We oftentimes think of fat as the storage form of energy—where excess calories go to stubbornly rest on our bellies, thighs, or underarms. Some fats, however, are vital to our diet because they cannot be synthesized by our bodies. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are two essential fatty acids that play significant roles in our overall health and the well-being of our skin. Because both of these fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), they are made of carbon chains that are not entirely “hydrated” with hydrogens. This desaturation makes them more fluid than other types of fat. Their names relate to the location of the first desaturation, the third or sixth carbon respectively.
While both are essential, the ratio in which they are consumed is even more important. These fatty acids compete for the same cell receptors to be taken up by cells, and cells favor omega-6 over omega-3 uptake. This selectivity includes the major sources of these two fatty acids and the history of the human diet. Omega-3s are found in green leafy vegetables, flaxseeds, walnuts, and fatty fish. Short chain omega-3s are primarily detected in plant sources and must be converted to long chain omega-3s, such as EPA and DHA, which naturally occur in fatty fish. Omega-6s are found in grain-fed animals, eggs, and vegetable seed oils. Historically human diets were lower in sources of omega-6s causing the body to favor their uptake. Today, the Western diet is largely comprised of grain-fed meats and processed foods made with soybean, canola, and corn oils. Having a high omega-6: omega-3 ratio has been shown to heighten the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Once broken down, omega-3 and omega-6s produce metabolites involved in inflammation processes. Metabolites from omega-6s tend to generate more pro-inflammatory molecules whereas omega-3s produce more inflammation-resolving metabolites. Omega-3s also sustain proper brain functioning. Beyond overall health benefits, omega-3s play an essential role in the health of the skin.
Fatty acids are elements of cell membranes, the structure enclosing the cell. The types of fat we eat are the fats that will be incorporated into cell membranes—we really are what we eat! Omega-3 fatty acids are important to the proper functioning of skin cell membranes and benefit skin in several ways. They can defend skin from premature aging by inhibiting processes that lead to collagen breakdown following sun exposure. Omega-3s can also lessen the risk of acne and prevent hyperkeratinization (those pesky little red bumps that are common on the upper arms). Having high levels of omega-3s in skin cell membranes is also associated with better hydration and softer skin because they help retain water in cell membranes. Water retention in cells is particularly important as we age. Cell membranes become thinner and have a less active barrier function leading to increased moisture loss and the appearance of wrinkles.
While supplements can help boost omega-3 intake, whole foods are the best sources of any nutrient. I enjoy adding walnuts to my morning cup oatmeal or even salads! Just seven whole nuts contain the minimum daily suggested omega-3 intake of 2,500 mg. Fatty fish are also great sources of omega-3s and carry a more robust form than plant sources. Work to eat four ounces of low mercury fish like salmon, sardines, and Pacific oysters at least twice a week! Remember incorporating healthy fats into your diet requires replacing other fat sources, not solely adding them. Get your omega-3s today— your skin will thank you tomorrow!