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What are Omega-6 & Omega-9?

Omega-6 and Omega-9 are families of unsaturated fatty acids that have final double bonds six, and nine carbon atoms away from the methyl end of the fatty acid molecule respectively. The position of the double bond is important because it gives each family of fatty acids their particular properties. Omega-6 are known as essential fatty acids, because they cannot be manufactured by the body and  must be obtained from outside sources. Linoleic is the most important of the omega-6 acids. The body is able to use it to make other important omega-6 acids, such as arachadonic acid. Omega-9 fatty acids are not essential because the body can produce them from other unsaturated fats. The best known member of the Omega-9 family is oleic acid.

Where Does Omega-6 & Omega-9 Come From?

Both omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids are found in high quantities in the modern diet, most notably in plant oils. Soybean, canola and sunflower oils are excellent sources of omega-6, whereas olive oil is the best natural source of omega-9. Nuts, meat, eggs and dairy can also be good sources of these nutrients.

Benefits of Omega-6 & Omega-9

Omega-6 and 9 deficiency is extremely rare. Many believe omega-6 is in oversupply in the modern diet, and omega-9 can be produced by the body. Symptoms of deficiency include skin problems, hair loss, high cholesterol levels, kidney problems and arthritis. Fat is necessary in the diet to absorb fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat is also necessary to produce hormones, like testosterone. Members of the omega-6 and omega-9 families are either mono or polyunsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats have proven benefits over other fats, such as saturated and trans-fats, in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Oleic acid, the most important omega-9 fatty acid, and main ingredient of olive oil, is known for increasing the levels of HDL (good) and lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, as well as helping to maintain healthy blood pressure (1). Phosphorylated omega-6 fatty acids are an important part of the cell membrane, and can aid in muscle repair after exercise. They are also present in the grey matter in the brain.

The most important role of Omega-6 acids is as precursors for a group of chemicals known as eicosanoids. These chemicals act as messengers between cells in the body and perform some necessary physiological functions.

  • Prostaglandins stimulate smooth muscle contraction, sensitize the body to pain to pain, promote vaso- and bronchodilation, and inhibit blood clotting. These are important to the immune response and healing, and to such activities as childbirth and digestion.
  • Leukotrienes stimulate the inflammatory response, which is necessary to fight disease.
  • Thromboxanes promote platelet aggregation, vasconstriction, and increase the blood presssure, which can assist wound repair.

Whilst these effects are mostly pro-inflammatory, Gamma-Linoleic Acid (GLA), a derivative of Linoleic acid, is known for its anti-inflammatory effects. It is the major active ingredient in Evening Primrose Oil, which has been traditionally used to treat a huge variety of conditions, having some success in reducing symptoms in eczema and rheumatoid arthritis (2).

Benefits of Omega-6 & Omega-9 for Bodybuilding

A diet containing a proper balance of omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids is a great support to overall wellbeing, and necessary to maintain the efficient metabolism and good cardiovascular functioning that is important to all athletes.  Fatty acids provide energy, which drives catabolism, and they also play a structural role in the membranes of new cells.

Side Effects, Safety & Negatives of Omega-6 & Omega-9

Whilst omega-3s are lauded for their anti-inflammatory properties, the majority of eicosanols associated with omega-6 fatty acids are known to promote inflammation and heighten pain response. Inflammation is a necessary part of healing and immunity, and omega-6 acids are needed in the diet, but excessive levels of these eicosanols have been associated with asthma, allergies, swelling, pain, arthritis and cancer (3). Whether or not high levels of omega-6 derivatives cause these conditions, or whether these fatty acids are merely involved in a response to environmental factors is controversial (4).

Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids compete to be processed by the same enzyme pathways.  This means that an excess of omega-6 can interfere with the health benefits of omega-3. Whilst omega-6 and 9 acids are both necessary, it is not so much the amount, but the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid that determines the health benefits. An increase in processed ingredients means that the average western diet is now estimated to contain a ratio of about one part omega-3 to every fifteen parts omega-6. The recommended ratio is less than four parts omega-6 to every part omega-3 (5). This ratio has produced improvements in asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer progression that did not occur at higher ratios, such as 1:10 (6).

