Struggling with dry skin, acne, dandruff, or depression? These may be signs of an omega-3 deficiency.
What Are Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are a family of essential fatty acids that play an important role in our health. (1, 2) Since our body can’t make Omega-3s, we must eat them.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found primarily in seeds, nuts, and dark leafy greens. There is some in grass-fed animal fat, too.
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is found primarily in fatty fish and algae
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is found primarily in fatty fish and algae
The Role of Omega-3s
While they are probably most well known for reducing inflammation, omega-3’s play many crucial roles in the body. Some of their main roles include:
- being an integral part of the cell membranes of every cell in your body
- helping in hormone production
- aiding in blood clotting, contraction, and relaxation of artery walls
- regulating inflammation
What are the Benefits of Omega-3?
Because they play so many important roles, omega-3s reduce the risk and symptoms of various chronic conditions. They are found to:
- reduce chronic inflammation (1, 2, 3)
- fight depression and anxiety (1, 4, 5)
- improve eye health and may prevent macular degeneration (6, 7)
- reduce your risk factors for heart disease and stroke (8, 9, 10)
- minimize symptoms of acne, eczema, and psoriasis (11, 12, 13, 14)
- reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (15, 16)
- support a healthy pregnancy and the brain development of the baby (17)
Many people don’t get enough Omega-3s since there are limited food sources of it (primarily fatty fish like wild salmon and nuts and seeds such as flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts).
What’s more, anyone who does not consume fatty fish or algae regularly, including vegans, vegetarians, and everyone else, may be at higher risk of omega-3 deficiency. That’s because we need all three types of omega-3, and plant-based foods primarily supply ALA, but not EPA or DHA. Our body can convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, but it’s not an efficient process.
In a study of healthy young women, approximately 21% of dietary ALA was converted to EPA and 9% was converted to DHA (18). Also, in a study of healthy young men, 8% of dietary ALA was converted to EPA and 0%-4% was converted to DHA. (19)
So, if you’re someone who does not consume fish, it’s important to be conscious of consuming enough ALA-rich foods daily to meet your needs.
Signs Of Omega-3 Deficiency
When our bodies do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids, it often (but not always) lets us know through the below signs of omega-3 deficiency. If you think you’re at risk, check your omega-3 and omega-6 blood levels through a blood test at your doctor’s office. You could also simply start incorporating more omega-3 rich foods or supplements into your diet.
Dry Skin & Chapped Lips
Dry skin, sensitive skin prone to irritation, and chapped lips are common signs of omega-3 deficiency. Also, the presence of tiny rough bumps on the back of the arms is an indicator.
- One small study gave women ALA-rich flaxseed oil daily 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. (20)
- Another 20-week study gave omega-3-rich hemp seed oil daily to people with eczema, a condition that causes dry and irritated skin. Participants experienced reduced dryness and itchiness and needed less topical medication. (21)
Experiencing more acne than normal may be an indication of omega-3 deficiency.
- Studies have shown that omega-3s reduce inflammation which scientists believe may trigger acne. (22)
- Research shows taking omega-3 supplements can help reduce acne breakouts and skin inflammation. (23, 24)
An omega-3 deficiency may be associated with an increased risk of developing various mental health disorders including depression.
- Omega-3 fats are an essential component of the brain and provide neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory benefits. (25, 26)
- Several studies show a correlation between a low omega-3 status and a higher incidence of depression. (27, 28, 29, 30)
If you’ve noticed an increase in eye dryness, this may be an indication that your diet lacks omega-3 fats.
- Omega-3 fats play a role in eye health, including maintaining eye moisture and possibly tear production. (31)
- In an analysis of 17 studies involving 3,363 people, researchers found that taking omega-3 supplements significantly reduced dry eye symptoms. (32)
Depleted levels of omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to joint pain or related arthritic symptoms. Studies have found that taking omega-3 supplements helps reduce joint pain and increase grip strength.
- Research suggests that omega-3 supplements may help reduce disease activity and improve symptoms in those with rheumatoid arthritis. (33)
Dry Hair & Falling Hair
Experiencing increased hair loss, hair thinning or dry brittle hair may be signs of omega-3 deficiency.
- A 2015 study showed that women taking a fish oil supplement experienced significantly increased hair growth and reduced hair loss. (34)
Periods are not supposed to be painful. If they are, it’s a sign of imbalance. An omega-3 deficiency may contribute to cramps, as can a deficiency of magnesium.
- At least eight studies involving a total of 1,097 women have investigated the relationship between diet and menstrual cramps and found that omega-3 rich fish oil intake had a positive effect on menstrual cramps. (35)
Brittle nails may be a sign of omega-3 deficiency or other nutrient deficiencies. While there is not much research in this area, getting a sufficient amount of omega-3 (or the depleted nutrient) for 90 days may help those with brittle nails.
How Much Omega-3 Do You Need Daily?
In the US, there are no official guidelines on the adequate intake of omega-3s. However, many experts agree 1-3g (1000 – 3000 mg) range is what we should aim for. The American Heart Association now recommends as much as 4g of prescription omega-3 a day to lower high triglycerides. (36)
Omega-3 Rich Foods
Below are some foods high in omega-3s. As you can see, just one or two servings a day of these foods can help reach your daily omega-3 needs:
- Cod Liver Oil: 1 Tbsp provides 2.7g omega-3
- Walnuts: 1 ounce provided 2.6g omega-3
- Chia Seeds: 1 Tbsp provides 2.5g omega-3
- Wild Salmon: 3 ounces provides 2.2 g omega-3
- Herring: 3 ounces provides 1.9g omega-3
- Anchovies: 3 ounces provides 1.8g omega-3
- Ground Flaxseed: 1 Tbsp provides 1.6g omega-3
- Sardines: 3.75 ounces provides 1.4g omega-3
- Mackerel: 3 ounces provides 1.2g omega-3
If you don’t like fish or can’t commit to eating flax or chia every day, a high-quality omega-3 supplement can help. I prefer algae-based supplements. They are vegan-friendly. In addition, they are where fish get their omega-3 from in the first place (as they eat algae).
This is my top choice algae omega-3 supplement and the one I currently take. I find it a good insurance policy, even though I eat omega-3 rich foods regularly. If I notice my skin is dry, I have chapped lips, or know I’ll be eating out (and inevitably ingesting omega-6 rich vegetable oils) I sometimes double the dose and take 4 soft gels to get 500 mg combined EPA + DHA.
Easy Omega-3 Rich Recipes
A flavorful, juicy salmon recipe seared and then baked with a blend of turmeric, cumin, coriander, paprika, and cayenne.
Mango Salsa Salmon
Add a tropical twist to your weeknight salmon with this easy Mango Salsa Salmon recipe.
Coconut Chia Seed Pudding
This coconut chia seed pudding is healthy and easy to make, packed with acne-fighting omega 3s, that will keep you satisfied till lunchtime, no snacking required.