Omega-3 Fatty Acid Deficiency

While there has been a lot written on deficiencies of vitamins and other minerals, not much is known about deficiency of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acid is an essential fatty acid meaning that the body is unable to make it. Thus, humans need to get it from their food. Omega-3 fatty acid is found in many types of fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon, halibut etc), cereals, some oils (eg sunflower), and nuts (eg walnuts). There are also supplements of omega-3 fatty acids available.

What Causes Deficiency of Omega 3 Fatty acids?

There are many people do not like fish and some cannot afford to eat fish on a regular basis. Thus, in these people deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids is not uncommon. Other reasons for developing omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include surgery or infections of the intestine, which makes it difficult to absorb this fatty acid. There are many patients in the hospital who are acutely ill and only fed Intravenous nutrition. These individuals can also develop omega-3 fatty acid deficiency. Deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids is not an acute event (ie it does not occur overnight) but occurs gradually over weeks or months. Once the body uses up its stores, the symptoms of the disorder will start to appear.

How many People have Deficiency of Omega 3 Fatty acids?

The exact number of people who develop omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is not known primarily because healthcare workers either do not recognize the symptoms or fail to order the relevant blood tests. However, the numbers are not minuscule. Anecdotal reports suggest that the deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids may be far more common than what we think. Deficiency of this fatty acid can occur in people of ages, in all races and both genders.

Why is the Ratio of Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids Important?

In the human body there is a delicate balance of all nutrients and minerals- the same applies to the essential fatty acids. In the north American diet, there is an abundance of omega 6 fatty acids (eg. grain fed meat or vegetable oil). In addition, many people take mega supplements of omega 6 fatty acids. What is important to understand is that when the levels of omega 6 fatty acids increase, the utilization of omega 3 fatty acids start to decline and this leads to a deficiency.

There are reports that the typical American diet contains at least 10 times the amount of omega 6 fatty acids compared to omega 3 fatty acids. The higher amount of omega 6 fatty acids have been linked to inflammation and death in patients with kidney disease.

Is There a Diet Plan with Optimal Balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids?

The one diet that places a great deal of emphasis on the correct ratio of the two fatty acids is the Mediterranean diet. This particular diet places emphasis on foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids like fresh fruit, whole grains, fortified cereals, fish, garlic, olive oil and even moderate amount of wine consumption. There are many studies which show that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a low risk of weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.

What are Signs of omega-3 Fatty Acid Deficiency?

The signs of omega 3 fatty acid deficiency are gradual in onset and may take a few weeks to months to manifest when intake is not adequate. With mild deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids, the initial symptoms are vague. These symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • lack of energy
  • feeling down
  • aching muscles and joints.

As the deficiency of omega 3 acid increases, the symptoms may include:

  • dry skin
  • itching
  • cracked nails
  • increased sleepiness
  • dull skin
  • gain in weight
  • confusion
  • Extreme thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • lack of motivation, easily distracted, anxiety and poor concentration.
  • Mood swings

Often these symptoms are mistaken for an under active thyroid gland. There is no one specific symptom that points to omega 3 fatty acid deficiency and thus one should always ask the healthcare provider to perform a blood test.

How does One Test for Omega-3 Deficiency?

There is a simple blood test that can quickly determine the presence or absence of omega-3 fatty acids. The test also measures levels of omega 6 fatty acids because it is the ratio of these two fatty acids that is important. The test also measures your “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, triglycerides as well as markers of inflammation like C-reactive protein. The omega 3 blood test is a rapid test and you can have the results on the same day. The test may have to be repeated to determine if the levels of omega 3 fatty acids are increasing or decreasing while you are making changes in your diet.

How Much Omega-3 Fatty Acids Does One Need?

To prevent deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids, one needs to eat a diet rich in fatty acids like fish (tuna, salmon, halibut, cat fish) at least twice a week. In addition one should consume fortified cereals, a variety of nuts, flax-seed, walnuts, soybeans, tofu and certain cooking oils (Corn oil, sunflower). For those individuals who do not like fish, an alternative is to supplements of omega 3 fatty acid. For healthy adults the dose of omega 3 fatty acids varies from 1-1.8 grams everyday. For individuals who are deficient the dose may vary from 1-3 grams a day for several months.

Can I take Omega-6 Supplements with Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

It is important to understand that normally there is a critical ratio in the body between these two fatty acids. If you take too much omega 6 fatty acids, it will cause a decrease in the utilization of omega 3 fatty acids and you will develop symptoms of a deficiency. At present many people take an excess amount of omega 6 fatty acid supplements without a corresponding increase in omega 3 fatty acids. The best advice is to first correct the omega 3 fatty acid deficiency with the supplement and then get blood work to ensure that your levels are within the normal range. Then, only take the recommended amount of omega 6 fatty acids. Once in a while get a blood test to make sure that your omega fatty acid ratio is within the normal range.

Are Omega-3 Supplements Safe?

Omega 3 fatty acids have been used by millions of people all over the globe for decades. There are generally safe. Only people with allergies to fish should avoid these supplements. The supplement is safe even when taken even up to 5 years. According to the FDA it is important not to exceed more than 3 grams of these fatty acids everyday. Omega 3 fatty acid are also safe during pregnancy and in women who breast feed. Because of the concern with contamination of fish with heavy metals including mercury, it is important to know where you buy your fish oil pills from.

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