Daily health

Omega-3 Deficiency: Causes & Symptoms

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Medically approved by Dr Earim Chaudry
Chief Medical Officer
iconLast updated 22nd November 2021
In 30 seconds…

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for healthy cognitive function, cardiovascular health, and healthy skin, hair and nails. If you don’t get enough Omega-3, you could suffer some unpleasant symptoms. Thankfully, you can get all you need from your diet, or from supplements if necessary.

Your body can’t produce essential fatty acids (EFAs) like omega-3 on its own, so you need to make sure you’re getting enough through dietary sources. If you don’t, you could experience the symptoms of omega-3 deficiency. 

Here, we detail those symptoms and share how to get more omega-3 in your diet. But first…

What is Omega-3?

Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) — essentially a type of healthy fat you get when you eat certain foods, such as fatty fish, shellfish, nuts, and seeds. 

There are three main kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, each capable of providing vital health benefits for the body and mind:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – crucial for normal growth and development, ALA also helps maintain normal blood cholesterol levels.
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – what’s known as a long-chain fatty acid, EPA helps maintain normal blood pressure levels and reduce inflammation. EPA may also reduce the symptoms of depression.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – another long-chain fatty acid, DHA is important for brain development and function. It can also benefit heart health by reducing blood triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood). High levels of blood triglycerides can increase your risk of heart disease or cardiovascular disease. 

Signs of Omega-3 Deficiency

An omega-3 deficiency is caused by simply not getting enough omega-3 through your diet or supplementation. It can rear its head in several ways, ranging from mild to more severe symptoms. 

Here are five common symptoms of omega-3 deficiency:

1. Brittle Nails

Dry, broken, and brittle nails are often a sign that you lack something – such as a vitamin or nutrient – in your diet. An insufficient amount of omega-3 could be the culprit. High levels of omega-3 fatty acids are vital to nourish healthy cells and reduce inflammation in your nail bed.

2. Hair Loss

Omega-3 keeps your hair thick and healthy while minimising scalp and follicle inflammation (a common cause of hair loss). So if you’re experiencing an itchy scalp and hair loss, your diet could be partly to blame. Make sure you’re eating enough omega-3 alongside key vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, and E, and zinc, iron, and protein.

3. Dry Skin

Similar to your hair and nails, an omega-3 deficiency can also affect your skin at a cellular level. Omega-3 helps your skin absorb nutrients while getting rid of harmful waste products, giving you a smooth, clear, healthy-looking complexion. Without it, your skin can end up looking and feeling dry, flaky, and unhealthy.

4. Joint Pain

Although not always the primary reason for joint pain, a lack of omega-3 could be making things worse. Omega-3 fatty acids can help soothe symptoms of inflammation, and studies have looked at links between fish oil and osteoarthritis relief. However, long-term clinical trials are required to understand the benefit of taking omega-3 for joint pain treatment and prevention.

5. Poor Sleep Quality

A lack of omega-3 in your diet could also potentially affect your sleep, resulting in restlessness or even insomnia. A randomised controlled trial by the University of Oxford found that sleep in children was improved by taking omega-3 DHA supplements.

Note: These symptoms can be pretty vague and won’t always point to an omega-3 deficiency. Before taking any kind of dietary supplement, speak to your doctor or healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis. 

How Common is Omega-3 Deficiency?

Before we look at how widespread the deficiency is, just how much omega-3 do you need to consume every day? Well, that depends on who you ask.

  • In the US, the recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) is 250 mg.
  • Meanwhile, according to the Australian National Heart Foundation, we should be aiming for a daily dose of 250 – 500mg plus 1 gram of plant-sourced omega-3 per day (more on that below).
  • And in the UK, there’s no set recommendation; however, according to the British Dietetic Association, everyone should try to eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish.

With this in mind, a 2019 study of 45,347 Americans found that omega-3 fat intake was lower than the recommended amount. The study also found that adult and older women were more likely to consume insufficient levels of omega-3. 

Other risk factors for omega-3 deficiency include veganism, low-fat diets, and malabsorption issues (where you’re unable to absorb enough vitamins and nutrients).

How to Get More Omega-3 in Your Diet

There are a couple of ways you can add more omega-3 to your day-to-day life. The first is to eat more foods rich in DHA, EPA, and ALA (the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids). The second is to take an omega-3 supplement. Let’s explore these in more detail:

Omega-3 Food Sources

Fish and shellfish are your best bets if you want to improve your omega-3 intake. Eating more fish (especially oily fish) also helps you get your fair share of other essential vitamins & minerals, such as vitamins A and D, calcium, iodine, and selenium.

The British Dietetic Association suggests the following types of fish as the best sources of omega-3:

  • mackerel
  • kippers
  • pilchards
  • trout
  • sprats
  • salmon
  • herring
  • crab (fresh)
  • whitebait
  • swordfish
  • sardines
  • anchovies

You can also try shellfish, such as clams, mussels, and oysters, but if you’re not particularly fond of seafood (or you don’t eat fish), you’ll be glad to know there are other options.

Plant-sourced Omega-3 and Enriched Foods

Many nuts and seeds, including walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds are rich in omega-3. You’ll also find it in soya products (e.g. soybeans, tofu, milk), vegetable oils (e.g. olive oil, flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil), and green leafy vegetables. Plus, some foods are enriched with omega-3 for extra goodness, including milk, eggs, bread, yoghurt, and spreads.

Omega-3 Supplements

If you need an omega-3 top-up, supplements can ride to the rescue. There’s a range of animal-based and plant-based supplements on the market today, such as fish oil, cod liver oil, krill oil, and algal oil (made from marine algae).

Reminder: A supplement is just that, a supplement to what you’re already consuming — not an out-and-out replacement. If you’re worried that your omega-3 levels are lower than normal, talk to your healthcare provider or a qualified nutritionist first before adding supplements to your diet.

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Key Takeaways…

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for your health and wellbeing. If you’re not getting enough in your daily diet, you may experience symptoms of omega-3 deficiency, including dry skin, brittle nails, hair loss, joint pain, and insomnia.

A healthy, balanced diet is a surefire way of getting enough omega-3 — plus all the other essential vitamins and minerals you require. And if you’re still running low, an omega-3 supplement can help.

Get inspired: Check out our Daily Health articles for more diet and lifestyle tips & advice.


Where does Omega-3 come from?

Your body cannot produce Omega-3 fatty acids, and so it has to get them from the food you eat.

How much Omega-3 do I need in my diet?

You need about 250-500mg of Omega-3 in your diet every day (which can be covered in just a couple of Omega-3-rich meals a week).

What are the signs of Omega-3 deficiency?

Signs that you’re not getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet include: brittle nails, hair loss, dry skin, joint pain, and a poor quality of sleep.

How do I get the Omega-3 my body needs?

You can make sure you’re getting the Omega-3 your body needs by taking supplements, like fish oil, or by eating some of the following each week: soya products, nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, leafy greens, fatty fish and shellfish.

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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