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Omega Oils Simply Explained

OMEGA OILS have been the subject of much media discussion, but most people still remain uncertain of the difference between these oils, and the particular areas where they might be useful.

Omega Oils are classed as Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) i.e. the body needs them but cannot manufacture them itself, therefore they must be obtained directly from food.

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Types of Essential Fatty Acids

The molecules of EFA’s are partly made up of a long chain of carbon atoms, each of which is capable of holding onto 2 hydrogen atoms. When all the hydrogen spaces are filled, the oils are described as ‘saturated’. These oils are solid oils, such as butter, lard, coconut oil and cocoa butter. Artificially hardened oils are called ‘hydrogenated fats’ – used to produce margarine and many sweets and junk foods. They are considered to be undesirable, as the hydrogenation process produces twisted molecules known as ‘trans fatty acids’ which are toxic in the long term, and have been implicated in the causation of cancer and heart disease.

When some of the hydrogen spaces on the long carbon chain are not filled, the fatty acid is 'unsaturated'. If only one space is left, the oil is ‘monounsaturated’ – for example olive oil and rape seed oil.

‘Polyunsaturated’ oils have several hydrogen spaces unfilled on their molecules – fish, sunflower, hemp, evening primrose and flax oils, all belong to this class. The more unsaturated the oil molecules, the finer and thinner the oil will be.

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The ‘Omega’ Definition

Oils are described as Omega 3, 6, 7 or 9 oils, according to the position on the carbon chain of the first unsaturated hydrogen space e.g. if the space is 3 carbon atoms from the end of the chain, it is an Omega 3 oil; a first space which is 9 carbon atoms from the end is an Omega 9 oil. In general, the lower the Omega number is, the more delicate and unstable the oil is likely to be, and will therefore need careful handling to prevent the oils becoming rancid, or oxidised. If this should happen, the oil becomes toxic rather than beneficial.

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Protecting and Using Omega Oils

Omega 3 and 6 oils should not generally be exposed to heat, light or oxygen, therefore it is best to follow these guidelines:

  • Keep bottles of oil in the fridge and out of light.
  • Avoid cooking with Omega 3 and 6 oils – use them on salads or poured over cooked food just before serving.
  • Use Omega 9 oils for cooking (olive, rape seed) but avoid heating them to a very high temperature. Naturally saturated fats like coconut oil are best for stir frying, as they are more heat stable.
  • Keep all bottles tightly closed to reduce exposure to oxygen. Ideally, use the vacuum sealing process designed for wine bottles.
  • If you are buying bottles of Omega oils, you should only obtain them from a shop keeping them in a fridge. Bottles kept under the hot lights of a supermarket shelf will not be very fresh, and may even be toxic.
  • Omega oils can go rancid inside the body if they are not protected by antioxidants, so maintain adequate levels of coloured fruit and vegetables in your diet. Consider taking an antioxidant complex if you are using high doses of EFA’s therapeutically. Many elderly people do not obtain enough antioxidants from their food, as their diets are normally low in fruit and vegetables. This can result in the typical rancid odour you can smell in a geriatric ward.

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Functions of Omega EFA’s in the Body

Omega 3 oils

Oily fish, fish oil, cod liver oil, flax oil, hemp oil, walnut oil, dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, rocket) and algae.


  • Anti-inflammatory
  • improves gut health
  • reduces some unhealthy blood fats
  • thins the blood
  • protects joints
  • improves skin health
  • maintains good function in nerves and brain

Much of the brain is made up of Omega 3 EFA’s, so these are particularly important for the development of a child. Many authorities now recommend Omega oils to improve behaviour and intelligence in children. It has been especially successful in helping ADHD and similar problems. However, Omega 3 is probably an even more important EFA during preconception and pregnancy, when the earliest parts of the nervous system are being formed.

The Western diet contains much more Omega 6 than Omega 3, so most individuals will benefit more from increasing their intake of Omega 3’s, both in food and supplements. When higher therapeutic levels of Omega 3’s are required, it is often better to obtain these from good quality fish oil or flax oil supplements. Fresh, oily fish is unfortunately absorbing increasing levels of mercury and other toxins, such as PCB’s and dioxins. The oil needs to be properly purified, and this is not a cheap option. Recently a major producer of cheap cod liver oil supplements had to withdraw their product due to levels of toxins which were well above EU limits.

When choosing Omega 3 fish oils, check the levels of the 2 main types of EFA’s: EPA and DHA. These vary enormously from brand to brand. Vegetable-sourced Omega 3’s contain slightly different types of EFA’s which need to be converted to EPA/DHA in the body. Some people do not convert these very well, and may need fish oils instead. There has recently been produced a type of DHA which is obtained from algae – this is where fish obtain theirs, also.

Conditions that Omega 3’s may be used for:
  • Cardio-vascular problems
  • Psoriasis and eczema
  • Arthritis
  • IBS and inflammatory bowel problems
  • ADHD
  • Preconceptual care
  • Skin ageing

  • Take an antioxidant supplement if on high level Omega oil intake
  • Consult your GP if you are on any medication.
  • Do not take Omega 3 supplements if you are taking anticoagulant therapy (heparin, warfarin, courmarin, aspirin etc.)
  • Stop consumption of Omega 3 oil for 1 week prior to surgery

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Omega 6 EFA’s

These are obtained from vegetable sources, the most well-known being ‘evening primrose oil’. However, ‘Starflower’ (borage) oil contains more than twice the level of GLA, the active EFA in both these oils. Thus it makes a more economical option than evening primrose oil.

Functions in the Body:

  • Helps hormone balance
  • Maintains skin health
  • Helps maintain nerve conduction and function

Conditions that Omega 6’s may be used for:
  • Pre-menstrual syndrome
  • Breast tenderness and cysts
  • Menopausal symptoms
  • ADHD
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Skin ageing and eczema

Take an antioxidant supplement if on high level Omega oil intake and consult your GP if you are on any medication.

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Omega 7 EFA’s

Sea buckthorn oil

Very effective in skincare products.

This is a recently discovered and rare EFA, at present only extracted from the seed of the sea buckthorn plant.

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Omega 9 EFA’s

Olive oil, rape seed oil


  • Omega 9 EFA’s are quite stable and are good for cooking and low temperature frying.
  • Help to reduce cholesterol levels.

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Products Featured in this guide include:

Some of the products mentioned in the "Omega Oils Simply Explained" guide can be found on these links:

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