6 to n−3 fatty acids was also significantly and independently associated with lower BMD at the hip in all women and at the spine in women not using hormone therapy. A higher ratio of n−6 to n−3 fatty acids is associated with lower BMD at the hip in both sexes.” (7)
Omega-6 Foods & Supplements
There are several different types of omega-6 fatty acids, and most come from vegetable oils, such as linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is converted to GLA in the body. From there, it breaks down even more to what’s known as arachidonic acid. GLA can be found in several plant-based oils, including evening primrose oil, borage oil and black currant seed oil, and may actually reduce inflammation. In fact, much of the GLA that is taken as a supplement converts to a substance called DGLA that fights inflammation.
Certain nutrients in the body, including magnesium, zinc, and vitamins C, B3 and B6, are needed to help promote the conversion of GLA to DGLA. However, DGLA is an extremely uncommon fatty acid, found only in trace amounts in animal products. (8)
Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in supplements, but whenever possible, it’s always best to get the nutrients that the body needs through your food. In this case, beef, chicken and eggs, as well as nuts and plant-based oils, are all great sources. In fact, it’s important to note that you should include dietary fats that are from organic, unprocessed and non-GMO whole foods to gain the best benefits.
The problem is that the typical American diet tends to contain significantly more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, particularly because omega-6 is in a lot of unhealthy foods, such as salad dressings, potato chips, pizza, some pasta dishes and processed meats like sausage, to name a few.
Conversely, the Mediterranean diet, for example, has a healthier balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which may be why the Mediterranean-style diet is known as a great choice for a healthy heart. More specifically, the Mediterranean diet does not include as much meat as a typical Western diet does. Most meat is high in omega-6 fatty acids, though grass-fed beef has more omega-3. However, the Mediterranean diet includes foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, garlic, and moderate wine consumption, all of which help balance the fatty acid ratio. (9)
Most omega-6 fatty acids are consumed in the diet from vegetable oils, but don’t get carried away. Excessive amounts of these vegetable oils, or linoleic acids, can contribute to inflammation and result in heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis and depression, which is one reason you need to keep your consumption moderate. However, these fatty acids have been shown to aid in the healthy function of cells. In a study of older adults with the mean age of 74, omega-6s may have contributed to a lower mortality rate — so it’s not as if you need or want to avoid omega-6s altogether. (10)
There should be a balance between the essential acids of both the omega-6 and omega-3s. The suggested ratio is around 2:1 omega-6 to omega-3. It’s pretty easy to get omega-6s through foods so supplements are typically not needed; however, omega-6 fatty acids are available in supplemental oils that contain both linoleic acid and GLA, such as evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis) and black currant (Ribes nigrum) oils. Spirulina, which is often called blue-green algae, also contains GLA.
- Linoleic Acid: soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil, rice bran oil
- Arachidonic Acid: peanut oil, meat, eggs, dairy products
- GLA: hemp seeds, Spirulina, evening primrose oil (7 percent to 10 percent GLA), borage oil (18 percent to 26 percent GLA), black currant seed oil (15 percent to 20 percent GLA)
Highest Omega-6 Foods: (14)
If you’re looking for a great omega-6 recipe, try this Toasted Coconut and Walnut Spinach Salad with Dates.
- 6 cups baby arugula leaves
- 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
- ½ cup toasted coconut chips
- 6 Medjool dates, chopped
2 tablespoons hemp seeds
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Combine the extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil, apple cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, sea salt and black pepper in a large bowl; stir briskly with a whisk. Set aside.
- In a pan on the stove, lightly toast the walnuts by placing them in the pan (in one layer) on medium to high heat for just a few seconds to about a minute. You can do this without oils, but watch closely as they can burn easily as the pan gets hotter. You just want to lightly toast by shaking the pan every few seconds until you see a slightly golden toasted appearance on one side. Set aside to cool. Using the same pan, lightly toast the coconut in the same way. Set aside.
- Now, add the arugula, dates and hemp seeds to the bowl; toss to coat well. Place about 1.5 cups of salad on plates and top each with 1 tablespoon of walnuts and 1 tablespoon of coconut flakes.
People with specific conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, diabetes or breast tenderness, should consult their doctors before taking any omega-6 supplements. Both borage oil and evening primrose oil reportedly lower the seizure threshold; therefore, individuals requiring anticonvulsant medication should exercise caution and discuss it with their physician.
Some omega-6 fatty acids, such as GLA, may increase or decrease the effects of certain medications.
In addition, consuming too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s can throw off your fatty acid balance, which has numerous negative effects. That means you want to watch your omega-6 intake and eat a healthier diet than most Western diets. Try the Mediterranean diet as a guide, and monitor the type of fats you consume.
- Omega-6 is an essential fatty acid we must obtain from food and supplement sources, since our bodies do not produce it on their own.
- Omega-6 helps reduce nerve pain, fights inflammation, treats arthritis, may help reduce symptoms of ADHD, reduces high blood pressure, lowers risk of heart attack and supports bone health.
- Some of the top omega-6 foods include safflower, grapeseed, sunflower oil, poppyseed oil, corn oil, walnut oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil and sesame oil.
- Most Americans consume too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s. It’s important to balance omega-6 and omega-3 intake to keep the ratios in balance.