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Omega-3 vs. omega-6: what to know about the differences

Medically reviewed on September 1, 2022 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Table of contents

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both essential dietary fats that can help power, heal, and maintain the human body. More specifically, fatty acids are prime players in a range of physiological functions, although they differ in their structure, properties, and potential benefits.

The key differences between omega 3 vs omega 6 fatty acids lie in the functions they perform. While omega-3 fatty acids may aid cell growth and inflammatory regulation, omega-6 fatty acids can help support skin and hair health. [1]

To understand each fatty acid in more depth, we’ve compiled a quick guide to explore the intricacies of each of these essential nutrients.

Overview of omega-3 vs omega-6 fatty acids

Omega-3 and omega-6 both refer to certain types of fatty acids. Fatty acids, also known as lipids, are organic compounds occurring naturally in humans, animals, and plants. [2]

They’re distinguished by their insolubility in water, although both omega-3 and omega-6 can be dissolved by organic matter. That said, fatty acids are generally classified in three ways:

  • Steroid lipids – These include various natural steroids in humans, plants, and animals. Cholesterol, estrogen, and testosterone are just a few examples.
  • Waxes – Several natural waxes are included in the lipid category. Humans produce a lipid wax known as cerumen, commonly called earwax. Likewise, various insect waxes are considered lipids, such as beeswax from bees [3] and Chinese wax, produced by an insect known as the Chinese scale.[4] Lanolin, or wool wax, is a wax from the sebaceous glands of sheep. It is an example of animal wax lipid.
  • Natural oils – Fish oil and plant oils are foods high in omega 3 fatty acids. Plant oils like flaxseed oil, pine oil, canola oil, and olive oil are also examples of natural oils classified as lipids.

Unlike some fatty acids, both omega-3 and omega-6 are polyunsaturated fats. Essentially, this means that the human body cannot produce them independently. Instead, we rely on plant and animal sources for these vital nutrients.

Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids do similar work inside the human body—fatty acids are instrumental in the body’s ability to perform some of its most basic functions.

More specifically, both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play an essential role in helping to support:[5]

  • Brain health
  • Bone health
  • Heart health

Likewise, both of these fatty acids contribute to the growth and maintenance of skin. They can affect the body’s immune system, particularly concerning the body’s inflammatory responses.

Omega-3 vs omega-6 differences

While both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can support brain, bone, heart, and skin health, terms of their origin, composition, and interactions within the human body differ.

1. They come from different sources

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, each coming from distinct natural food sources.

Omega-3 fatty acids occur naturally in animal and plant or vegetable oils. Most prominently, oily fish are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids and include:

  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Mackerel
  • Sardine
  • Herring
  • Cod

Of the three fats considered to be omega-3, two of them, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are sourced from fish oil. The third type, Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found exclusively in plant oils like flaxseed and canola.

Omega-6 fatty acids include four fat types, both sourced from animals: Arachidonic acid (ARA) and Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). ARA is present in eggs and the organs and meat of poultry. Like certain omega-3 acids, it also occurs in certain fish and seafood. CLA is also found in animals, but it’s mostly converted from linoleic acid within your body. [6]

The other two types of omega-6 fatty acids are Linoleic acid (LA) and Gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which are only found in plant oils.

2 They’re composed of different fats

As mentioned above, omega-3 and omega-6 do not refer to a single type of fat, but rather several different types of fatty acids with core commonalities. You may wonder about the different omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed oil vs fish oil. What do they do, and what are their benefits?

Omega-3 fatty acids include ALA, DHA, and EPA:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – This is a plant-based fatty acid found in plant oils like canola, flaxseed, and soy, among others. [7] ALA may help to support heart health and aid stroke recovery. [8]
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – This fatty acid is prevalent in fish like salmon but is also derived from seaweed. [9] It’s believed to help support the brain development of infants and aid learning. [10]
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – Salmon and other fatty, oily fish are natural sources of this fatty acid. EPA doesn’t occur in plant oils. [11] When consumed while pregnant, it’s believed that EPA delivers critical nutrients to the fetus to support fetal development. It may also have anti-inflammatory properties that aid the cardiovascular function of adults. [12]

Meanwhile, omega-6 fatty acids include:

  • Arachidonic acid (ARA) – These fatty acids come from animal sources like animal meat and organs, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs. [13] ARA is believed to aid the repair and development of skeletal muscle tissue, benefit cognitive and immune functions, and support the nervous system. [13]
  • Linoleic acid (LA) – Derived from the oils of sunflowers, safflowers, soybeans, corn, and canola, linoleic acid is the most prevalent polyunsaturated fatty acid in the diets of most people in the western world. It’s also found in some nuts and seeds. [14] LA may support heart health by reducing cholesterol. [14]
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – This fatty acid comes from the meat and milk of ruminant animals, which include cattle, sheep, and deer. [15] It’s recommended not to consume large amounts of CLA. [16] However, small amounts of this fatty acid may support overall health and mitigate certain diseases. [17]
  • Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) – This fatty acid is found in seed oils from plants like evening primrose, black currant, and borage. It’s also produced in certain fungal oils. [18] GLA may help to fight inflammation, relieve joint pain, and support skin health. [18]

Each type of fatty acid plays a specific role in the body and may present unique health benefits.

