“There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids—docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA),” says registered dietitian nutritionist Alice Figueroa, RDN, CDN, founder of Alice in Foodieland. “It’s necessary to consume between 250–500 mg of combined DHA and EPA on a daily basis to stay healthy, and the adequate intake (AI) of ALA is 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men. Unfortunately, in general, most Americans do not meet the daily adequate intake,” she says.
Currently, there’s no standardized test for omega-3 deficiency, so it can be hard to detect, though there are certain signs and symptoms that indicate you may need to consume more sources of omega-3s like nuts (walnuts in particular) and seeds (chia seeds pack an entire days worth of ALA), seafood, fatty fish like salmon, cod, sardines, or mackerel, algae (aka sea greens), or supplements like fish or algae oil. “Because omega-3 oils are members of the dietary fat family, they are best absorbed when taken with foods that contain some fat,” Dr. Bland says.
While not all indicators of omega-3 deficiency are visible—like chronic inflammation and heart problems—there are some common ways your body will clue you in that it’s running low. Before starting any new supplement or food protocol, though, it’s always best to check with your doctor.
7 signs of omega-3 deficiency
1. Skin irritation, rashes, or acne
It’s easy to dismiss dry skin for a few different reasons (dehydration being a common culprit), but it is associated with omega-3 deficiency, both Dr. Bland and Figueroa say. Fatty acids help keep cell membranes healthy, which includes helping them retain moisture. So dry skin can be an early warning sign that you’re not consuming enough omega-3s to make this happen.
There’s even been some research that indicates that omega-3 supplementation can help with skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis because of this, and their ability to reduce inflammation in the body. People who took fish oil containing 1.8 g of EPA saw a reduction in eczema symptoms after 12 weeks, according to one study. And an increase in acne is also a symptom of low omega-3 levels; it’s believed to be caused by an elevation in inflammation as well.
2. Brittle/thinning hair
Similar to your skin, if your hair starts to become dry, dull, frizzy, and the ends begin to split—or it starts falling out—these can all be signs of omega-3 deficiency, according to Figueroa. Studies have shown that omega-3 supplementation has reduced hair loss in women.
3. Joint pain and stiffness
Because omega-3s produce an anti-inflammatory response in the body, it’s believed that joint pain and stiffness, particularly the kind caused by inflammation like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), can be a sign of omega-3 deficiency. And studies have found that proper supplementation eases symptoms for people with RA and joint pain associated with lupus.
4. Brain fog and loss of cognitive function
“Some clues that you are not getting enough omega-3s include difficulty concentrating or memory issues,” says registered dietitian Maya Feller, RD. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia have also been connected to omega-3 deficiency.
Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are also associated with depression, as well as other psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to research.
6. Dry eyes
About 14 percent of all U.S. adults suffer from dry eyes, which is at least in part caused by inflammation. In a large study of women 45 to 84 years old, those with the highest level of omega-3 intake saw a 17 percent reduction in dry eyes.
Both Feller and Figueroa note that fatigue is a common sign of omega-3 deficiency, and research conducted on the effects of omega-3 supplementation on lupus (which is characterized by joint pain and fatigue), found that omega-3 fatty acids were able to alleviate both symptoms.
There are multiple reasons you may experience any of the symptoms above, but if you find yourself ticking off more than a few from this list, it’s worth consulting with your healthcare provider about the possibility of omega-3 deficiency. While there is currently no standardized test for omega-3 deficiency, they’ll be able to recommend the best way to get more of the three types of omega-3 fatty acids—ALA, EPA, and DHA—into your diet from food or supplements.
“Generally, the recommendation for people who consume seafood is to have a minimum of two servings of fatty fish per week, as well as plant sources of omega-3s such as walnuts, flaxseeds, and marine algae,” Feller says. “For people who do not consume seafood incorporating an abundance of plant sources of omega-3, as well as supplementation may be needed.”
Because omega-3 fatty acids are stored in cellular membranes that surround every cell, it takes some time to correct a deficiency of omega-3s, according to Dr. Bland. “It typically takes three to four months after supplementing with 1,000–2,000 mg a day of omega-3s or increasing the amount of cold-water fish in the diet to increase omega-3s to a healthy level if a person is depleted,” he says. This, of course, depends on how large of a deficit you’re dealing with, and Figueroa says you can start to see some improvements in as little as two to three weeks.
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