Omega-3 fatty acids are essential components of the cell membranes of all the cells in your body, yet your body cannot synthesize omega-3 fatty acids. You need to constantly include omega-3 fatty acids in your diet in order to avoid deficiency. Seafood, especially fatty fishes like salmon and tuna, are the best dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, although some seeds and nuts, such as flaxseed, walnuts and soybeans, also contain significant levels. Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids can cause several symptoms.
A large body of experimental evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids have significant effects on mental health. Depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have all been linked to low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, an article in the June 2006 "American Journal of Psychiatry" explains. Additional research is needed to confirm and clarify the relationship between psychiatric disorders and omega-3 fatty acid deficiency. Problems with memory have also been linked to deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids.
Changes to Appearance
Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids can cause several superficial effects on the body, such as dry, itchy skin, flaky skin, discolored patches of skin or rash. The skin may also become oily in patches, and may take on a rough, bumpy appearance. In some cases, the fingertips may crack and peel. Some people with omega-3 deficiencies have reported dry, stiff, tangled hair, dandruff and hair loss. The fingernails may also be affected, either growing very slowly or becoming very brittle and splitting or fraying frequently.
Several additional symptoms may result from a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids, including fatigue and poor circulation. Intense menstrual cramps and premenstrual breast pain have also been reported. Some people may experience excessive thirst and excess urination. Dry eyes and excess earwax buildup may also develop.
Ratio of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The two most important omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, abbreviated EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, abbreviated DHA, are only found in high levels in seafood. Another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, abbreviated ALA, is found in certain plants, such as flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and other nuts. Your body can convert a small amount of ALA into EPA and DHA, although the rate of conversion appears to be very low. Most Western diets include large amounts of vegetable oils, which contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. This high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to inflammation and heart disease in the body, the Linus Pauling Institute explains.