Adam's Corner

Fats & Oils, Part III: Omega-6 fatty acids, and EFA balance

Plus: EFA’s against osteoporosis, PMS

The newsletter two months ago covered some basics of fats and oils. Last month covered the omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA’s), found in fish and flax oil (among other places), and how they combat inflammation and help prevent some of our most devastating degenerative diseases. Finally, I’m going to wrap up the topic of fats and oils with the other family of essential fatty acids, the omega-6’s.

If you remember, omega-3’s come in different forms. Some omega-3’s, from vegetarian sources, are really just raw materials. Before they can be used, the body has to perform a series of chemical reactions, which convert them into more useable forms. But omega-3’s from animal sources are already in the more useable forms. The body can use them quicker and more efficiently.Omega-6’s undergo a conversion process which parallels the omega-3’s. Look, I even drew a picture of it! (I did leave out some of the intermediate steps to simplify things a bit). As you can see, the linoleic acid found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds gets converted into GLA, then that gets converted into DGLA, etc…

Now here’s where it gets interesting. The enzymes which push these chemical reactions along on the omega-6 pathway are the exact same enzymes which work on the omega-3 pathway. And there are only so many enzymes to go around. In other words, if you load up on a ton of omega-6’s that need to go down the pathway, you’re basically blocking the conversion of the omega-3’s. The problem is that the average American diet is loaded with omega-6’s. Most of us get somewhere between 10-20 times as much omega-6’s as omega-3’s!

Even without any kind of competition between the omega-3’s and omega-6’s it’s that first, slow step which holds up the whole process. Some estimates have it that only 4% of all EFA’s get past this step at all. But if it’s already slow and inefficient, it only gets worse when you eat hydrogenated trans-fatty acids (like in margarine and many junk foods), alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. (Have you noticed a running theme here? Now matter what’s wrong with you, sugar usually makes it worse!) Deficiencies in zinc, vitamin B-6, and magnesium can also slow it down, as can diabetes and stress. Bear in mind again, this applies to both omega-3’s and omega-6’s.

The balance between the 3’s and 6’s isn’t just important because of the way they compete on

down the conversion pathway. The body also uses them for different, at times even opposite, things. While the omega-3’s are pretty much anti-inflammatory, the 6’s have often been characterized as pro-inflammatory. It’s really not as simple as that, of course. The omega-6’s do a lot of different things, many of them essential to life itself It’s just that having too much of them will make inflammation worse.

We probably want somewhere around a 3:1 ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s. And that’s if we’re healthy. If we’re suffering from chronic inflammatory disease, a 1:1 ratio would be even better. Look out for all those common vegetable oils like safflower, sunflower, soy and canola (and, by extension, the salad dressings, baked goods, sauces, and stir-fries that use them). They’re loaded with omega-6’s. We also get omega-6’s from meat, fish, and eggs, but since they’re way past that first step on the pathway, they won’t interfere with the body using the omega-3’s. You may have heard people say that fish and eggs are good sources of omega-3’s, and that may have once been the case. But the cheap junk food we feed farm animals greatly increases omega-6 at the expense of omega-3. Compare, for example an egg from a battery-raised hen (with about a 17:1 ratio) to one from a free-foraging hen (3:1). A similar comparison can be made for farm-raised versus wild salmon.

You’ll occasionally hear nutritional oils or oil blends being touted as containing “the ideal ratio of omega-3’s to omega-6’s.” I personally think this is rather misleading. Think of it this way: omega-6 to omega-3 balance is like the see-saw pictured below. Now how would you bring that see-saw into balance? Would you add equal amounts onto both sides? Of course not! You’d pile as much onto the omega-3 side as possible, or take some off the omega-6 side, or both.

Cold-water fatty fish and flax seeds are still the riches sources of omega-3’s out there. Hemp oil is also good. It has about a 1:1 ratio, and it tastes nice, too. If you come into the store, we actually have a chart which shows omega-6 to omega-3 ratios for various oils.

All this brings us to evening primrose, borage, and black currant seed oils. These three are good sources of GLA, which, as you can see on the diagram, is an omega-6 which is already past that first, slow step. So GLA doesn’t interfere that much with the body’s ability to handle omega-3’s. There have been quite a few studies on GLA oils where they have been helpful with everything from psoriasis to arthritis to Raynaud’s syndrome. In most of these cases, however, fish oils outperform the GLA oils. The one situation where GLA oils are really indicated, I think, is in PMS. GLA oils can be quite helpful with premenstrual water retention, mood swings, breast tenderness, etc. Give it three or four cycles.

Although I think that most of us should focus on the omega-3’s, sometimes the best approach is take a combination. An amazing study, published in the journal, Aging (October, 1998), tested a combination of evening primrose and fish oils on 65 women with osteoporosis or osteopenia. The average age of the women was 79.5, and they all lived in the same nursing home. Half the women were give oil capsules containing 480 mg of GLA from primrose and 420 mg of EPA and DHA from fish, while the other half were given a placebo. (Everyone was also given 600 mg of supplemental calcium). Over 18 months, the placebo group lost 3.2% of their lumbar spine bone density, while the treatment group remained the same. The placebo group also lost 2.1% of their femoral (leg) bone density, while the treatment group actually gained 1.3%. Over the next 18 months, everybody, including the original placebo group, were put on the fish + GLA combination, and these improvements all continued. Do you realize how amazing that is? To not just slow down, but actually reverse bone loss in post-menopausal women? Wow!

– Adam Stark

1. Not to be confused with linolenic acid, lipoic acid, conjugated linoleic acid, gamma-linoleic acid, etc. Just in case you were getting confused

Fats & Oils, part III: Omega-6 fatty acids, and EFA balancePlus: EFA’s against osteoporosis, PMS

The newsletter two months ago covered some basics of fats and oils. Last month covered the omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA’s), found in fish and flax oil (among other places), and how they combat inflammation and help prevent some of our most devastating degenerative diseases. Finally, I’m going to wrap up the topic of fats and oils with the other family of essential fatty acids, the omega-6’s.

