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This Is Your Body On a Lack of Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for heart and brain health and fighting inflammation.

Omega-3 fatty acids regularly show up in longevity experts stack: neuroscientist Andrew Huberman and cell biologist Dr. Rhonda Patrick both swallow an omega-3 supplement for brain health.

You may want to follow their lead. A recent study revealed that many American adults lack adequate amounts of two of the three major omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA (1). 

Beyond boosting cognitive abilities, the polyunsaturated fats can also protect your ticker and ward off infection. Fail to get enough and you may notice red flags for deficiency—everything from joint pain to insomnia to depression.

Omega-3 fatty acids become increasingly important as you hit middle age. “Around the age of 35, your hormones start to decline and functional aging begins. Levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—climb, and with them a higher risk of disease. A healthy lifestyle—which includes getting sufficient omega-3s—helps to counter the adverse health effects of stress,” says Robert Iafelice, MS, RDN, and author of Hold on to Your Muscle, Be Free of Disease.

What Are Omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids, along with their cousins, omega 6-s, are essential polyunsaturated fats (2).

There are three main types of omega-3s:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

ALA is found in plant foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, and canola oil, while EPA and DHA are predominantly found in oily fish like salmon and sardines.

While all three types play a role in the body, DHA and EPA are the most important types, says Iafelice. “Your body can make EPA and DHA from ALA, but in small amounts, so that food or supplements are highly recommended,” says Iafelice, who notes your body can make ALA.

Benefits of Omega-3s

Everyone needs omega-3s, but men between the ages of 30 and 55 need to be doubly sure they’re getting enough, because they’re more susceptible to joint pain and depression as they age, says nutritionist Beata Rydyger, BSc, RHN. Omega-3s may also:

Fight inflammation

Chronic inflammation is associated with many age-related chronic diseases such as cancer, osteoarthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease,” says  Rydyger. “Omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA are powerful anti-inflammatory molecules that help to reduce chronic inflammation.” 

Improve heart health

“EPA and DHA can lower triglyceride levels and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke,” Iafelice says. “they may also help to lower high blood pressure.” 

Boost brain health

“Omega-3s are also critical for protecting against cognitive decline, dementia, and depression,” says Rydyger.

9 Omega-3 Deficiency Symptoms

1. Dry skin

“Omega-3s help keep everything in the body properly lubricated, so without a proper level, you may notice an increase in dry skin,” says Rydyger.

2. Other skin issues

Rough, scaly skin and a red, swollen, itchy rash are common among folks who aren’t getting enough omega-3s (3). “Omega-3s are essential to maintaining the skin’s dermis layer and keeping skin inflammation in check, so without them, skin issues may develop,” says Iafelice.

3. Joint pain

Omega-3s produce an anti-inflammatory response in the body. So some experts believe that joint stiffness related to inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or lupus can be a sign of omega-3 deficiency.

“If your knees, shoulders, or other joints are unexpectedly achy, getting enough omega-3s may help increase lubrication and reduce inflammation,” says Rydyger (4).

4. Fatigue

Low circulating levels of EPA and DHA have been linked to severe fatigue. A diet that includes omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods has been shown to reduce this symptom (5).

5. Insomnia

A study published in 2021 in Nutrients found that better sleep quality and duration were associated with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA (6).

6. Brain fog

“Omega-3s are highly tied to cognitive functioning so poor memory may be a symptom of deficiency,” says Iafelice.

A supplement might help reduce issues with memory, and help support overall brain health as you age, according to a systematic review in Nutrients  (7).  Other research shows that people who consume omega-3s may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other problems with cognitive function.

7. Mood swings

“Because our nervous system and brain are highly comprised of fat, our bodies need omega-3 fatty acids to help brain signals—like feelings, thoughts, and commands—move smoothly and efficiently through our body,” notes registered dietician Rima Kleiner, MS, RD.

8. Depression

The research here is mixed, but one study suggests low omega-3 intake may predispose certain people to depression. One theory: because the brain relies heavily on fatty acids to function, a lack of them may contribute to the development of depression (8, 9).

9. Cardiovascular problems

EPA and DHA can lower triglyceride levels (an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease). Eating foods rich in omega-3s helps both keep your heart healthy and may help prevent certain heart diseases and problems, notes the NIH

How Do I Get Enough Omega-3s?

Start with your diet. The NIH recommends eating fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and herring. The American Heart Association recommends eating these swimmers twice a week. Plant-based sources like flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds contain ALA, which your body can convert to EPA and DHA.

Iafelice adds, “Vegetarians and vegans need plant foods to squeeze out as much EPA/DHA as possible. Ideally, they should supplement with a vegan product. There are algae EPA/DHA supplements available.”

Omega-3 supplements

If you decide to add a supplement—and according to Iafelice, you should: “I believe that the omega-3s (EPA/DHA) and vitamin D are the two supplements that every adult should take,” he says—both he and Rydyger recommend looking for a few different components:

  • IFOS (International Fish Oils Standards) certification
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Antioxidants to protect the oil from rancidity
  • A total of both EPA + DHA of 1000 to 1200 mg per serving
  • Third-party testing for purity and contaminants such as mercury, lead, and PCBs
  • A freshness guarantee, such as a “best by” or “expiration” date, to ensure that the omega-3s are still effective
  • A reputable brand with positive reviews from both customers and practitioners.

And of course, when adding omega-3s to your diet in food or supplement form, you should always check with your doctor, especially if you are taking medications for other health conditions. 

“Omega-3s are incredibly important for overall health, but it is always best to get nutrients from a balanced diet first,” Rydyger notes, adding: “If you are considering a supplement, talk to a practitioner to ensure it is appropriate for you and won’t interact with any medications you may be taking.”