What Is It?
Omega-6 fatty acids belong to a group of “good” fats called polyunsaturated fatty acids. Unlike such “bad” fats as cholesterol and saturated fatty acids (which contribute to the worsening of a host of ailments including heart disease and other degenerative conditions), omega-6s can actually be beneficial to your health.
Omega-6 fatty acids are one of two types of essential fatty acids (EFAs) that people need to consume to stay healthy. Omega-3s are the other. Both are considered “essential” because the body can’t produce them on its own; it can only get them through foods.
Hardly a day goes by without new reports of exciting health benefits now associated with all EFAs. This is especially true for the omega-3s, which have been found to reduce the risks of heart problems, lower high blood pressure, and help autoimmune diseases and mood disorders. (For more information, see our WholeHealth Chicago entry on Omega-3 Fatty Acids.)
Omega-6 fatty acids are beneficial as well. The most healthful of the omega-6s are those that contain linoleic acid. These convert in the body to gamma linoleic acid (GLA) and ultimately to prostaglandins, hormonelike molecules that help regulate inflammation and blood pressure as well as heart, gastrointestinal, and kidney functions.
Good dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids include cereals, eggs, poultry, most vegetable oils, whole-grain breads, baked goods, and margarine.
Interestingly, nutritionists are now finding that omega-6s and omega-3s will only maintain their status as “good” fats when you get relatively balanced amounts of both. Unfortunately, most Western diets today are heavy on omega-6’s, often at the expense of omega-3s. This means that, except as an adjunct to certain health conditions, omega-6 supplements are probably not necessary.
The healing powers of a number of therapeutic oils rich in omega-6s–evening primrose oil (EPO), borage oil, black currant seed oil, and flaxseed oil among them–can be attributed to their high concentrations of GLA.
Once processed by the body, GLA is converted into prostaglandins, hormonelike substances that can either block inflammation or promote it. GLA-rich supplements such as borage oil and evening primrose oil help calm inflammation. This can make them an attractive treatment option for many inflammatory conditions.
Specifically, omega-6 fatty acids with a high GLA content may help to:
Reduce the aches and pains of rheumatoid arthritis. By creating “good” prostaglandins,omega-6s can help reduce the painfully inflamed joints of rheumatoid arthritis. By using a conventional prostaglandin-inhibiting anti-inflammatory (such as ibuprofen) at the same time, the effects of both will be increased.
Relieve the discomforts of PMS, endometriosis, and fibrocystic breasts. By creating good prostaglandins and blocking the “bad” variety, released during the days before and during menstruation, omega-6 supplementation may be helpful in reducing uncomfortable menstrually related symptoms, such as breast tenderness, bloating, or cramps.
Many PMS sufferers are found to have unusually low levels of GLA in their systems, which is why supplements rich in this omega-6 fatty acid seem to be helpful. In addition, women with fibrocystic breasts frequently have low levels of the mineral iodine. GLA appears to enhance the absorption of iodine, which helps to explain its usefulness in fibrocystic breast syndrome.
Reduce the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis. The essential fatty acids in omega-6s and omega-3s are important for healthy skin and hair, and they are probably beneficial for virtually any chronic skin condition. And for inflammatory skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, EFAs may serve a dual purpose: They serve as natural anti-inflammatories and as nutrients for healthy skin cells.
Clear up acne and rosacea.The GLA omega-6s (as well as the omega-3s) in supplements such as borage oil may reduce the risk of pores becoming clogged and lesions developing. The oil’s essential fatty acids help to treat rosacea by reducing inflammation, controlling the cells’ use of nutrients, and by producing prostaglandins, which stimulate the contraction of blood vessels.
Prevent and improve diabetic neuropathy. People with diabetes cannot form GLA from the omega-6 linoleic acid and so can develop a deficiency of GLA as a result. Studies have shown that in people with diabetes GLA supplementation improves nerve function and may even prevent nerve deterioration from occurring in the first place.
There is no formally established recommended daily intake for omega-6 essential fatty acids. Fortunately, most Westerners get enough omega-6s in their diet, making specific supplementation unnecessary. However, it’s certainly a good idea to use the healthful vegetable oils (such as corn and safflower) for cooking. Although these contain no GLA, they are rich in linoleic acid, which the body will convert to GLA, probably fulfilling your requirements for it.
What most people really do lack in their diets is a sufficient amount of omega-3s, to provide the balance necessary to make the omega-6s effective. In this case, by far the best source of omega-3s is simply to eat two or three servings per week of a cold-water oily fish, such as Atlantic salmon, lake trout, tuna, or Atlantic mackerel.
Note that not all sources of omega-6s contain the same percentage of GLA: Borage oil features more GLA (16%) than evening primrose oil (9%), and black currant oil offers rich stores as well (17%). Interestingly, most clinical studies on GLA have used evening primrose oil, which has been intensively studied for its safety and effectiveness for a number of ailments.
In the long run, however, borage oil and black currant oil may be better values than evening primrose oil simply because they are less expensive and contain more GLA than the better-known evening primrose oil.
For the majority of ailments: Take 1,000 to 1,300 mg of borage oil daily. This provides (respectively) 240 to 300 mg of GLA, the main healing ingredient. Nearly equivalent doses of GLA can be found in 3,000 mg of evening primrose oil or 1,500 mg of black currant seed oil.
Guidelines for Use
Many of the supplements rich in omega-6s should be taken with food. This is true for borage oil supplements, for example: GLA absorption is boosted and unpleasant side effects are minimizedwhen it is taken with a meal.
Keep in mind that many of the health benefits of omega-6s appear after several months of use.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with omega-6 fatty acids.
Possible Side Effects
Supplements rich in omega-6s, such as black currant oil, appear to be quite safe to take in commonly recommended dosages. For example, there have been no reports of adverse side effects with black currant oil.
For more information on the possible side effects associated with borage oil or evening primrose oil, see the respective entries in our WholeHealth Chicago library on Borage Oil and Evening Primrose Oil.
If you take omega-6s in borage oil supplements over several months, you need to be under a doctor’s supervision. In some cases, periodic liver function tests may be necessary.
Although borage oil is a possible alternative to evening primrose oil for omega-6s, far less information is available on its safety and effectiveness.
David Edelberg, MD