Numerous studies have found that omega-3s from foods and/or supplements can help improve your health. They fight inflammation associated with conditions like arthritis, reduce levels of triglycerides and protect the brain. That, along with many other reasons, is why you want to avoid an omega-3 deficiency.
These important fatty acids also needed for proper cardiovascular and neurological function, cell membrane maintenance, fetal development, mood regulation and hormone production. Omega-3 foods, even more so than supplements, also may be able to help lower your risk for heart disease due to their inflammation-reducing abilities.
“Omega-3s” is another name for omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are found in the human body, as well as in certain foods like oily fish. Essential fatty acids are “essential” because the body cannot synthesize them on its own, therefore humans must get these fats from the diet. Unfortunately, many people fail to get enough omega-3 in their diets, resulting in omega-3 deficiency.
What are the symptoms of lack of omega-3s? As discussed more below, signs of omega-3 deficiency may include joint pain, mental health problems, like depression, and cognitive issues, such as decline in memory.
Omega-3 Deficiency and Chronic Health Problems
Omega-3 foods are known as “good fats,” the kinds that provide us with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS). There are three different types of “omega-3s.” The types of highly protective omega-3s we hear the most about are called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are the omega-3s found in seafood like salmon, sardines, etc. Another omega-3 called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) also is associated with certain health benefits. It is found in plants that contain natural oils, such as flaxseed, walnuts and chia seeds.
While most people consume enough of the other kinds of essential fatty acids, known as omega-6s (found in modified cooking oils like canola, sunflower and safflower oil, plus some nuts), most people’s diets are low in omega-3s. This is why many can afford to up their intake of omega-3 foods, such as fish. Experts believe that modern “Western diets” are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids but include excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared with the diets of our ancestors.
EPA and DHA omega-3s are capable of inhibiting many aspects of inflammation, including leucocyte chemotaxis, adhesion molecule expression, production of prostaglandins and leukotrienes, and more. While omega-6s can increase production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, omega-3s can help to counteract this process.
What are the signs symptoms of an essential fatty acid deficiency? Over time, symptoms can start to develop if the body lacks essential, healthy fats or gets too many omega-6s compared to omega-3s. For example, mental health may suffer, skin may become dry and symptoms tied to allergies may emerge.
In addition to the symptoms described below, omega-3 deficiency can put you at higher risk for health problems, such as:
- Inflammation (sometimes severe) that’s associated with pain, stiffness and poor healing
- Possibly a higher risk for heart disease and high cholesterol (a number of studies have found that people who get omega-3s from eating seafood one to four times a week are less likely to die of heart disease)
- Digestive disorders
- Joint and muscle pain
- Mental health issues, like depression
- Poor brain development in infants and young children
- Attention deficit problems, including ADHD in children
- Neurodegenerative and neurological disorders, including cognitive decline in older adults, dementia and memory loss
Top 10 Omega-3 Deficiency Symptoms
There are a number of risks that seem to be associated with low consumption of omega-3s, plus high consumption of omega-6s. In terms of symptoms you may notice, what does a lack of omega-3s cause? Although these may not be serious “diseases” and only symptoms, some signs of omega-3 deficiency can include:
- Impairments in learning and attention span. Attention deficits, anxiety, restlessness, poor concentration or poor memory can all develop.
- Mood-related changes, such as irritability, symptoms of depression and anxiety, or mood swings.
- Changes in the appearance of skin, hair and nails. Skin may become inflamed, dry, flaky, sensitive or red. Hair can become brittle and thinner. Nails may break easily and be very weak.
- Dry eyes.
- Signs of dehydration, including increased thirst and dry mouth/throat.
- Frequent urination.
- Joint pain and stiffness.
- Excessive ear wax.
- Symptoms of allergies, such as eczema, asthma, hay fever, hives, etc.
Omega-3 Deficiency Dangers
Years ago, people living around the world — such as in places like the Mediterranean region, including Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, France, and also Japan — ate traditional diets that provided higher levels of healthy fats, including omega-3s. Their diets included whole foods like plenty of fish, sea vegetables, eggs and other fresh produce.
Today, the average person has a high chance of suffering from omega-3 deficiency if he/she doesn’t include omega-3 foods in his/her weekly diet, such as fish, sea vegetables/algae, flaxseeds or grass-fed meat. Omega-3s are now added to fortified foods — such as baby food/formula, pasteurized dairy products, fruit juices, conventional (non-organic or cage-free) eggs, margarine, soy milk, yogurt, bread, flours and weight-loss drinks — but these processed foods don’t provide the broad range of natural nutrients that whole foods do.
