At long last, Americans are finally coming to terms with the fact that fat is not the enemy. (We won’t miss you, chalky fat-free cookies.) Each year, we’re learning more and more about how a diet with a moderate amount of good fats actually helps us absorb crucial vitamins and minerals, keep our brains sharper longer, and may even help us live stronger and longer lives.
One of the most important and impactful healthy fats, according to scientists: Omega-3 fats. So it’s a shame that more than 90% of Americans consume less than the recommended 1,100 mg for women and 1,600 mg for men per day through our diets. Read on to learn more about omega-3s, how to tell if you’re falling short, plus what to do about it if you are.
Why Omega-3s are “Essential”
We define anything as “essential” that humans need via diet to survive and thrive. That’s because our body alone cannot manufacture enough of these nutrients itself to fire on all cylinders. These include several vitamins and minerals, water, protein, carbohydrates, and fat—including omega fats.
In addition to acting as fuel for the body, fats as a whole help with internal communication, so cells within the body’s separate systems can function well together. Omega fatty acids, in particular, act as the raw materials for prostaglandins, a specific kind of chemical messenger that plays a key part in the immune response.
If we don’t burn them, fats also act as the foundation for the protective outer membrane of a cell, allowing nutrients to flow in and waste to flow out as they protect from “foreign” invaders. A double layer of fat makes up the cell membranes, and what you put into those membranes is really important in how the cells work. Viscous, solid saturated fats become very bouncy cell membranes, making it difficult for your cells to absorb what they need and eliminate what they don’t. More flexible unsaturated fats let more flow, and omega-3s are among the best at the task.
There are multiple styles of omega fats (labeled by numbers, such as omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9), which differ based on where the double bonds occur. There are pro-inflammatory (which omega 6s are precursors) and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins (which omega 3s are precursors). Studies show that populations with low cardiovascular disease rates, such as the Japanese, need a balance. Too little inflammation can be a problem also, but chronic inflammation is a growing issue. (Research proves chronic inflammation is linked to all of the leading causes of mortality worldwide, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.) The ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats in Japan is about 6:1 to 4:1. The standard American diet, rich in omega-6-strong meat and grains rather than fish, has a ratio of about 30:1, which is really pro-inflammatory.
The healthy omega-3s that most Americans could use more of can be further broken down into subtypes:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in flax and hemp plants
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), found in fish and marine sources
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in fish and marine sources
Who’s Most At-Risk For an Omega-3 Deficiency?
As you may have noticed, fish, seafood, and seeds are among the best sources of omega-3s, especially salmon (2,260 mg per 3 ½ ounces), oysters (370 mg per 6 oysters), flax seeds (2,350 mg per tablespoon of whole seeds), and soybeans (670 mg per half-cup). If you don’t eat—or don’t eat a lot of these foods, you may be falling short. Especially if you mostly fill up with saturated fat-laden meats and omega-6-strong carbs. Those who restrict fat intake, in general, may also be at higher risk for inadequate omega-3 consumption.
The tricky part is that you might feel no different when you’re shy in omega-3s than when your cells are stoked with them.
5 Signs and Symptoms of an Omega-3 Deficiency
Low omega-3 blood levels
Although many Americans don’t get quite enough omega-3s, a full-fledged essential fatty acid deficiency (defined as EPA and DHA levels at ≤ 4 percent of total fatty acid in the blood) within healthy individuals in the United States is practically nonexistent. Still, most research hints at the fact that the majority of us could benefit from increased intake of omega-3s, and it likely won’t take much or take long to notice the difference. If you shift your diet from grain- and meat-centric to a whole food, vegetable-dominated diet with krill oil supplements (more on that later), you’ll likely notice you feel more vibrant and sharper in about one week.
2. Dry skin or hair
More acne, drier skin, and more sensitivity may be among the first signs of a mild to moderate omega-3 deficiency. That’s because omega-3 fats strengthen the skin’s protective barriers, aiding in moisture retention and fending off parched, irritated conditions. One study linked taking just ½ teaspoon of ALA-rich flaxseed oil daily for 3 months to 40% more skin hydration compared to counterparts who received a placebo. Other research suggests that omega-3 supplements may be related to less hair loss and thicker hair texture.
3. Stiff or sore joints
In initial research, less joint pain and fewer osteoarthritis aches have all been linked to omega-3s due to slower cartilage breakdown and less inflammation. More studies are required to confirm this connection, but adequate omega-3 intake appears to be a promising addition to an overall arthritis treatment plan.
4. Depression or mood changes
Those anti-inflammatory effects we mentioned earlier may help prevent neurological disorders since inflammation can hamper neural activation and the balance of fats within the brain. Compared to those who popped a placebo, study participants who took a fewer symptoms of depression.
5. Dry eyes
Omega-3s play a role in eye moisture and tear production, so a deficiency may trigger vision troubles or discomfort. (Note that a variety of conditions can lead to dry eyes, so check with your doctor and/or optometrist to try to pinpoint the root cause—or if you’re noticing other vision or eye issues.) If it is related to omega-3s, relief may not be far away. One study found that just 30 days of omega-3 supplementation with 2 daily doses of capsules with 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA can improve dry eye symptoms and boost tear production compared to a no change with a placebo.
How to Restore (and Maintain) Healthy Omega-3 Levels Within the Body
A blood test is often the only surefire way to diagnose a deficiency. In the last few years, a home test kit’s cost has dropped dramatically, making it a fairly reasonable investment. (Most fall in the $30-$50 range; check out the Omega Quant Omega-3 Index Basic Test or the Carlson Labs Omega-3 Test Kit.)
If your blood test comes back low, your doctor will likely prescribe a one-two punch for a treatment plan:
- Adjust your dietary intake to include more seeds, nuts, seafood, soybeans, and other omega-3-rich foods
- Take a daily omega-3 supplement
Aim for 1,500 to 3,000 mg of krill oil per day if you opt for supplements as part of your protocol. This dose will deliver 330 to 660 mg of omega-3s. Note that you can overdo it; however, the current medical consensus is that there’s little risk taking up to about 6,000 mg of krill oil per day). At super-high intakes, DHA and EPA can thin the blood and lead to increased bruising or excess bleeding.
We recommend krill oil over fish oil for several reasons.
- Krill oil is more sustainable. Unlike fish oil, which may be made with overfished seafood, krill oil is made with abundant Antarctic krill. Even at max capacity of krill fishing, we’re only using about 1% of the ecosystem. Be sure to do your research: Quality companies will list their krill oil and overall environmental practices on the label. Look for partnerships with the World Wildlife Fund, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, or the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
- Krill oil is more bioavailable. Fish oil is in a triglyceride form, which is how our body stores fats. Krill oil comes as phospholipids. The fats in all of our cell membranes are also phospholipids, so the body easily assimilates krill oil. As a result of this efficiency, you can consume about 37% less krill oil than fish oil to score the same benefits.
- Those who take krill oil also report fewer digestive challenges, such as burping.
- Krill oil is also a potent source of astaxanthin, an antioxidant that may play a role in protecting the vascular system against free radicals and helping the body maintain heart health and healthy cholesterol levels.
While a severe omega-3 deficiency is rare, many Americans could achieve greater health benefits with extra omega-3s in their daily diets. Consider krill oil for a sustainable, bioavailable, and easy-to-acquired source if your doctor recommends omega-3 supplements.
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