3. They interact with your immune system differently

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids interact with the body’s immune system regarding inflammation. Inflammation is a natural immune response that’s triggered by injury or infection. However, these two fatty acids affect your body’s inflammatory system in opposite ways:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids – Omega-3s are well-known anti-inflammatories. This fatty acid works against an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX), preventing it from producing the inflammatory hormone prostaglandin. [19]
  • Omega-6 fatty acids – It’s possible that omega-6 fatty acids actually increase inflammatory responses. [22] One reason for this belief is that the omega-6 fatty acid ARA is known to produce several inflammatory hormones, like leukotrienes and prostaglandins.

Because omega-6 produces the same hormone that omega-3 normally suppresses, this could also mean that omega-6 works against the anti-inflammatory activity of omega-3 fatty acids. However, other studies offer evidence that suggests that the interplay between omega-6 and inflammation may depend on striking the correct balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the system. [20]

4. They offer different health benefits

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can help support heart and brain health, and they may influence bodily functions that help relieve joint pain and support healthy blood pressure. [5] That said omega-6 fatty acids offer various benefits that omega-3 fatty acids do not.

A variety of studies and reports suggest that omega-6 may help to: [6]

  • Reduce nerve pain, especially in people with diabetic neuropathy
  • Inhibit the growth of breast tumors
  • Relieve pain and tenderness from cyclic mastalgia (menstrual cycle related breast pain)

There’s also evidence to support the idea that omega-6 fatty acids may help improve a patient’s response to certain cancer treatments, especially treatments for breast cancer. Additionally, omega-6 fatty acids are believed to be beneficial for hair growth and, in some cases, as a treatment to manage certain dermatological conditions. [6]

Omega-3 fatty acids are also linked to an array of potential health benefits. In multiple studies, omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to:

  • Reduced risk of blood clots [1]
  • Decreased triglyceride production [1]
  • Enhanced levels of “good” cholesterol [1]
  • Decreased liver fat from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Prevention of certain cancers
  • Improved sleep

Does fish oil help joints? Research suggests that fish oil supplementation may reduce osteoarthritis-specific pain in older and overweight adults. [24]

Support full-body wellness with Everlywell

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential nutrients that promote your body’s overall health. To bolster your body with the benefits of omega-3, opt for a supplement like the Everlywell Omega-3 Fish Oil.

Packed with vital esterified omega-3 fatty acids, it’s a simple way to up your omega-3 intake and boosts your brain function, help your heart, and care for your skin. And with our supplement subscription service, you never have to worry about missing a day.

Take control of your wellness with Everlywell, and bolster your nutritional health today.

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  1. Cleveland Clinic. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  2. Britannica. Fatty acids. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  3. Nutraceuticals (Second Edition). Beeswax. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  4. Britannica. Chinese wax. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  5. Healthline. Omega-3-6-9 Fatty Acids: A Complete Overview. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  6. Mount Sinai. Omega-6 fatty acids information. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  7. Mount Sinai. Alpha-linolenic acid information. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  8. BioMed Research International. Alpha-Linolenic Acid: An Omega-3 Fatty Acid with Neuroprotective Properties—Ready for Use in the Stroke Clinic? URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  9. Mount Sinai. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  10. PubMed. Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  11. Mount Sinai. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  12. Advances in Nutrition. Omega-3 Fatty Acids EPA and DHA: Health Benefits Throughout Life. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  13. PubMed. Arachidonic acid: Physiological roles and potential health benefits – A review. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  14. Harvard School of Public Health. Dietary linoleic acid and risk of coronary heart disease. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  15. PubMed. Conjugated linoleic acid in meat and meat products: A review. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  16. PubMed. Supplementation with conjugated linoleic acid causes isomer-dependent oxidative stress and elevated C-reactive protein: a potential link to fatty acid-induced insulin resistance. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  17. PubMed. Conjugated linoleic acid as a potential protective factor in prevention of breast cancer. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  18. Mount Sinai. Gamma linolenic acid information. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  19. U.C. San Diego Health. Why Omega-3 OIls Help At the Cellular Level. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  20. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids. Omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  21. PubMed. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acid in Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: A Meta-Analysis. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  22. PubMed. Dietary fat, fatty acid intakes and colorectal cancer risk in Chinese adults: a case-control study. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  23. PubMed. Fish Consumption, Sleep, Daily Functioning, and Heart Rate Variability. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  24. NIH. Fish oil supplementation reduces osteoarthritis-specific pain in older adults with overweight/obesity. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
  25. Harvard School of Public Health. Dietary linoleic acid and risk of coronary heart disease. URL. Accessed September 1, 2022.
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