The importance of testing your omega-3 levels
What is omega-3 deficiency?
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient. We can't make them in our bodies and must include them in our diet to keep ourselves healthy. They’re one of the building blocks of our cells and keep our brains, hearts, and eyes working correctly. They’re also vital during pregnancy and breastfeeding – contributing to the normal brain and eye development of our little ones.
Deficiencies in this valuable nutrient are common in the UK: the latest government food survey indicates we’re only eating, on average, 56g of oily fish a week, which falls some way below the recommended 140g. So, it's a good idea to check our omega-3 levels now and then. In addition, it's a good idea to check where these levels stand compared to omega-6.
Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential for our health, but consuming them in the right balance with omega-3 is crucial. Too much omega-6 can dial up inflammation in the body, leading to various health concerns. We should aim for no more than 4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3. Unfortunately, the lack of oily fish in our diet and the widespread use of industrially processed vegetable oils in the Western diet, particularly in ultra-processed foods, means that the ratio needs to be better for many of us.
Testing will allow you to see what changes you need to make to your diet and how much omega-3 you need to supplement.
What are omega-3 deficiency symptoms?
The most commonly researched and cited omega-3 deficiency symptoms in adults include:
Dry Skin: Omega-3 fatty acids help maintain the skin's moisture and integrity. Deficiency can lead to dry, flaky, or itchy skin.
Brittle Hair and Nails: Omega-3s are essential for hair and nail health. Deficiency might result in brittle hair and nails.
Joint Pain: Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce joint pain and stiffness. Deficiency might contribute to increased joint discomfort.
Fatigue: Omega-3s play a role in energy production and metabolism. Deficiency could lead to feelings of fatigue and low energy levels.
Cognitive Issues: Omega-3s, especially DHA, are essential for brain health and cognitive function. Deficiency has been linked to cognitive decline, poor memory, and impaired brain function.
Depression and Mood Disorders: Omega-3s are associated with mental health. Deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Cardiovascular Issues: Omega-3s support heart health by reducing triglycerides, improving blood vessel function, and regulating heart rhythm. Deficiency might contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular problems.
Inflammatory Conditions: Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory effects that can help manage chronic inflammatory conditions like arthritis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease. Deficiency might exacerbate inflammation-related symptoms.
Vision Problems: Omega-3s, particularly DHA, are essential for eye health. Deficiency might contribute to dry eyes and other vision issues.
Weak Immune System: Omega-3s help modulate immune responses. Deficiency might weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections.
Irregular Menstrual Cycles: Omega-3s can help regulate hormones and reduce inflammation associated with menstrual pain. Deficiency might contribute to irregular menstrual cycles and increased discomfort.
Weight Management Difficulties: Omega-3s regulate appetite and metabolism. Deficiency might lead to difficulties in managing body weight.
What are the most commonly researched and cited symptoms of omega-3 deficiency in children?
Poor Concentration and Attention: Omega-3s, particularly DHA, are essential for brain development and cognitive function. Deficiency might lead to difficulties with focus, attention, and learning in children.
Behavioral Issues: Omega-3s affect mood regulation and behaviour. Deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of behavioural issues, such as hyperactivity and impulsiveness.
Delayed Language Development: Omega-3s are crucial for language and communication skills in young children. Deficiency might contribute to delayed speech and language development.
Learning Disabilities: Omega-3s are involved in neural pathways that support learning and memory. Deficiency might increase the risk of learning disabilities and academic challenges.
Vision Problems: DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is vital for visual development. Deficiency might lead to vision problems and impairments.
Allergies and Asthma: Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that can help manage allergies and asthma. Deficiency might contribute to an increased risk of these conditions.
Skin Issues: Omega-3s play a role in maintaining healthy skin. Deficiency might lead to dry skin, eczema, or other skin issues in children.
Impaired Immune System: Omega-3s help support a healthy immune response. Deficiency might weaken the immune system, making children more susceptible to infections.
Growth and Development Delays: Omega-3s are essential for growth and development during childhood. Deficiency might contribute to delays in physical growth and development milestones.
Emotional Well-being: Omega-3s have been linked to improved emotional well-being and reduced risk of mood disorders. Deficiency might increase the risk of emotional challenges in children.
Dental Health: Omega-3s, including developing strong teeth and gums, are essential for oral health. Deficiency might impact dental health in children.
Bone Health: Omega-3s play a role in bone mineralisation. Deficiency might affect bone health and growth.
Why it’s essential to do a blood test for omega-3 deficiency
Personalized Assessment: An omega-3 blood test measures the levels of specific omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), in your blood. This personalised assessment can help you understand your unique omega-3 status.
