Omega 6: Types, Sources, Health Benefits, Side Effects, FAQ’s & More

Omega-6
Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.
 

What is Omega 6?

Omega-6 fatty acids are Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA’s) that are considered important members of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s). The molecular structure of these compounds is similar to Omega-3 acids, with a carboxylic acid group (-cooh) on one end of a carbon chain, forming the “alpha” end of the molecule, and a methyl (ch3) group on its tail end, forming the “omega” end. The “6” in their nomenclature comes from the fact that they contain their first cis double bond on the sixth carbon from methyl end of the carbon chain forming their structure.

What are the Types of Omega 6 Fats?

Omega-6 Fats

Although there are quite a few types of omega6 fatty acids, the most important one is Linoleic Acid. Although their names sound similar, care must be taken to not confuse it with Alpha Linolenic Acid, or ALA, which is an Omega 3. Structurally, Linoleic Acid is a carboxylic acid with an 18 carbon long-chain. The molecule contains two cis double bonds, the first one being on the sixth carbon from the end of the chain.

Like any other omega-6 fatty acid, LA is an Essential Fatty Acid and that must be consumed to maintain a healthy metabolism. It is used by the body to synthesize a vast array of biochemicals, such as arachidonic acid (AA) and hence some prostaglandins, leukotrienes and thromboxane.

Cockroaches interestingly release this fatty acid, along with oleic acid, upon death. The purpose is to warn other roaches to not enter the area where the dead bug is present, as a safety measure against a possible threat that may be looming close by.

Omega-6 Formula

LA has a lot of commercial uses. It is used to make quick drying oils and surfactants due to its consistency. Cosmetic product manufacturers have been using this fatty acid as an ingredient for their beauty products, seeing as it inhibits acne and inflammation and retains moisture. This makes it effective for dry skin.

Lipid radicals of Linoleic Acid are often used in research pertaining to antioxidants.

LA is metabolized in the body to form Gamma Linolenic Acid, which is an isomer ( a molecule with the same molecular content but a different arrangement of atoms) of ALA, an omega-3. However, it is categorized as an EFA and is an important part of the human physiology, although most of its effects have not been proven. GLA is the only Omega-6 fat that is endogenously synthesized.

What are the Sources of Omega 6 Fats?

Sources of Omega-6 Fats

Omega-6 fatty acids cannot be synthesized by the body and must be consumed exogenously. LA, GLA, and AA all exist in various natural foods. However, eating too much omega 6 can be detrimental to health, especially if the ratio of their consumption compared to omega-3 consumption is high.

Animal Source Vegetable/Fruit Source
Turkey Fat Nuts and Cereals
Chicken fat Durum wheat
Duck fat Whole-grain breads
Goose fat Most vegetable oils
Beef tallow Evening primrose oil
Mutton tallow Borage oil
Chicken Liver Blackcurrant seed oil
Egg Yolk Flax/linseed oil
Goat Rapeseed or canola oil
Veal Hemp oil, Soybean oil
Pork lean Cottonseed oil, Sunflower seed oil
Bison Corn oil, Safflower oil
Ostrich Pumpkin seeds, Acai berry
Lamb Cashews, Pecans, Pine nuts, Walnuts

i. Animal Source
There are very few animal sources that provide significant amounts of Omega-6 fats. Poultry is generally considered the top animal source for this fatty acid. Egg yolk and chicken fat are both rich in Omega6.

Omega-6 fatty acids obtained from animal sources may have a high concentration of this fatty acid compared to Omega-3, which can be harmful. The ratio of omega3 to Omega 6 in the diet should be 1:1 to maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, an average individual’s diet today consists 16 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3. Researchers have found that the main reason for this concentration is the quantity-based approach to livestock farming in modern agriculture. Free range animals that consume a more natural diet show a much more acceptable ratio of these two fatty acids. However, animals fed on synthetically produced diets tailored to increase* the quantity of meat tend to have a higher ratio of Omega6.

ii. Vegetable/Fruit Source
There are many plant-based sources rich in Omega-6. Four major food oils (palm, soybean, rapeseed and sunflower) constitute the bulk of this source.

The oils of Salicornia and Safflower are the richest sources of LA, containing around 75% of this fatty acid, followed by evening primrose oil and poppy seed oil. Many grain oils such as those of wheat germ, corn, and rice bran are also rich in this fatty acid. Fruit based sources include grape seed oil. Several nut oils are also good sources of Linoleic Acid, with those of pistachio, peanuts, walnuts and almonds containing roughly 30 to 50% of it.

