It’s important to consume omega-3 fatty acids.
They’re an important component of your cell membranes. Your body also needs them to produce signaling molecules called eicosanoids, which help your immune, pulmonary, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems work properly.
Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA). Important omega-3s in foods include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), as well as their essential precursor alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Having an omega-3 deficiency means that your body is not getting enough omega-3 fats. This may put you at risk of negative health effects.
This article reviews possible signs and symptoms of omega-3 deficiency, how to determine whether your omega-3 status is low, and how to increase your omega-3 intake.
If your body lacks omega-3 fats, one of the first places you may notice it is in your skin. For instance, sensitive, dry skin, or even an unusual increase in acne may be a sign of omega-3 deficiency in some people.
Omega-3 fats improve the integrity of skin barriers, preventing the loss of moisture and protecting it from irritants that can lead to dryness and irritation.
One small study gave women a daily dose of 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 mL) of ALA-rich flaxseed oil for 3 months. The women who took it experienced decreased skin roughness and increased skin hydration by nearly 40%, compared with those who received a placebo
A 20-week study gave omega-3-rich hempseed oil daily to people with atopic dermatitis, also called eczema a condition that causes dry and irritated skin. Participants experienced reduced dryness and itchiness and needed less topical medication.
Additionally, experiencing more acne than normal may be an indirect indication of omega-3 deficiency in some people. Studies have shown that omega-3s reduce inflammation, which scientists believe may trigger acne.
Furthermore, some research has shown that taking omega-3 supplements can help reduce acne breakouts and skin inflammation.
Interestingly, some studies have also found that taking EPA and DHA supplements may reduce how sensitive your skin is to ultraviolet light.
In one study, participants who took 4 grams of EPA daily for 3 months experienced a 136% increase in their resistance to sunburn.
Overall, omega-3 fats are important for maintaining optimal skin health, so if they’re lacking in your diet, you may notice changes in your skin.
Omega-3 fats are an essential component of the brain and known to have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects
They may even help treat neurodegenerative diseases and brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and bipolar disorder. Many studies show a correlation between a low omega-3 status and a higher incidence of depression.
One analysis of 26 studies that included 2,160 participants found that taking omega-3 supplements had a beneficial effect on depressive symptoms .
Specifically, an omega-3 supplement that contained at least 60% EPA, taken at a dosage of 1 gram or less per day, appeared to be helpful.
Another systematic review and analysis of 6 studies and 4,605 participants concluded that an average intake of 1.3 grams of omega-3s per day reduced mild to moderate depression symptoms among older adults, compared with a placebo.
Additionally, one animal study found that a lifelong inadequate intake of omega-3 fats caused changes in neuronal pathways of the brain, resulting in depression.
While many factors contribute to the development of mental health disorders, a diet high in omega-3s may help reduce the risk of some mental health conditions. Consult your healthcare provider to be screened for depression and determine appropriate treatment strategies.
3. Dry eyes
Omega-3 fats play a role in eye health, including maintaining eye moisture and possibly even tear production
For this reason, many healthcare providers prescribe omega-3 supplements to help relieve dry eye syndrome. Symptoms of this often include eye discomfort and even disturbances in vision.
One high quality study in 64 adults with dry eye looked at the effects of taking omega-3s. One group of participants consumed two daily capsules, each containing 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA. The other group of participants took a placebo.
After 30 days, those who had taken omega-3 supplements experienced less tear evaporation, improved dry eye symptoms, and more tear production.
Furthermore, in one analysis of 17 studies involving 3,363 people, researchers found that taking omega-3 supplements significantly reduced symptoms of dry eye compared with taking a placebo.
In contrast, other studies have found that taking omega-3 supplements made no difference in dry eye symptoms compared with taking an olive oil placebo.
If you’ve noticed an increase in eye dryness, this may be an indication that your diet lacks omega-3 fats.
That said, many health conditions can contribute to dry eye symptoms. As such, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing dry eyes or other eye-related symptoms.
4. Joint pain and stiffness
It’s common to experience joint pain and stiffness as you get older.
This may be related to a condition called osteoarthritis, in which cartilage covering the bones breaks down. Alternatively, it may be related to an inflammatory autoimmune condition called rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Some studies have found that taking omega-3 supplements helps reduce joint pain and increase grip strength. Research also shows that PUFAs may help with osteoarthritis, though more human studies are needed.
Moreover, research suggests that omega supplements may help reduce disease activity in those with RA, as well as improve symptoms in people with the disease.
If you’ve noticed an increase in joint pain or related arthritic symptoms, your omega-3 fat status could be low and taking supplements may help.
However, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing joint pain or arthritis symptoms. They can help determine the proper treatment.
Taking omega-3 supplements has shown promise in helping decrease joint pain and stiffness, though scientists need to do more research in humans to investigate this.
5. Hair changes
Just as omega-3 fats help retain moisture in the skin, they also help keep your hair healthy. Changes in hair texture, integrity, and density may indicate a low omega-3 status.
One 6-month study gave 120 female participants omega-3s, along with omega-6 fats and antioxidants, in a daily supplement .
At the end of the study, those who had taken the supplement experienced reduced hair loss and increased hair density compared with the control group.
One study in dogs found that taking EPA and DHA improved fatty acid composition in the animals’ blood and hair. The fatty acid composition they found is associated with better hair quality.
If you’re experiencing increased hair loss or have noticed that your hair is thinning or feeling dry and brittle, taking omega-3 supplements may help.
How to improve omega-3 status
Some foods, such as chia seeds and other plant foods, contain the omega-3 fat ALA. Fish and other foods that are mostly animal-based contain DHA and EPA. ALA is a precursor to DHA and EPA, which means your body can convert some of it into these two omega-3 fatty acids. However, the conversion rate is very low
Thus, it’s best to focus on getting enough EPA and DHA directly from your diet or supplements, rather than by consuming ALA. Fatty fish are the best food sources of EPA and DHA. These include salmon, herring, trout, mackerel, sea bass, and sardines.
Still, you should also incorporate good sources of ALA into your diet. Some of the best sources of ALA include plant oils, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
You can take DHA and EPA supplements made with fish oil or krill oil. However, vegan omega-3 supplements, which derive the nutrient from algae instead of seafood, are also available. Studies indicate that algae-derived omega-3 is effective at increasing omega-3 status.
If you suspect that your omega-3 status is low, you can increase your dietary intake and consider a supplement. If you’re concerned about a more severe deficiency, speak with your healthcare provider, who can recommend appropriate supplements.
It is important to note the following:
Omega-3 deficiency is a condition in which your body does not have enough omega-3 fats available. It typically results from not consuming enough dietary sources of omega-3s over the long term. While healthcare providers do not regularly assess people for omega-3 deficiency, there may some indicators that your status is low. For example, lacking omega-3 may lead to or exacerbate dry and irritated skin, inflammation, hair thinning and loss, depression, dry eyes, and joint pain or stiffness. The research linking these symptoms to omega-3 deficiency is preliminary, so more research is needed.
The best way to boost your omega-3 status is to increase the amount you get from your diet. Fatty fish and seafood are rich in the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, while some plant oils contain ALA. You can also get omega-3 fats from supplements made with fish, krill, or algae.
Finally, If you’re concerned about a more severe omega-3 deficiency, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider to determine appropriate evaluation and treatment.