If you remember, omega-3’s come in different forms. Some omega-3’s, from vegetarian sources, are really just raw materials. Before they can be used, the body has to perform a series of chemical reactions, which convert them into more useable forms. But omega-3’s from animal sources are already in the more useable forms. The body can use them quicker and more efficiently.

Omega-6’s undergo a conversion process which parallels the omega-3’s. Look, I even drew a picture of it! (I did leave out some of the intermediate steps to simplify things a bit). As you can see, the linoleic acid found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds gets converted into GLA, then that gets converted into DGLA, etc…

Now here’s where it gets interesting. The enzymes which push these chemical reactions along on the omega-6 pathway are the exact same enzymes which work on the omega-3 pathway. And there are only so many enzymes to go around. In other words, if you load up on a ton of omega-6’s that need to go down the pathway, you’re basically blocking the conversion of the omega-3’s. The problem is that the average American diet is loaded with omega-6’s. Most of us get somewhere between 10-20 times as much omega-6’s as omega-3’s!

Even without any kind of competition between the omega-3’s and omega-6’s it’s that first, slow step which holds up the whole process. Some estimates have it that only 4% of all EFA’s get past this step at all. But if it’s already slow and inefficient, it only gets worse when you eat hydrogenated trans-fatty acids (like in margarine and many junk foods), alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. (Have you noticed a running theme here? Now matter what’s wrong with you, sugar usually makes it worse!) Deficiencies in zinc, vitamin B-6, and magnesium can also slow it down, as can diabetes and stress. Bear in mind again, this applies to both omega-3’s and omega-6’s.

The balance between the 3’s and 6’s isn’t just important because of the way they compete on

down the conversion pathway. The body also uses them for different, at times even opposite, things. While the omega-3’s are pretty much anti-inflammatory, the 6’s have often been characterized as pro-inflammatory. It’s really not as simple as that, of course. The omega-6’s do a lot of different things, many of them essential to life itself It’s just that having too much of them will make inflammation worse.

We probably want somewhere around a 3:1 ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s. And that’s if we’re healthy. If we’re suffering from chronic inflammatory disease, a 1:1 ratio would be even better. Look out for all those common vegetable oils like safflower, sunflower, soy and canola (and, by extension, the salad dressings, baked goods, sauces, and stir-fries that use them). They’re loaded with omega-6’s. We also get omega-6’s from meat, fish, and eggs, but since they’re way past that first step on the pathway, they won’t interfere with the body using the omega-3’s. You may have heard people say that fish and eggs are good sources of omega-3’s, and that may have once been the case. But the cheap junk food we feed farm animals greatly increases omega-6 at the expense of omega-3. Compare, for example an egg from a battery-raised hen (with about a 17:1 ratio) to one from a free-foraging hen (3:1). A similar comparison can be made for farm-raised versus wild salmon.

You’ll occasionally hear nutritional oils or oil blends being touted as containing “the ideal ratio of omega-3’s to omega-6’s.” I personally think this is rather misleading. Think of it this way: omega-6 to omega-3 balance is like the see-saw pictured below. Now how would you bring that see-saw into balance? Would you add equal amounts onto both sides? Of course not! You’d pile as much onto the omega-3 side as possible, or take some off the omega-6 side, or both.


Cold-water fatty fish and flax seeds are still the riches sources of omega-3’s out there. Hemp oil is also good. It has about a 1:1 ratio, and it tastes nice, too. If you come into the store, we actually have a chart which shows omega-6 to omega-3 ratios for various oils.

All this brings us to evening primrose, borage, and black currant seed oils. These three are good sources of GLA, which, as you can see on the diagram, is an omega-6 which is already past that first, slow step. So GLA doesn’t interfere that much with the body’s ability to handle omega-3’s. There have been quite a few studies on GLA oils where they have been helpful with everything from psoriasis to arthritis to Raynaud’s syndrome. In most of these cases, however, fish oils outperform the GLA oils. The one situation where GLA oils are really indicated, I think, is in PMS. GLA oils can be quite helpful with premenstrual water retention, mood swings, breast tenderness, etc. Give it three or four cycles.

Although I think that most of us should focus on the omega-3’s, sometimes the best approach is take a combination. An amazing study, published in the journal, Aging (October, 1998), tested a combination of evening primrose and fish oils on 65 women with osteoporosis or osteopenia. The average age of the women was 79.5, and they all lived in the same nursing home. Half the women were give oil capsules containing 480 mg of GLA from primrose and 420 mg of EPA and DHA from fish, while the other half were given a placebo. (Everyone was also given 600 mg of supplemental calcium). Over 18 months, the placebo group lost 3.2% of their lumbar spine bone density, while the treatment group remained the same. The placebo group also lost 2.1% of their femoral (leg) bone density, while the treatment group actually gained 1.3%. Over the next 18 months, everybody, including the original placebo group, were put on the fish + GLA combination, and these improvements all continued. Do you realize how amazing that is? To not just slow down, but actually reverse bone loss in post-menopausal women? Wow!

– Adam Stark

1. Not to be confused with linolenic acid, lipoic acid, conjugated linoleic acid, gamma-linoleic acid, etc. Just in case you were getting confused.

Adam Stark has worked in the family business on and off since 1989.  You’ll see his fine and critical hand in the newsletter each month.  With a degree in biology and mind that doesn’t let anything just slip by, Adam believes that natural foods and medicines play an integral role in good health management and care.  He is the founder and formulator for AdamHerbs.
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