Omega 3, 6 and 9 essential fatty acids: what are they (and what’s the difference)?

Naturopath Jamie Jones offers an overview of the different kinds of Omega fatty acids and explains what each does

What exactly are essential fatty acids anyway?

If you’ve looked at the vitamin shelves in a pharmacy, healthfood store or supermarket, you’ve probably seen Fish Oil labels that talk about “essential fatty acids”. Ever wondered what these fatty acids are and what they’re meant to do for you?

Essential fatty acids (or EFAs) are nutrients that our bodies need in a similar way to the way they need vitamins and minerals. There are many kinds, and the EFAs in fish oil belong to just one kind of family – Omega 3. Other families include Omega 6 and Omega 9. EFAs are categorised into these families based on their chemical structure, and each family has different benefits for our health. We need the right balance of Omega 3, 6 and 9 EFAs to stay healthy and well.

Omega 3s: the heart, joint and brain EFAs

Omega 3 EFAs tend to be anti-inflammatory (helping to soothe and prevent inflammation) and anti-coagulatory (blood thinning). They help to maintain heart and joint health, and help with mood and emotional balance. These are the EFAs that help to balance our cholesterol and blood pressure, and blood sugar.

There are three important Omega 3 EFAs, all of which our bodies need on a regular basis. These are:

  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid): EPA is only found in any significant quantities in oily fish, e.g. salmon, mackerel and tuna, and in oils made from these fish. Our bodies can also create this fatty acid from ALA (see below) if we aren’t getting enough through our diets. EPA is an important component of our cell membranes, and helps our bodies and brains to function at a cellular level.
  • DHA (docosapentaenoic acid): like EPA, DHA is most often found in fish and fish oils, although some algae contain enough to provide a vegetarian source. DHA is critical for healthy vision and brain development in babies and young children. In fact, the need for DHA starts in the womb, so it is important for pregnant women to ensure their diets contain enough DHA.
  • ALA (alpha linolenic acid): flaxseed oil is the richest source of ALA, but it also occurs in soybeans, walnuts and green leafy vegetables. Our bodies convert ALA to EPA if we’re not eating enough fish (or fish oil), but the conversion process isn’t very efficient, so it can be hard to get enough EPA this way.

Omega 6s: hormonal balance and skin health

Although many Omega 6 EFAs can actually make inflammation worse, one of them (GLA) may actually help to soothe and relieve it. Omega 3 and Omega 6 EFAs work in balance with each other in our bodies, so it’s important to get the right ratio. Most of us get far more Omega 6 EFAs in our diet than Omega 3s, which may be at the root of some of our common health issues.

GLA (gamma linolenic acid) is found in high levels in Evening Primrose and Borage (starflower) seeds, and is more than just anti-inflammatory. It also supports hormonal balance – often assisting with the bloating, cramps and mood swings that accompany PMT and period pain. Plus, it can help to nourish our skin, hair and nails to support a glowing complexion; shiny, healthy locks; and strong nails.

Omega 9s: cardiovascular health and immunity

Technically speaking, Omega 9 fatty acids are not “essential”, since our bodies can synthesise them from other fatty acids in our diet. However, that doesn’t make them any less important for our health. Where Omega 3s and 6s are polyunsaturated fats, Omega 9s are monounsaturated.

One of the best known Omega 9 fatty acids is Oleic acid, which occurs in high levels in olive oil, as well as pecan and peanut oil. Oleic acid helps to keep our heart and arteries functioning the way they should;, and also seems to support our immune system.

How do you get the right balance of Omega 3s, 6s and 9s?

As with any nutrient, the best way for most people to get the right balance of different EFAs is to eat a balanced healthy diet. An ideal EFA diet would include fish, olive oil, nuts, lean meat, and plenty of whole grains and vegetables. However, if you don’t (or can’t) eat some of these foods, you may want to speak to a naturopath or nutritionist about supplementing. Omega EFA supplements are an easy, convenient way to get the important fatty acids your body needs if your diet is lacking.