Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that play a crucial role in maintaining our overall health and wellbeing. However, despite their importance, many people are deficient in omega-3s. This deficiency can have a significant impact on our health and lead to a variety of health issues. In this blog article, we will dive deeper into the topic of omega-3 deficiency and discuss the causes, symptoms, and ways to prevent it.
What are Omega-3s?
Omega 3s are essential fatty acids that the body cannot produce on its own and must obtain in a healthy balanced diet. If it is not possible to obtain omega 3 through diet alone, then it is recommended to support your diet with omega 3 supplementation to help prevent an omega 3 deficiency.
Omega 3 is made up of three different types of polyunsaturated fatty acids. These are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). There are many benefits of Omega 3 and this fatty acid plays a vital role in the body. These include helping to maintain normal brain and eye function. If the body becomes deficient in omega 3 then it can have negative effects on health.
How to confirm an omega-3 deficiency
To identify and/or confirm whether the symptoms you are experiencing are linked to an omega 3 deficiency then a simple home blood test can be used. Omega 3 levels in the body can be identified by testing just a few drops of blood. There are healthcare companies online that provide these tests; otherwise, there are private clinics that provide an in person service.
Before a blood test is completed to confirm omega levels, you may experience signs and symptoms that are associated with a lack of omega 3.
Omega 3 Deficiency: Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of low omega 3 levels include:
1. Depression - Feelings of depression and anxiety could be a sign of fatty acid deficiency. Omega 3, and specifically DHA, is a component that makes up cell structures in the brain. Omega 3 also plays a neuroprotective role (1). Studies have shown a connection between low omega 3 and an increased risk of depressive symptoms (2).
2. Skin dryness and irritation including eczema – skin dryness and irritation can be a symptom of omega 3 and omega-6 deficiency. There have been several studies that have shown omegas have an anti-inflammatory role (3).
3. Joint problems including pain and stiffness – Clinical studies have shown that omega 3 fatty acids may help with swollen and tender joints. They also may modulate the immune inflammatory response hence joint pain and arthritis may be a symptom of a lack of omega 3 (4).
4. Dry eyes – deficiency in omega 3 can be an issue for eye health as omega 3 is a component in the structure of the eye. Omega 3 has lubricating properties and may help prevent dry eyes.
5. Sleeping problems – a lack of omega 3 can cause sleep issues. Studies have shown having a good level of omega 3 can improve certain aspects of sleep health in children (5)
6. Heart issues – adequate omega 3 has shown to have cardioprotective properties and is directly related to good heart health. This forms one of the pillars of the “Mediterranean diet” where fresh fish play a key role in providing healthy polyunsaturated fats like omega 3. Sometimes doctors recommended high dose omega supplementation if heart problems are being experienced. EPA and DHA are recommended by the department of health as a part of a healthy diet. Higher doses of omega 3 are associated with a modest decrease in blood pressure (5)
How to get enough Omega-3 in your body?
There are three ways to increase the omega-3 levels in your body; increasing dietary intake, omega 3 supplementation, or a combination of both.
Increasing omega-3 intake through dietary measures alone requires time and discipline. It would be recommended to keep a food diary, to keep track of the omega 3 sources you are eating each week.
The department of health recommends at least 2 portions of fish per week (6). For vegans or vegetarians, it can be a tricky to find a good quality source of omega 3 through diet alone, increasing the chance of omega 3 deficiency. Some vegan and vegetarian options include flaxseed oil, chia and walnuts but these only provide the inefficient omega 3 ALA. Supplementing with a vegan/vegetarian source of omega 3 like algae oil provides a good option and ensures you are getting your recommended daily intake of this essential fatty acid. This is because algae oil provides the omega forms that have shown the most health benefit, DHA and EPA.
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the advice from the department of health is also different, as it is important to avoid certain types of fish. This is due to the heavy metals and pollutants that build up in some fish species. A vegan source of omega 3, like marine algae, that is free from heavy metals and pollutants is a good alternative to fish.
It takes about 6 weeks to 6 months for your omega 3 levels to rise again after supplementing with an omega supplement.
Best sources of Omega 3
Omega 3 can be found in several food sources. The best sources of omega 3, also has a lot to do with personal choice as there are both fish-based and plant-based options.
In terms of Omega 3 DHA and EPA content, fish contains the most. However, the plant-based form marine algae (algal oil) has comparable qualities. This is because it provides both DHA and EPA in high concentrations, just like in fish. Interestingly, fish have a high DHA and EPA content because their main food source is algae. So, by going direct to the original source and switching to algal oil you actually also have a positive effect on the marine ecosystems.
Other plant-based sources of Omega-3 include flaxseed oil, chia seeds and walnuts. These however only provide ALA and are a less efficient source of omega 3.