Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in many bodily processes from the time of conception to geriatric health. However, it’s hard to know if you could be lacking omega-3 fatty acids because it’s not routinely tested for. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, which means they can only be obtained through consumption of food or via supplementation. Let’s take a look at the common signs and symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.
The most obvious sign of an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is dry and scaly skin.1 The outer-most layer of the skin, acts as a barrier which blocks irritants and toxins from entering and maintains the skin’s moisture levels. This barrier contains omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, if someone is not getting enough of these moisturizing fatty acids, there will be a decrease in the barrier’s function as well as water loss which decreases moisture and increases skin irritation.2 If you’re deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, you may see signs such as premature wrinkling, patches of dry itchy, flaky skin or you may suffer from dermatitis (eczema) and dandruff.1
A change in vision or dry eyes may be another sign that your intake of omega-3s isn’t high enough. Omega-3 fatty acids, mostly DHA, are found in high amounts in the retina of the eye. Although the exact role of these fatty acids in the eye isn’t clear, we know that they are anti-inflammatory and can encourage drainage of eye fluid and improve blood flow.3 This may be one of the reasons why we see a decrease in omega-3 fatty acids in those with eye diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration.3 Another important role for omega-3s in eye health is their ability to hydrate the eyes and form a protective barrier, in the same way they do for the skin. A common finding in those who supplement with omega-3 fatty acids, is that they have fewer dry eye symptoms than those who don’t.4 Omega-3s create an oily film which covers the eye. This coating can decrease with age, ocular diseases and environmental dryness, however by supplementing with omega-3s orally, and even topically in the form of drops, the dry eye can be reduced.4
Achy joints could be another sign of inadequate omega-3 fatty acid consumption. However, this sign is an even better indicator that there is an imbalance between your intake of omega-3s and omega-6s.
Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory while omega-6’s are proinflammatory. In the body there are important uses for both omega-3s and 6’s. However, these fatty acids need to stay in a balanced state. Historically, this would mean 1:1 balance, however with today’s Western diet, the ratio is more like 16:1 in favour of omega-6s.5 So, although you may be getting a fine amount of omega-3s, your intake of omega-6s may be too high, creating a conditional deficiency, causing inflammation. This inflammation can lead to joint swelling, increased joint fluid, cartilage and bone damage and muscle loss.
In a clinical trial looking at the impact of omega-3s and joint pain, patients who had been seen by a neurosurgeon who had nonsurgical neck or back pain were asked to take a total of 1200 mg per day of omega-3s. After 75 days of use, 60% of respondents reported an improvement in overall joint pain, 80% were “satisfied with their improvement,” and 88 percent continued their intake of omega-3 supplements.6
A lesser-known impact of a low omega-3 intake is alternations in mood and changes in mental health. In general, patients who suffer from depression are found to have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids than those who are either not currently in a depressive episode or do not suffer from depression.7 Researchers have found that this relationship is even stronger if the person also suffers from anxiety.7
A meta-analysis published in the Public Library of Science reviewed 18 clinical trials looking at the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on patients with both major depressive disorder as well as those with depressive symptoms with no official diagnosis. They found that omega-3 treatment had a significant impact when compared to placebo.9 They found that EPA, rather than DHA was most effective and the use of omega-3s was also seen to benefit those with bipolar disorder.9
Other than the fat found throughout your body, the central nervous system holds the highest concentration of fats, therefore it makes sense that omega-3 fatty acids play such an important role in the regulation of brain processes and in mental health.8. We don’t know the exact way that omega-3s work to regulate mood but there are several proposed mechanisms. The anti-inflammatory actions of omega-3s are most likely involved.
Although there are many more signs of low omega-3 intake in your diet, these are 4 very common ones which may point to the need for a higher intake of these fatty acids either through dietary or supplemental consumption.
Please always check in with a practitioner to see if supplementing is good for you and to determine the dose and form appropriate for your individual needs.