What are Omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids provide numerous health benefits, ensuring your body is operating at its best. Because your body doesn't produce Omega-3 fatty acids on its own, it's essential you get enough from your diet. Otherwise, you could start to experience omega-3 deficiency symptoms.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids. Your body requires ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), in addition to DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). While EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is typically found in plants, the other two occur naturally in animal products and algae.
When you receive enough omega-3 fatty acids, you should experience numerous health benefits. Studies show DHA is particularly vital to your retina and brain health. Research also indicates DHA is critical for pregnant women, as it affects the intelligence and health of unborn babies.
Studies also indicate omega-3 fatty acids can combat breast cancer, inflammatory diseases, ADHD and other conditions. The best way to ensure you don't experience a fatty acid deficiency is to eat a well-balanced, healthy diet that’s high in omega-3.
Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The Office of Dietary Supplements has not established a recommended daily intake for omega-3 fatty acids, outside ALA. For most adults, the recommended daily ALA intake ranges from 1.1 to 1.6 grams.
It isn't difficult to get the recommended amount of omega-3 through a healthy diet. Not only are these fatty acids found in many foods naturally; they are also added to some fortified foods.
Ideally, your diet includes fish and other seafood. Cold-water fatty fish, such as tuna, salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel, are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids. You can also find these nutrients in nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds.
Plant oils, such as canola oil, soybean oil and flaxseed oil, are also high in omega-3 fatty acids.
You can also eat more fortified foods. Omega-3 fatty acids are added to several easily accessible foods, such as infant formulas, soy beverages, milk, juices, yogurt and eggs. Check the nutrition label on food and beverages to determine whether or not it contains enough omega-3 fatty acids.
What causes Omega-3 deficiency?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most Americans don't experience an omega-3 deficiency. However, there are some people at a higher risk of essential fatty acid deficiency.
Most people who experience a fatty acid deficiency simply aren’t getting enough omega-3 in their diet. Other omega-3 deficiency causes may include dietary-fat restriction and energy deficits. However, during those occurrences, your body typically releases fatty acids from the adipose-tissue reserves. And that's why a lot of people don’t suffer from a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids.
Still, some evidence suggests higher levels of omega-3 could be associated with a reduction in cardiovascular diseases. Other studies show omega-3 fatty acids are essential for prenatal health, especially for the retina and brain development. Omega-3 may also combat cancer.
So, while a lot of people may not have an omega-3 deficiency, some will benefit from increasing their omega-3 intake, even if you aren't suffering from the signs of essential fatty acid deficiency. However, in order to counteract any symptoms, you need to understand how to know if you are omega-3 deficient, as the signs of omega-3 deficiency can vary based on which fatty acid you are lacking.
Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency Symptoms
What are the symptoms of omega-3 deficiency? One of the most common symptoms is a dry scaly rash. Studies show a correlation between a lack of omega-3 fatty acids and itchy skin.
In fact, itchy skin can stem from an inflammatory response to anything the body believes is an irritant or allergen. But omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation by creating an inhibition of inflammatory substances, such as leukotriene B4, which studies show plays a vital role in eczema.
Other research indicates omega-3 fatty acids are essential to prenatal health. The American Pregnancy Association makes it clear how important it is for these fatty acids to be included in prenatal support. Without the proper amount of omega-3, infants and children can struggle to develop properly.
Omega-3 fatty acids may also prevent wound infections, according to some studies. So, if you notice it takes a long time for your wounds to heal, that could be caused by the effects of an omega-3 deficiency.
Finally, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency symptoms may also include some sensory nerve disorders and visual issues. Studies show a connection between neuropathy and omega-3 deficiency. But to fully understand omega-3 deficiency symptoms, it's best to look closely at each fatty acid individually.
DHA Deficiency Symptoms
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the most important omega-3 fatty acids found in your body. DHA is needed for proper brain function and retina health. DHA is found in animal products, such as fish oil and fatty fish. You can also find it in eggs, dairy and meat from grass-fed animals, which is why a DHA deficiency, specifically, is more common among people who follow vegan and vegetarian diets.
Studies show several omega-3 deficiency symptoms when DHA intake is low. For example, animal research shows a decrease in DHA leads to a reduction of new nerve cell production, as well as altered nerve function. Because of this, a lack of DHA can also cause problems related to eyesight and cognition.
In human studies, DHA deficiency has been linked to learning disabilities, aggressive hostility and ADHD. These conditions are most prevalent in younger children. In addition, research shows low levels of DHA in pregnant mothers may be linked to poor neural and visual development of children.
Another one of the possible deficiency symptoms of omega-3 fatty acids is dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Studies show Alzheimer's patients have lower DHA levels in their livers and brains, although their EPA and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) levels may be elevated.
EPA Deficiency Symptoms
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is also found in fish and fish oil. Just like with DHA, vegetarians and vegans may struggle to get enough of this fatty acid without taking a microalgae supplement.
EPA is needed for many bodily functions and some of it is even converted into DHA. By looking at some of the EPA benefits, it's easier to determine what some of the deficiency symptoms are.
First off, studies show EPA may prevent the blood from clotting too easily. This benefit may be enough to provide a boost to cardiovascular health. EPA might also reduce inflammation, which leads to pain and swelling. In addition, research shows EPA may suppress the body's immune system.
EPA may also have a positive effect on blood cholesterol. In fact, some cholesterol prescriptions, like Vascepa, contain pure eicosapentaenoic acid. Studies show this medication lowers triglyceride levels by 33% in patients with extreme cholesterol levels and 22% in patients with lower levels.
ALA Deficiency Symptoms
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is considered the most accessible omega-3 fatty acid for any diet, including vegan and vegetarian diets, as it’s found in flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, canola oil and soybeans.
ALA is used for energy production, but it’s also converted into DHA and EPA's active forms. However, studies indicate that only a small portion of ALA is actually converted into these active forms.
Because of this research, we know that the deficiency symptoms associated with DHA and EPA carry over to ALA. But with an ALA deficiency, you may also notice issues with your nails, hair and skin. When ALA levels get low, nails may start to crack, hair can become brittle and your skin may dry out.
You may also experience trouble sleeping or severe fatigue. In conjunction, a lack of ALA fatty acids can make it difficult to pay attention or concentrate. Studies show that children who become angry quickly or have attention problems may be experiencing an omega-3 deficiency.
Omega-3 fatty acids may also contain anti-inflammatory properties; a deficiency can lead to joint pain and soreness. Additionally, if you suffer from asthma or allergies, you may have an omega-3 deficiency.
Is there an Omega-3 deficiency test?
Can you test for omega-3 deficiency? There is an omega-3 deficiency test you can order to check your levels. But first, we recommend that you speak to your healthcare practitioner to learn how to check omega-3 deficiency. They may order an Omega-3 Index, a blood test for omega-3 deficiency.
The Omega-3 Index measures the number of healthy fats in your red blood cells. It also assesses the risk you face of heart disease. Blood cells live in your body an average of four months. With this information, you can measure the benefits of your eating habits from the past one to four months.
You will also want to wait to retest for at least four months after making dietary changes or after you start a supplement. This blood test isn't one that is regularly given by health care providers, so make sure you request one if you are concerned about an omega-3 deficiency.