The Health Dangers of Omega-3 Deficiency

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids – commonly referred to as omega-3s – have been the subject of years of study and are well known as positive components of a healthy diet.

Both forms of omega-3s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), effectively reduce the level of cytokines, compounds that promote inflammation in the body.  Lower, healthy levels of inflammation result in enhanced heart, eye, skin and brain health. Some recent studies have indicated that omega-3s can reduce depression.

In a 2009 article published in the newsletter “Possibilities,” the Nutrition Coalition cited a Harvard University study in which researchers determined that there are between 72,000 and 96,000 preventable deaths caused by omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies every year.

Another study of 2,500 human subjects found startling differences in overall health when comparing populations with high and low omega-3 dietary consumption. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

“Women in the highest tertiles of total [omega-3] intake, compared with those in the lowest tertile of intake at baseline, had a 44 percent reduced risk of inflammatory disease mortality.”

So we know how boosting the omega-3s in your daily diet can benefit your health. But what happens when your body experiences a shortage of these essential fatty acids (EFAs)?

Observable symptoms of an EFA deficiency or imbalance include dry skin, dandruff, “brain fog,”  brittle nails, and in women, menstrual  cramps and breast tenderness. But these are only a few obvious signs; the significant damage is more subtle and internal .

A deficiency of omega-3 causes abnormalities in the development and function of the nervous system as well as immune defects. It also affects the body’s healthy inflammation response, causing it to go out of whack. Excessive levels of inflammation can lead to a host of problems including cancer, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease.

People with heart disease, or risk factors of cardiovascular disease, are often urged by their doctors to supplement  their diet with omega-3s. A study done at San Francisco General Hospital and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that for people with heart disease, higher levels of fish-derived omega-3 fats in blood are associated with longer telomeres – an indicator of healthy aging and longevity. (Telomeres are the ends of chromosomal DNA that fray and shorten with age. This is why, as we grow older, our chromosomes become shorter.)

Dr. Ramin Farzaneh-Far, lead author of the study, stated that these findings are preliminary, and a randomized trial will be needed to prove causality. "But in the meantime,” he reported, “the results underscore and reinforce the American Heart Association guidelines that patients with coronary artery disease should be taking 1 gram a day of omega-3 fatty acids."

As for healthy adults, the Heart Association recommends that we consume fish at least twice a week to avoid developing a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids. The best sources? Salmon, walnuts and flaxseeds. Cold-water fatty fish (such as salmon, albacore tuna and sardines) are among the best sources of omega-3. For those who can’t obtain this essential nutrient from dietary sources, fish oil and flaxseed oil supplements are widely available.

Sources:

“Omega-3 Fats Shown to Decrease Risk of Dying from Inflammatory Disease,” The Natural Society
“Harvard Researchers: Omega-3 Deficiency Causes Up To 96,000 U.S. Deaths a Year,” The Nutrition Coalition Newsletter, July 2009 (PDF)
“Omega-3 Deficient? How To Know, And Tips To Fix It,” The Huffington Post
“Omega-3 deficiency may be hurting our hearts,” NBCNews.com
“Deficiency of Dietary Omega-3 May Explain Depressive Behaviors,” Science Daily
Omega-3 Fatty Acids, University of Maryland Medical Center Reference

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