Gamma Linoleic Acid was first derived from the oil of the evening primrose. The flower has been synonymous with GLA and its beneficial effects since ancient times. Unlike LA, safflower does not contain GLA, although genetically engineered varieties high in it have been produced. Several other vegetable oils are naturally high in GLA. These include blackcurrant seed oil, hemp seed oil and borage seed oil. Oats, spirulina, and barley are other sources of this fatty acid.

What are the Omega 6 Health Benefits?

The mechanism of action of Omega 6 fatty acids on the body systems is still not completely understood. However, these fats have defined effects on human metabolism. They are known as both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory. Omega-6 fats can be used to fight against or treat* a wide variety of diseases and ailments.

Omega 6 Health Benefits
Omega 6 Health Benefits

1. Breast Pain and Eczema
The evening primrose, a good source of GLA, has been used for hundreds of years for treating local inflammation. It was once known as the “king’s cure-all”. It is popularly known as the only effective treatment for breast pain and eczema. This claim has been questioned by several researchers, who argue that evening primrose oil’s effects have been blown out of proportion. The GLA found in the flower does help increase* the body’s response to tamoxifen, a drug often prescribed to females with breast cancer. The claims for eczema still seem dubious. The research on GLA and its effects on the reduction* of eczema symptoms has shown mixed results, with several subjects reporting no change in their condition.

2. Diabetic Neuropathy
Nerve pain arising in patients with diabetic neuropathy can effectively be reduced* by prescribing those GLA supplements for roughly six months. The effect of this fatty acid on nerve pain is more pronounced in diabetics whose blood sugar is under control.

3. Joint Damage and Arthritis
GLA has been known to have anti-inflammatory qualities, and may prove effective in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. However, it should be noted that GLA is not an effective cure* for any such disorders, and although it may reduce* symptoms such as pain, joint damage in RA is inevitable.

4. Osteoporosis and Multiple Sclerosis
EPO has also been known to show positive effects on patients suffering from diseases such as osteoporosis and multiple sclerosis. However, these too require more research before the effects are proven.

5. Allergies
Many people swear by evening primrose oil as an effective remedy for allergies. Interestingly, women prone to allergies have been found to have low levels of GLA in their breast milk and blood. However, GLA is in no way a cure* for any such bodily reactions to foreign substances, and major allergic reactions causing anaphylaxis must be treated by a healthcare professional.

6. ADHD
A lot of research has been done on the effect of omega fats on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. It has been found that children with this disorder have low levels of Essential Fatty Acids. However, although some studies say that fish oil can reduce* the symptoms of ADHD, the correlation between the disorder and omega fats has not been proven.

7. Hypertension
The research on the use of GLA and other omega fats on hypertension have however shown promising results. Blackcurrant seed oil has been shown to decrease* the blood pressure of males with borderline hypertension.

8. Menstrual Syndromes
Evening primrose oil and other good sources of GLA have been shown to have varying effectiveness on gynecological ailments. As mentioned above, GLA increases* the body’s response to the drugs given for breast cancer. It is also commonly prescribed to women suffering from fibrocystic breast disease or cystic mastalgia. Several women claim that evening primrose oil helps reduce* menstrual syndromes such as hot flashes. Others who suffer from Pre Menstrual Syndrome take it to combat water retention (bloating and swelling), irritability and depression.

What are the Omega 6 Side Effects?

Omega6 fatty acids can be detrimental to health if taken in a large quantity since they increase* the levels of triglycerides. The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 in the diet should be maintained at 1:1. In addition, people with a tendency to have high triglycerides and cholesterol should limit their consumption of this fatty acid.

Less Common Incidence Not Scientifically Proven
Acid or sour stomach Diarrhea
Bad, unusual, or unpleasant (after) taste Difficulty having a bowel movement (stool)
Belching Loss of appetite
Bloated or full feeling Nausea or vomiting
Change in taste Passing of gas
Excess air or gas in the stomach Stomach fullness
Heartburn
Indigestion
Stomach discomfort, upset, or pain

EPO consumption is very dangerous for people who suffer from seizure disorders since it increases* the tendency to cause seizures. EPO induced seizures have been reported to have occurred in patients with previous seizure disorders, or those combining EPO with anesthetics. People undergoing surgery under anesthesia should stop taking concentrated sources of GLA at least half a month before the surgery. Schizophrenic patients are also advised to not take GLA supplements, as they may react with the drugs they take for their disorder and induce a seizure.

GLA shows pro-inflammatory effects when consumed in a quantity of more than 3000mg per day. It is wise to stay within the recommended daily allowance for all dietary supplements.

