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Complementary Medicine

Understanding Omega-3 and Omega-6

The term nutraceutical (nutrient + pharmaceutical) is defined by Stedman's Medical Dictionary as a product derived from a food that is marketed in the form of a medicine and is demonstrated to have a physiological benefit or to provide protection against chronic disease.

Modern agriculture's emphasis on increased production and food manufacturer's marketing has decreased the omega-3 fatty acid, vitamin, and mineral content in the American Diet with nutrient-deficient green leafy vegetables, animal meats, eggs, and fish while greatly increasing the omega-6 content leading to devastating health results.

So what are the differences between Omega-3 and Omega-6? In essence, omega-6 is considered "bad" fat, while omega-3 is considered "good" fat.

The benefits of omega-3s include reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke while helping to reduce symptoms of hypertension, depression, attention deficient disorder (ADD), joint pain and other rheumatoid problems, as well as certain skin ailments. Some research has even shown that omega-3s can boost the immune system and help protect us from an array of illnesses including Alzheimer's disease. Research indicates that omega-3s encourages the production of body chemicals that help control inflammation -- in the joints, the bloodstream, and the tissues.

But just as important is omega-3s ability to reduce the negative impact of yet another essential type of fatty acid known as omega-6s. Found in foods such as eggs, poultry, cereals, vegetable oils, baked goods, and margarine, omega-6s are also considered essential. They support skin health, lower cholesterol, and help make our blood "sticky" so it is able to clot. But when omega-6s aren't balanced with sufficient amounts of omega-3s, problems can ensue. Research indicates that high omega-6 fatty acids shift the physiologic state to pro-inflammatory.

Over the past 50-100 years there has been an enormous increase in the consumption of omega-6 fatty acids with the increased use vegetable oils from corn, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, cottonseed, and soybeans in cooking and processing. To balance this deficit, many physicians suggest omega-3, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C, B-complex and multivitamins be added to our diets. As always, you should discuss any over-the-counter medications you are considering with your family physician to prevent any unintended side effects or interactions.

This article originally appeared in Netwell (Winter 2005), a quarterly publication by OSU Managed Health Care Systems, the OSU Faculty and Staff Wellness Program, and the OSU Office of Human Resources and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2007.

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Last Reviewed: Mar 02, 2007

Glen F Aukerman, MD, DABFP Glen F Aukerman, MD, DABFP
Formerly:
Professor of Family Medicine
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University