Baseline Information: The test provides a baseline measurement of your omega-3 levels. This baseline can track changes over time and evaluate the effectiveness of dietary changes or supplementation.
Insight into Diet and Lifestyle: Your omega-3 levels can reflect your dietary habits and lifestyle choices. If your levels are low, it might indicate a need for nutritional adjustments or omega-3 supplementation.
Cardiovascular Health: Omega-3s have been associated with heart health. Measuring your omega-3 levels can inform you about your potential cardiovascular risk.
Informed Supplementation: If your omega-3 levels are suboptimal, a blood test can help guide appropriate supplementation. You'll know whether you need to adjust your intake to reach optimal levels.
Risk of Inflammation: Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties. Knowing your levels can help you understand your body's inflammation status and potential risks.
Cognitive Health: Omega-3s are essential for brain health. Testing can give insights into how omega-3 levels impact cognitive function.
Health Maintenance: Monitoring your omega-3 levels is part of maintaining health and preventing deficiencies that could lead to various health issues.
Guidance for Health Professionals: If you work with a healthcare provider, omega-3 blood test results can guide them in creating a personalised plan to address deficiencies and improve your health.
Motivation: Seeing concrete test results can motivate you to change your diet and lifestyle to improve your omega-3 levels.
How often should people take an omega-3 test?
The frequency of omega-3 testing depends on various factors, including your health status, dietary habits, supplementation, and any specific health goals you have. Here are some considerations to help determine how often you should take an omega-3 test:
Baseline Measurement: It's a good idea to start with a baseline omega-3 test to understand your current levels. This can help you identify any deficiencies or imbalances.
Dietary Changes: If you make significant changes to your diet, such as increasing your intake of omega-3-rich foods or taking a supplement, consider retesting after a few months to assess the impact of these changes on your omega-3 levels.
Supplementation: If you're taking omega-3 supplements, regular testing can help ensure you're achieving your desired omega-3 levels. Omega-3 supplements can vary in concentration and testing can guide your dosage.
Health Goals: If you have specific goals related to cardiovascular health, inflammation management, cognitive function, or other areas influenced by omega-3s, your nutritionist might recommend testing periodically to monitor progress.
Individual Variability: Some individuals metabolise and utilise omega-3s differently. If you're experiencing symptoms or health concerns related to omega-3 levels, your nutritionist might recommend testing more frequently.
Seasonal Changes: Omega-3 levels can be influenced by seasonal changes in diet, especially if you consume more fish during certain times of the year.
Health Conditions: Certain health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or inflammatory conditions, warrant more frequent testing to monitor the impact of omega-3 intake on your condition.
Generally, testing every six to twelve months might be a reasonable guideline for individuals actively monitoring their omega-3 levels. However, the ideal frequency can vary widely based on individual factors.
What are the genetic factors that can influence how well omega-3 is absorbed?
Genetic factors influence how well omega-3 fatty acids are absorbed and utilised by the body. Genetic variations can impact enzymes and proteins involved in fatty acid metabolism, which can influence the bioavailability and effects of omega-3s. Here are some genetic factors that can affect omega-3 absorption and metabolism:
FADS Genes: The FADS (Fatty Acid Desaturase) genes encode enzymes involved in converting essential fatty acids, including omega-3s, into their biologically active forms. Genetic variations in FADS genes can affect the efficiency of this conversion. Some individuals have a genetic makeup that leads to a more efficient conversion of plant-based omega-3s (ALA) into longer-chain omega-3s like EPA and DHA. In contrast, others might have a less efficient conversion.
APOA5 Gene: The APOA5 gene is associated with triglyceride metabolism. Genetic variants in this gene can influence the levels of triglycerides in response to dietary fatty acids, including omega-3s. Triglyceride levels can impact cardiovascular health.
APOE Gene: The APOE gene involves lipid metabolism, including cholesterol transport. Genetic variations in APOE are associated with differences in lipid profiles and can influence how dietary fats, including omega-3s, are processed in the body.
PPAR Genes: Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs) are proteins that regulate lipid metabolism. Genetic variations in PPAR genes can impact how omega-3 fatty acids are metabolised and utilised for various physiological processes.
BCM1 Gene: The BCM1 gene encodes an enzyme regulating certain fats, including omega-3 fatty acids. Variations in this gene can affect the conversion of omega-3s into their active forms.
ADRB2 Gene: The ADRB2 gene is associated with lipid metabolism and energy expenditure. Genetic variants in this gene can influence how the body responds to dietary fats, including omega-3s.
