Omega 6 fatty acids are essential for our health. But they are healthy only in moderation. More important than to ask the question “What are the health benefits of omega 6”, is to ask “What is a beneficial quantity of omega 6 to consume”?
Omega 6 has without question major benefits: omega 6 deficiency will result in serious health problems. It must be stressed, however, that omega 6 deficiency is extremely rare, because the typical Western foods contain an abundance of omega 6 from corn oil, soybean oil, safflower and sunflower oil, as well as from animal fats. The Western diet is rich in omega 6, because the oils are cheap and stable. They prolong the shelf life of processed foods, and the food industry therefore replaces more healthy fats and oils with omega 6. Having said that, the benefits of adequate consumption of omega 6 fall into three categories.
Omega 6 is essential for three critical health benefits:
Benefits manifest on a cellular level, because omega 6 plays an important role as a messenger.
Omega 6 benefit 1:
Growth. Omega 6 plays an important role in cell growth, and is thus essential for brain and muscle development. The omega 6 arachidonic acid (AA) is for this very reason added to most infant formulas. Both brain development and muscle development are critical for infants. The growth benefits of omega 6 also explain the great interest that body builders and top athletes have in omega 6 consumption.
Omega 6 benefit 2:
Omega 6 in the form of linoleic acid (LA) plays a critical role in the production of hormone like messengers. These PGE1 messengers from LA trigger immune responses, reduce fluid accumulation, and impact depression, multiple sclerosis, PMS mood swings, schizophrenia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and other brain disorders. Messengers made from arachidonic acid (AA) are called PGE2 and play an important role in swelling, pain, blood thinning, blood vessel spasms and accumulation of inflamed cells. You may wonder why pain or inflammation is considered a benefit. The answer is that pain is an important signal that prevents further injury, and inflammation is a trigger for our immune system.
Omega 6 benefit 3:
PGE1 from linoleic acid omega 6 is important in the nervous system, as a transmitter of nerve impulses.
It’s clear that most of these beneficial characteristics of AA and LA are very positive to a degree. For example pain. Without a pain sensation we would be less protected against injury. But when the pain messenger is not turned off and pain becomes chronic, then we have a whole different problem.
The two most common omega-6 fatty acids in foods are:
Linoleic Acid. This omega 6 oil can be found in abundance in corn oil, soybean, safflower and sunflower oils. Linoleic acid (or LA) has two problems that severely limit the omega 6 benefits:
The body converts LA. For this conversion LA needs a sort of catalyst named delta 6 desaturase. This same desaturase converter is used in the pathway to make the essential omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA from the precursor ALA omega 3. In short: omega 6 LA conversion competes for resources with omega 3 ALA conversion.
LA converts to arachidonic acid (AA). This AA fat, while critical for good health in modest quantities, will cause chronic inflammation when not held in check by a healthy dose of EPA and DHA omega-3s.
Arachidonic acid or AA is found in large quantities in diary and animal meats and fats. As mentioned, it’s highly inflammatory, and if not balanced with omega 3 will cause chronic inflammation diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, obesity, and diabetes, as well as many mental disorders.
LA is technically an essential oil, because it's a precursor of AA. "Essential" means that we have to get it from diet, mainly plants, and that our body needs it to make AA.
The danger of an omega 6 overdose
The key to understanding the benefits of omega 6 is that the messengers should play a short role, and as soon as our system gets their message they should be turned off ASAP. The turn-off switch is called PGE3, and this turn-off messenger is made from omega-3 EPA. The problem with EPA is that we typically don’t have enough to balance the AA overdose. EPA comes mainly from fish and krill oil. The AA overdose stems from the consumption of animal fats (AA), but foremost from the massive over-consumption of corn and soybean oils (LA). The massive overdose of LA then uses most of the available desaturase converter, and leaves little for the conversion of ALA to EPA. The ability to make EPA from ALA is extremely limited for most people on a Western diet. It's estimated that between 1% and 5% of ALA is successfully converted. Especially vegetarians and vegans need to understand the role of the omega 6 and omega 3 ratio, and are at risk when they are inclined to believe that all vegetable oil must be healthy.
To summarize the omega 6 limited benefits:
Omega 6 linoleic acid (LA) competes with omega 3 alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) for the converter delta 6 desaturase. This competition results in less omega 3 EPA production. Less EPA production means less PGE3 messenger production. The more LA we consume from corn oil and soybean oil, the less EPA our body can make.
Omega 6 arachidonic acid (AA) creates the messenger PGE2 which causes pain and inflammation.
We need PGE3, made from EPA, for which we need both omega 3 ALA and delta 6 desaturase, to stop the PGE1 and PGE2 messengers once they got their message across.
If you are still following this highly complex pathway, then stay with us for another paragraph, because now it becomes extremely important.
Omega 6 causes massive inflammation
Arachidonic acid (AA) is not only the precursor for PGE2, but also for similar compounds called leukotrienes. These leukotrienes are up to10,000 times more inflammatory than PGE2, but they cause no pain. The inflammation in obesity, diabetes, and coronary heart disease are examples of painless inflammation.
Whether AA is turned into PGE2 or into leukotrienes depends on many factors, but one very important factor is painkillers, also called COX inhibitors.
Painkillers combined with omega 6 kill more than pain
The process to turn AA into the inflammatory and painful substance PGE2 is called the COX2 pathway. This painful COX2 pathway can be shut down with painkillers. By blocking the COX2 pathway the arachidonic acid is forced down an alternative conversion pathway (5-lipoxy-genase) which produces the very harmful and inflammatory leukotrienes. This alternative pathway is up to 10,000 times more harmful and is the number one source of the major killer diseases.
Omega 6 as a silent killer
This is a typical chain of events:
The system is challenged by a virus attack, an allergy response, or oxidative stress (ROS or Reactive Oxygen Species).
To respond to the attack, the fats in the cell membranes are used to make messengers.
The fats in the cells have too much AA (arachidonic acid).
The fats in the cell are deficient in omega 3 EPA because a) we didn’t consume enough fish, fish oil or krill oil, or b) the vegetable oil ALA was not efficiently converted to EPA because the delta 6 converter was used for the massive corn oil to AA conversion.
Because the PGE2 pain messengers, made from AA, are not stopped with the PGE3 antidote from EPA, we can’t bear the pain no more, and we take a painkiller.
The painkiller kills the pain by inhibiting the COX pathway, but we pay a hefty price in the form of uncontrolled inflammation: leukotriene inflammation that is 10,000 times stronger.
The massive inflammation, albeit painless, causes over time an epidemic of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
This is why corn oil and soybean oil are silent killers.