Omega-3 deficiency refers to low or insufficient levels of important long-chain fatty acids, as these are required to regulate cardiovascular, immune and inflammatory pathways. A deficiency in any nutrient can be detrimental to health, but a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids presents possibly the most symptoms and signs of illness, compared with any other nutrient deficiency.
Given the importance of balancing omega-6 intake with omega-3 intake, if we are deficient in omega-3 we have a greater risk of poor health and disease. In this section we explain the key omega-3 deficiency symptoms and what the underlying causes may be. In the next section we outline the role of diet and supplementation in restoring optimal levels.
There are a number of signs which indicate a fatty acid deficiency. If you imagine how important omega-3 fatty acids are for the optimal functioning of organs, it is no surprise that if fatty acid levels are low in the body, the extremities such as skin, hair and nails are likely to be left until last. Low fatty acid status in the body therefore results in easy-to-spot physical symptoms. The brain can also suffer if omega-3 levels are low, as requirements for optimal functioning of neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical messengers) are so high.
- Rough or dry ‘bumpy’ skin
- Dry, dull or ‘lifeless’ brittle hair and dandruff
- Soft, peeling or brittle nails
- Excessive thirst, frequent urination
- Sleep problems (especially difficulties in settling at night and waking in the morning)
- Attention problems (distractibility, poor concentration and difficulties in working memory)
- Emotional sensitivity (such as depression, excessive mood swings or undue anxiety)
If you experience two or more of these symptoms, you are very likely to have an omega-3 deficiency. Deficiencies can easily be rectified for most individuals by manipulating dietary and lifestyle factors. Diet is important to start address first, but be mindful that not everyone has the same requirements or ability to digest these fats properly. Supplementation with a combination of omega-3 and anti-inflammatory omega-6 GLA may benefit those who cannot obtain sufficient levels from their diet due to increased requirements, existing health conditions or difficulties with metabolising fats.
Diagnostic testing: the Opti-O-3 blood spot
The ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fats in the diet influences omega-3 levels. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete in the body to use the same enzymes, so a very high intake of omega-6 fatty acids (such as from vegetable oils or grain-fed meat) can result in a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids (and therefore physical symptoms of deficiency), even if you are consuming them in your diet.
If you feel that you have a reasonable intake of omega-3 in your diet, but you are still presenting symptoms of deficiency, it may be a good idea to have a fatty acid profile test to measure your red blood cell levels. The Opti-O-3 is a convenient finger prick test that can be used at home without requiring a GP visit and includes a fatty acid profile, with a full report that outlines your key inflammatory biomarkers and recommends a personalised dose to bring your biomarkers into healthy target ranges – markers that have been scientifically validated as strong indicators of long-term health.
Without knowing your levels of omega-3 before embarking on any dietary changes or supplement regime, you may not be taking the right dose for you, and therefore you may not experience the full health benefits associated with achieving your optimal omega-3 level. It is also possible you may be taking more omega-3 than you need. Whilst there is no harm in taking a little more omega-3 than is needed, the test could help identify whether you are lacking any specific omega-3s and so enabling you to make better choices about the types of foods and supplements you are consuming.
It is often assumed that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids simply relates to inadequate dietary intake, but it is actually more complex than this and there can be quite a few other contributing factors. Not only are modern diets low in omega-3 rich foods, but we also have many other lifestyle and dietary habits that can prevent our bodies from utilising omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources and converting them into the beneficial long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA . Fortunately there is a lot we can do to reverse and prevent deficiencies.
Low dietary intake
Our bodies may be well adapted to holding on to nutrients if dietary intake is low, but there is only so much it can do with such high requirements in the body for omega-3 fatty acids. The important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish and shellfish, so if intake of these foods is low, i.e. less than 1-2 portions of oily fish per week, an omega-3 deficiency is likely.
For vegetarians and vegans, a certain amount of the short-chain omega-3 fatty acids from foods such as linseeds can be converted to the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA, but conversion is limited depending on nutrient status and other factors. Omega-3 fatty acid levels are therefore often quite low in vegetarians and vegans.