CD36 Gene: The CD36 gene encodes a protein involved in fatty acid uptake and transport. Genetic variations in this gene can affect how efficiently the body absorbs and transports omega-3 fatty acids.
AGPAT3 Gene: The AGPAT3 gene is linked to the synthesis of lipids, including omega-3 fatty acids. Variations in this gene can impact the body's ability to produce and utilise specific lipid molecules.
It's important to note that genetics is just one piece of the puzzle. Diet, lifestyle, overall health, and environmental factors also play significant roles in omega-3 absorption and metabolism. Genetic testing or consultations with professionals experienced in nutrigenomics (studying how genetics and nutrition interact) can provide more personalised insights into how your genetic makeup might impact your response to omega-3 supplementation and dietary intake.
How long can humans store omega-3, and where is it primarily stored?
Humans can store omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies, but the duration of storage and the specific storage sites can vary. Omega-3s, particularly EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are stored in various tissues throughout the body. Here's a general overview:
Storage Duration: Omega-3 fatty acids are not permanently stored in the body. Instead, they are used and replenished over time. The duration of storage can vary based on factors such as dietary intake, metabolism, and individual health status.
Storage Sites: Omega-3s are stored in several vital tissues:
Adipose Tissue (Fat): One of the primary storage sites for omega-3s is adipose tissue, the body's fat storage. Omega-3s are incorporated into the fat cells and can remain there for some time.
Cell Membranes: Omega-3s are integral components of cell membranes throughout the body. They help maintain the fluidity and flexibility of cell membranes, which is essential for proper cellular function.
Brain and Nervous System: DHA, mainly, is highly concentrated in the brain and nervous system. It plays a crucial role in brain health, cognitive function, and neural development.
Heart and Blood Vessels: Omega-3s are known for their cardiovascular benefits. They can be found in the heart and blood vessel tissues, where they contribute to heart health by promoting healthy blood flow and reducing inflammation.
Muscles and Organs: Omega-3s are present in various muscles and organs, contributing to their health and function.
Constant Renewal: Omega-3s in the body are constantly being used and replenished through dietary intake. This is why it's important to regularly consume foods rich in omega-3s or consider omega-3 supplements if your diet doesn't provide sufficient amounts.
Dietary Influence: The amount and frequency of omega-3 consumption in your diet can impact the availability of omega-3s for storage. A diet rich in fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, and other omega-3-rich foods can help maintain healthy omega-3 levels in your body.
Should you take omega-3 supplements all the time?
Whether people need to take omega-3 supplements all the time depends on several factors, including dietary habits, health goals, individual health status, and access to omega-3-rich foods. Here are some considerations:
Dietary Sources: Ideally, most nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, should come from a well-rounded and balanced diet. Fatty fish (such as mackerel and sardines) are excellent natural sources of omega-3s. If your diet consistently includes these foods, you may not need to rely heavily on supplements.
Health Goals: Your specific health goals can also influence the decision to take omega-3 supplements. For example, if you aim to support cardiovascular health and brain function or manage inflammation, omega-3 supplements might be beneficial.
Omega-3 Levels: If you have specific health conditions, your nutritionist might recommend omega-3 supplements to address deficiencies or support particular health needs. Regular blood tests can help monitor your omega-3 levels and guide the decision to use supplements.
Sustainability and Access: Sustainable sourcing of omega-3-rich foods, especially fatty fish, is important for environmental reasons. If access to these foods is limited or if you have dietary restrictions, supplements might be a practical option to ensure you're getting enough omega-3s.
Population Groups: Certain population groups, such as pregnant or breastfeeding women, might have increased omega-3 needs due to the importance of these fatty acids for fetal and infant development.
Populations with high blood concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids often include communities with traditional diets rich in fish and seafood. These populations are generally found in coastal regions where fish is a staple part of the diet. Some examples include:
Inuit and Eskimo Populations:Indigenous communities in the Arctic regions, such as the Inuit and Eskimo populations, traditionally have diets rich in fatty fish and marine mammals. Their omega-3 intake from seafood contributes to higher blood concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids.
Japanese and Mediterranean Populations: Populations in Japan and certain Mediterranean countries have diets abundant in fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. These diets have been associated with higher omega-3 blood concentrations.
Scandinavian Countries: Countries like Norway, Sweden, and Iceland have diets that include a significant amount of fish, thanks to their coastal geography. This contributes to higher omega-3 blood levels in these populations.
Coastal Indigenous Communities: Other coastal communities worldwide, including some indigenous populations in Africa and Asia, also have diets rich in fish and seafood, leading to higher omega-3 blood concentrations.