Making Sense of Omega 3 and Omega 6

Jul. 4, 2017

By Alexandra Borrelly

As we begin enjoying summer vacations, camping trips, and visits north to stay cool, it seems like a good time to talk about the special fish that live in the cold-water lakes of the northern United States and Canada. Herring, salmon, and anchovies are just a few of the fish high in a healthy fat, known as omega 3.

Omega 3 and omega 6 fats – essential fatty acids – can’t be made by the human body, so they must be consumed from plants and animals. Omega 6 fats help with brain function, muscle growth, and hormone production, but on the flip side, they also cause inflammation in the body.

Omega 3 fats are highly beneficial for the cells because they reduce inflammation and may lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Additionally, they are highly concentrated in the brain and are important for memory, performance, and brain development. They have also been shown to combat depression.

These two essential acids exist in a ratio to each other. Because there is a limit to the amount the body can use, omega 3 and omega 6 end up competing with each other in the body for space.

In order to maintain health and respond to the body’s day-to-day needs, it’s important to balance omega 3 and omega 6 to maintain a homeostasis between inflammation and repair.

As an athlete, micro-inflammations of the muscles due to physical activity are frequent. It is therefore essential to have a large dietary intake of omega 3.

Unfortunately, it’s often easier to get omega 6 than it is to get omega 3 – and omega 3 is the essential fatty acid we need more of. If our diet is high in processed foods – which include vegetable oil, salad dressing, nuts, seeds, and wheat – we will have too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3.

Some signs of a long-term imbalance between omega 3 and omega 6 are:

  • Cardiovascular disorders
  • Dyslipidemia (too much lipid in the blood)
  • Mood and behavior disorders
  • Degenerative diseases

So where can we find these good fats? The best source of omega 3 is from fatty fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines, and salmon because fish are a direct source of omega 3.

Plant oils such as rape, linseed, purslane, avocado, and nuts like walnuts, cashews, and almonds also provide omega 3 fatty acids. Unlike fish, omega 3 from plants needs to be transformed by the human body before it can be used. Vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin B6, and vitamin C are necessary for the process.

It should be noted that as we age, this transformation mechanism is much less effective, so it’s necessary to increase our intake of fatty fish as we get older.

It's easy to find canned salmon, anchovies, and sardines in our local markets. Canned salmon can be added to salads or sandwiches and anchovies can take a Caesar dressing from good to great.

If you are a vegetarian, you can make your own healthy salad dressings from a tablespoon of olive oil and two tablespoons of walnut oil or flaxseed oil. Additionally, consuming two to three servings of fatty fish per week, snacking on nuts, and including one or two avocados in a salad or smoothie will keep your brain happy and your body healthy.

Alexandra Borrelly Lebrun is a pharmacist and has studied sports nutrition and natural medicine. She works alongside her husband, a former professional XTERRA athlete & 2005 XTERRA World Champ, Nico Lebrun, at Organicoach, where they create optimized nutrition plans for athletes of all levels.