Depending on whom you ask, the numbers vary, but many experts recommend an ideal ratio of omega-6 foods to omega-3 foods in the diet that is about equal to, or at least at, a 2:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s.
Studies show that a lower ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is more desirable to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases that have become epidemics in most Western societies. For example, researchers from the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health of Washington, D.C. found that the lower the omega-6/omega-3 ratio was in women, the lower their risk of breast cancer. A ratio of 2:1 omega-6s to omega-3s suppresses inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and a ratio of 5:1 has a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.
How to Overcome Omega-3 Deficiency
Wondering, “How can I increase my 0mega-3 intake?” Here are steps for overcoming symptoms of omega-3 deficiency:
1. Eat Fish Several Times Per Week
Many health organizations, including the FDA, recommend that adults eat several servings of seafood per week, especially seafood like salmon that is high in omega-3s. The best way to obtain omega-3s is by aiming to eat about eight or more ounces of a variety of seafood throughout the week, emphasizing types like salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, halibut and tuna. Whenever possible, choose wild-caught fish over farm-raised fish. Farm-raised fish is inferior to wild-caught fish both in terms of its level of contamination and also its nutrient and omega-3 content.
2. Emphasize Other Omega-3 Foods
Eating walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds and other seeds/nuts is another a good way to obtain omega-3s and healthy fats, although fish is the considered the best source. That’s because the human body is able to turn ALA into usable DHA and EPA to some degree, but this isn’t as efficient as getting DHA and EPA directly from food sources.
Here’s a list of the top omega-3 foods to include in your diet regularly, including seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds:
- Atlantic mackerel
- Alaskan salmon (and salmon fish oil)
- Cod liver oil
- Chia seeds
- Albacore tuna
- White fish
- Hemp seeds
- Egg yolks (ideally organic, free-range)
- Certain oils also contain omega-3s to some degree, usually in the form of ALAs, such as mustard oil, walnut oil and hemp oil
- Butternuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, hemp seeds and hazelnuts also have omega-3s in the form of ALA, but walnuts/chia/flax are the best sources
- To a lesser extent, some omega-3s can also be found in vegetables and grass-fed meat
One step you can focus on is reducing your intake of omega-6s from processed vegetable oils. Replace these with healthier oils like olive oil, hemp oil, avocado oil and coconut oil. Canola oil and other oils like sunflower, safflower, etc., are found in many highly processed foods that tip the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in the wrong direction.
3. Consider Supplementing with Omega-3s
Research suggests it’s ideal to get the omega-3s you need from food sources, however supplementing with fish oil can also be beneficial in most cases. Omega-3 fatty acids are now among the most commonly prescribed supplements worldwide. Through a combination of both food sources and supplements, aim to get at least 500 to 1,000 milligrams per day day of combined EPA/DHA. This is a general recommendation, however higher intake of about 4,000 to 5,000 milligrams of total omega-3s (ALA/EPA/DHA combined) has also been found to be beneficial and safe for most people.
Because many fish oil supplements contain mercury and/or other harmful contaminants, purchase supplements from a reputable source that clearly tests for these health-hazardous contaminants. Look for supplements that have been tested by a third-party and have a certificate of analysis that indicates the levels of purity.
Precautions and Final Thoughts
Eating omega-3 foods is unlikely to cause side effects (unless you have an allergy). However, fish oil supplements side effects may include belching, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, loose stools, rash and nosebleeds. Taking a high-quality fish oil supplement can reduce the likelihood of any unwanted side effects. It’s best to take fish oil with meals to reduce digestive issues.
If you have a bleeding disorder, bruise easily, take blood-thinning medications or have diabetes, talk to your doctor about the amount of omega-3s you should consume, especially from fish oil supplements. Taking large doses of omega-3 fatty acids from supplements can increase bleeding risk and contribute to other complications, so take precaution.
So what’s the bottom line on omega-3 fatty acid deficiency? You’re most likely to develop omega-3 deficiency symptoms if you rarely eat fish/seafood and eat lots of processed foods and vegetable oils that are high in omega-6s. Signs of omega-3 deficiency can include high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, joint pain, poor memory, dry skin and hair, problems with attention/concentration, digestive issues, and skin problems including eczema and rashes. To prevent omega-3 deficiency, eat fish, nuts and seeds several times per week, and also consider supplementing with quality fish oil.