Lifestyle factors affecting metabolism of fats
During the conversion from short-chain fatty acids to long-chain fatty acids, several enzymes are required for this process to function efficiently. Vitamins and minerals (including zinc, vitamin B6 and magnesium) are required for these enzymes to do their job properly. Anything which hinders this, i.e. depleting these vitamins and minerals before the body has a chance to use them to convert fatty acids, can result in problems with omega-3 metabolism. Lifestyle and dietary factors that inhibit or disrupt the natural ability of the body to make long-chain omega-3s include smoking, alcohol consumption, caffeine, stress, high saturated fat intake, diabetes and viral infections.
Genetics and metabolism of fats
The ability to convert short-chain to long-chain fats is not only determined by our lifestyle and dietary factors, but is also influenced by our genetic makeup. Some individuals simply do not have the ability to manufacture adequate amounts of EPA if they do have the required enzymes to support the fatty acid conversion in the body. Individuals with eczema and neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD often have difficulties with this conversion, and therefore are more likely to have deficiencies in the important long-chain fatty acids.
Immune and inflammatory health conditions
During states of illness, the body often has an increased turnover of the long-chain omega-3 EPA. For example, during an immune response or in response to inflammation, the body will naturally use EPA in these reactions and stores can become depleted. Someone fighting a cold or suffering from an inflammatory condition such as psoriasis may therefore have increased requirement for long-chain fatty acids.
In order to prevent or address omega-3 deficiencies, we strongly recommend increasing your intake of foods that increase omega-3 levels, while minimising or avoiding foods and lifestyle factors that inhibit health omega-3 metabolism. Supplementation also plays a strong role in reversing signs of omega-3 deficiency and related conditions.
Foods that optimise omega-3 levels
- Oily fish (mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring, salmon)
Oily fish is the primary source of EPA and DHA, the direct dietary source of the healthy long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, so consuming oily fish twice weekly will supply a good amount. Smaller types of fish are preferable, as the lower they are in the food chain, the lower they are likely to be in contaminants such as methylmercury, PCBs and dioxins. Unfortunately, when larger fish consume smaller fish, this results in a build-up of the toxins stored in fish, so larger fish such as tuna and swordfish should be limited, preferably to once every two weeks, and even less for pregnant women.
- Seeds rich in omega-3 (linseeds, chia seeds and echium seeds)
Although only a small amount of these short-chain fatty acids are converted to the health-promoting long-chain fatty acids, these fats are still beneficial to include in your diet, and if you consume the whole seed, you also obtain the other nutrients present such as zinc, iron, magnesium and vitamin E. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may also benefit from having added omega-3 from the seed oils to ensure that you are obtaining sufficiently high doses. Stearidonic acid in echium seed oil has the highest conversion to EPA in the body of all the plant-sourced fats, as it undergoes fewer enzyme steps before converting to EPA and DHA. Echium is ideal for vegetarians and vegans looking to increase their long-chain omega-3 levels.
Foods that inhibit omega-3
As several foods and lifestyle factors can reduce the conversion of fatty acids, and imbalance the ratios of the different fats, it is crucial that you limit the following to ensure healthy levels of omega-3 in the body.
- Processed and refined foods
- High intake of saturated and trans fats
- Plant oils such as common vegetables oils and corn oil (high in short-chain [undesirable] omega-6, which can significantly unbalance the omega-6/ omega-3 ratio)
- Grain-fed red meat
Most importantly, avoid refined foods such as biscuits and other confectionary, as not only do they contain refined carbohydrates that will rob your body of nutrients to digest them, but they also contain unhealthy heat-treated refined trans fats such as those from corn oil. These oils can play havoc on your fatty acid levels and can also increase inflammation in the body.
If you have any of the omega-3 deficiency signs, if you do not eat fish, or if you feel that your requirements for omega-3 fatty acids are high, you may be able to relieve your symptoms and become much healthier all-round by supplementing with a concentrated fish oil.
Supplementing with concentrated omega-3 fish oil is an easy way to achieve high doses of without having to worry about contaminants found in fish, as oils can be purified. Supplementing with 500-1000mg of omega-3 EPA and DHA per day can result in moisturised skin, hair and nails in just a few weeks, and for symptoms of brain health such as anxiety, supplement with 1000 mg pure EPA for 3-6 months for noticeable improvements. To keep an omega-3 deficiency at bay, omega-3 supplementation is advised long-term.
For vegetarians and vegans (omega-3 deficiency is more likely), consider taking echium seed oil, which contains a wonderful balance of omega-3, 6 and 9 fats, is much higher in the omega-3 fatty acids SDA and ALA, and raises EPA levels 60% higher than other plant oils such as flaxseed oil.