Omega 3-6-9 Ratio with Dr. Maille Devlin
1. What is an Omega 3-6-9 Ratio?
The omega 3-6 ratio is the proportion in which omega-3 and 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are present in the body.
To better understand this, we need to look at what role these fatty acids play in the body.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that are needed for the proper structure and function of our cells. There are three major forms of omega-3 fatty acids, ALA, EPA, and DHA with the latter two being the most utilized in the body. The human body can create EPA and DHA from ALA, however, this process is highly inefficient and therefore omega-3 fatty acids need to be sourced mostly from the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, which is why they have been proven to reduce chronic disease and maintain good health.
Omega-6 fatty acids are another type of PUFA. These fatty acids are also needed in the body and are sourced from the diet. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. Although these PUFAs are essential for the body, they act as precursors to hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins and are also needed as a structural component of cell membranes. However, unlike omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory.
The body needs to maintain a balance between the omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory and omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory. This balance is measured by the ratio of omega-3: omega-6 both in the diet and in the body.
2. How has it changed over the course of history?
Historically, human beings evolved on a diet in which the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids was about equal or 1:1. However, currently in Western diets, the ratio is closer to 15:1.
Remembering the inflammatory effects of omega-6 fatty acids, we can see how this imbalance can lead to inflammation in the average individual in Western societies.
3. What has contributed to this change?
The main reason for this change in the ratio is the increased use of omega-6 fatty acids, rather than just the decline of omega-3 in the diet. Current agricultural practices have led to an increase in the availability and decrease in the cost of omega-6 fatty acids which are then used frequently in the food industry. Plant-based oils such as sunflower oil or safflower oil and crops such as corn are inexpensive and palatable and are therefore added to processed foods. The typical Western diet is full of pre-packaged and processed foods that are loaded with these inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
This then leads to an increase in the ratio, causing an unbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the body, resulting in inflammation and chronic disease.
4. How can we achieve a better 3-6-9 ratio?
In order to bring this ratio back into balance, we just need to reverse the ratio bringing up the level of omega-3 fatty acids and lowering omega-6 fatty acids. In order to do this, we must first limit our omega-6 fatty acid intake. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in corn, soy, sunflower oil, safflower oil, nuts and seeds and some animal products. Corn and vegetable oils are often key ingredients in highly processed foods, so limiting processed foods is a great place to start when trying to decrease your omega-6 fatty acid intake. These include foods such as TV dinners, granola bars, baked goods, fast food, crackers and chips.
We can also equal out this balance by increasing our intake of omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3 fatty acids that we use in the body, EPA and DHA, are found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring as well as kelp. Obtaining enough EPA and DHA through diet alone can be difficult, so your naturopathic doctor may recommend an omega-3 supplement depending on your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
5. How do we know what our ratio is?
The levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your blood can be calculated through lab testing. However, the exact ratio is not always needed. Diet can be used to measure the amount of omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. By tracking the diet for about two weeks using a diet diary, a clinician can estimate if your omega fatty acid ratio is leaning towards the anti-inflammatory omega-3 or more towards the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
6. What do you think are common public misconceptions about the ratio?
I think a major misconception is that in order to balance out this ratio, we can just take an omega-3 supplement. Yes, taking a high-dose omega-3 supplement can have several beneficial impacts on the body and the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. However, it is also important to decrease omega-6 intake. Often, this part is forgotten. The major increase in the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has been created not as much due to the lack of omega-3 in the diet but more so because of our excess intake of omega-6. Therefore, it’s important to lower these foods as well as increase our omega-3 intake. The processed foods high in omega-6 fatty acids usually have high amounts of sugars, sodium and preservatives as well. So, cutting down on these foods will have several beneficial impacts downstream.
Another misconception to mention is that omega-6 fatty acids are harmful to us. Omega-6 fatty acids are in fact, essential to our bodies. The issue is that our intake is too high, not that the omega-6 fatty acids themselves are harmful.
7. What else should we need to know?
Re-balancing the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is a great first step in decreasing whole-body inflammation and creating a healthier environment in your body. Inflammation plays a major role in nearly every chronic disease. Just by changing your diet, you can have potent impacts on your susceptibility to infection, heart health, gut health, joint pain, autoimmune disease and your ability to recover from current health issues. Research has found that when comparing the current ratio of Western diets (15 omega-6 fatty acids: 1 omega-3 fatty acids) to lower ratios (4omega-6 fatty acids: 1 omega-3 fatty acids), patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer, asthma and overall death rates had significantly more positive results.
The best part is, it is not an all or nothing result. Just by eliminating or decreasing processed food intake, you can shift the ratio. You can have larger impacts with a consistently healthy diet lower in omega-6 and higher in omega-3, but any action in decreasing the processed foods high in omega-6 will be a step towards lower inflammation.
A lower ratio of omega-6: omega-3 fatty acids is more desirable in reducing the risk of countless chronic diseases of high prevalence in Western societies.