One of the most widely talked about supplements by fitness geeks and couch potatoes alike is fish oils. The ratio between omega 6 and omega 3 is out of balance with most in the Western world, said to be between 15-16.7 : 1 (Simopoulos, 2002) when ideally it should be more like 2:1 (the better the ratio the better the health benefits!)
EFAs are 'essential fatty acids' named as such because we can't produce them in our bodies meaning we need to include them in diet. So we do need both omega 6 and 3 but you've probably got enough 6 from what you already eat (safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil) these guys will regularly crop up on the ingredients list of processed foods and are not limited to just plant sources! If you're eating beef from a cow that's grain fed, you got yourself some omega 6 right there (as opposed to the ideal grass fed animals who are higher in omega 3).
EPA - Eicosapentaenoic acid
DHA - Docosahexaenoic acid
These are essential fatty acid components of omega 3 that provide some of the many health benefits derived from fish oil intake. These include:
1) Improved insulin sensitivity in muscle cells / Decreased insulin sensitivity in fat cells - suggesting that nutrient intake from food would be inclined to protein storage rather than being stored in adipose tissue. This would potentially increase metabolic rate and lean mass (Berardi and Mejia, 2005).
2) Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes (Simopoulos, 2002)
3) Improved fetal brain development - the addition of DHA to a pregnant woman's diet may be beneficial for the fetal brain development (Hoffman, 2011)
EPA and DHA are important components of retina and brain tissue and can help to form neuro-transmitters
The health benefits are not just limited to the diseases above. Simopoulos (2002) showed in a study that the improved omega 6 to 3 ratio could have beneficial effects on other pathologies. A ratio of 2.5:1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer compared to a ratio of 4:1 that did not prove to have the same effect. In inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis a ratio of 2-3:1 supressed inflammation. A ratio of 5:1 had positive implications on asthma sufferers whereas a ratio of 10:1 showed adverse effects.
A 'perfect ratio' does not therefore stand out as the diseases listed above are multifactorial and cannot all be improved a universal ratio it would seem. However, the general consensus seems to be that a lower and more balanced ratio of omega 6 to 3 has positive health outcomes whereas a higher omega 6 to 3 can have adverse effects on the body. What's more is taking fish oil as a supplement has no health risks and will only serve to benefit your health (Berardi and Mejia, 2005). So it's a no-brainer guys, if you're not on this stuff already, start taking it or at least start eating more oily fish!
Does flaxseed have the same benefits as taking fish oil?
Apparently not. There are plant sources of omega 3s such as flax, hempseed and walnut oil contain alpha-linoleic acid*. Your body can convert this into EPA and DHA but there is said to be very limited metabolic conversion of dietary alpha-linoleic acid to DHA. These plant sources themselves have no DHA content (Omega 3 institute, 2010).
*Please note that alpha linoleic acid is not the same thing as alpha lipoic acid which is an antioxidant produced in the body that aids glucose conversion into energy.
Simopoulos, AP (2002) 'The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids', Biomed Pharmacother, 56(8):365-79
Berardi, J; Mejia, M (2005) 'Scrawny to Brawny' , Rodale, USA