There has not been a lot of study into the effects of omega-9 acids, but erucic acid can induce cardiovascular symptoms and disease of the heart tisssue in animals. For this reason, the US and EU have recommended it not comprise more than 2% and 5%, respectively, of blended vegetable oils (7). Erucic acid may also cause thrombocytopenia, so it is not recommended for babies or nursing mothers (8). Although Gamma-linoleic acid enjoys widespread popularity as an anti-inflammatory supplement, there is no scientific evidence to indicate any beneficial effects (9).

Omega-6 & Omega-9 Recommended Doses and Ingredient Timing

The easiest way to take omega-6 is within a healthy diet. There is no evidence to support any benefit of taking extra omega-6 or omega-9 supplements. The higher the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, the greater benefit is obtained. The body can make its own supply of omega-9, so supplementation is not necessary. The suggested intake of omega-3 (short- and long-chain) is abut 1-1.5g per day, which means eating between 4-6g of omega-6 per day would fulfil the recommendations for a 1 in 4 ratio. In 2003, based upon animal studies, Food Standards Australia recommended an erucic acid intake of no more than 500 mg/day.

Omega-6 & Omega-9 Supplements

Many meal replacements, mass gainers, and superfood preparations contain omegas 3,6 and 9 in a physiologically beneficial ratio.

Stacking Omega-6 & Omega-9

The most important thing to stack with omega-6 and 9 is omega-3, however, these fatty acids can be stacked with almost any other supplement including protein powders and fat burners. It may not be ideal to stack Omega-6 and Omega-9 supplements with fat blockers.

(1) Gillingham LG, Harris-Janz S, Jones PJ. Dietary monounsaturated fatty acids are protective against metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease risk factors. Lipids, 2011 Mar;46(3):209-28.
(2) Zilberberg MD, Levine C, Komaroff E, Guldin M, Gordon MJ, Ross SD. Clinical Uses of Gamma-Linoleic acid: A Systemic Review of the Literature. In Huang Y-S, Ziboh VA (eds). Gamma Linolenic Acid: Recent Advances in Biotechnology and Clinical Applications. AOCS Press. 2001; Chapter 10: pp 90-104.
(3) Okuyama, H.; Ichikawa, Y.; Sun, Y.; Hamazaki, T.; Lands, W.E.M. (2006). "ω3 Fatty Acids Effectively Prevent Coronary Heart Disease and Other Late-Onset Diseases – The Excessive Linoleic Acid Syndrome". In Okuyama, H. Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics. pp. 83–103
(4) Calderón-Garcidueñas, Lilian; Reed, William; Maronpot, Robert; Henriquez-Roldán, Carlos; Delgado-Chavez, Ricardo; Carlos Henriquez-Roldán, Ana; Dragustinovis, Irma; Franco-Lira, Maricela et al. (2004). "Brain Inflammation and Alzheimer's-Like Pathology in Individuals Exposed to Severe Air Pollution". Toxicologic Pathology 32 (6): 650–8
(5) Simopoulos, A.P (2002). "The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids".Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 56 (8): 365–79.
(6) Lands, W. E.M. (2005). "Dietary Fat and Health: The Evidence and the Politics of Prevention: Careful Use of Dietary Fats Can Improve Life and Prevent Disease". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1055: 179–92
(7) De Wildt DJ, Speijers GJ (June 1984). "Influence of dietary rapeseed oil and erucic acid upon myocardial performance and hemodynamics in rats".Toxicol. Appl. Pharmacol. 74 (1): 99–108
(8)"Food Standards Agency - Agency issues warning on erucic acid". 2 September 2004. Retrieved 5/11/2013.
(9) Smith, R. (2003). "The drugs don't work".BMJ 2003; 327 (7428): 0–h.
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