EPO is also known to cause general side effects such as headaches, diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain.

Research has shown that corn oil and related sources of GLA may induce the growth of prostate tumor cells. Males with a family history of prostate cancer are advised to limit their consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-6 supplements, like any other dietary supplements, may interfere with other drugs being taken. Sometimes these reactions may be detrimental to the health of the patient.

GLA increases* the efficacy of blood thinning medications such as heparin and warfarin. This increases* the risk of bleeding and is potentially dangerous for patients who are already very sick.

Some studies have shown that GLA increases* the effect of antibiotics, and can be a beneficial supplement in infections. It also increases* the effect of immunosuppressant and chemotherapy.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume Omega-6 fatty acids in a limited quantity, making sure that their daily consumption exceeds no more than 10% of the daily calories. There is not much research to point out any beneficial effects of Omega 6 fats in pregnant or breastfeeding females. However, when choosing natural sources of GLA, care must be taken to avoid borage seed oil and related products, which can be teratogenic ( harming the fetus) and may induce premature labor.

Omega 6 FAQs

  • Why is too much OMEGA-6 detrimental to health?
    Omega6 fats tend to raise the triglyceride levels in the blood when consumed. Consuming a daily amount of more than 3000mg of GLA can also lead to pro-inflammatory effects of this fatty acid.
  • Can eating omega-6 fatty acids cause heart disease?
    A high level of triglycerides in the blood can lead to several cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension and heart attack. Omega-6 tends to increase* the level of this fat in the blood.
  • How can I know if I have a normal Omega-6 fatty acid balance?
    A person should consume Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats in a ratio of 1:1. When consuming animal products, care must be taken to ensure that the meat came from grass fed livestock or free range poultry.
  • Is Omega-6 as good for you as Omega-3?
    Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are used very differently by the body, their anti-inflammatory effects being the only effect on the body that they share. Both forms of omega fats are Essential Fatty Acids that are required by the body for a normal metabolism
  • How much Omega 6 should I get daily?
    The amount of Omega 6, a person should consume on a daily basis depends on several factors, such as his or her age, medical status or susceptibility to diseases. Currently there is no Daily Recommended Allowance for this fat. However, GLA should never be consumed at more than 3000mg per day because at higher levels it tends to cause inflammation.
  • Is it safe to take Omega-6 while I am pregnant?
    The effect of Omega-6 on pregnancy is still under research. However, borage oil should be avoided by pregnant women due to its tendency to induce labor and harm the fetus.
  • Is Omega-6 for adults only?
    Omega-6 fatty acids can be consumed by any age group, provided there are no contraindications.
  • Is Omega-6 Fats Good to Children?
    Children can safely consume Omega6. Those with diseases such as ADHD are sometimes prescribed these fats because they tend to reduce* the symptoms of these disorders.
  • Is it safe to take Omega-6 without consulting a Doctor?
    Since there is no RDA for Omega-6 fats, and because their consumption depends on a vast array of factors, it is always suggested to consult your medical healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplements rich in this fat.

Conclusion

Omega-6 fatty acids are Essential Fatty Acids that are not produced by the body, except for the special variant GLA. This makes the consumption of these fatty acids a must, but in a moderate amount, as they tend to carry several side effects. It can increase* or decrease* the symptoms of many different diseases and have quite a few drug interactions. This is why currently every human being has his or her own requirement of Omega 6. It is always wise to ask your doctor when starting a supplement such as fish oil capsules or Evening Primrose Oil.

References:

  • Scorletti, E.; Byrne, C.D. (2013). “Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Hepatic Lipid Metabolism, and Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease”. Annual Review of Nutrition
  • Simopoulos, A.P (2002). “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids”. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy
  • Hibbeln, Joseph R; Nieminen, Levi RG; Blasbalg, Tanya L; Riggs, Jessica A; Lands, William EM (2006). “Healthy intakes of n?3 and n?6 fatty acids: estimations considering worldwide diversity”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
  • Anandan C, Nurmatov U, Sheikh A. Omega 3 and 6 oils for primary prevention of allergic disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. Allergy. 2009 Jun
  • Attar-Bashi NM, Li D, Sinclair AJ. alpha-linolenic acid and the risk of prostate cancer. Lipids. 2004

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Author

Expert Author : Dr. Ahmed Zayed (Consumer Health Digest)

Dr. Ahmed Zayed Helmy holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. He has completed his degree in 2011 at the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed believes in providing knowledgeable information to readers. Other than his passion for writing, currently he is working as a Plastic surgeon and is doing his masters at Ain shams University.