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Essential fatty acid deficiency

Last updated: 31/01/2008

Essential fatty acids (e.g. the kind of fats found in fish) are surprisingly commonly deficient. Among other things omega-3 and 6 fatty acids are responsible for the health of our skin, hair and nails. When deficient in these fats the health of our skin/hair/nails suffers, acting as a general indicator for our levels of these critical fatty acids. The following table outlines the typical signs/symptoms seen in essential fatty acid deficiency. The significance of these deficiencies goes far beyond the presence of these obvious deficiency symptoms and relates to a large variety of medical conditions, e.g. cardiovascular disease, inflammatory/auto-immune conditions, mental health conditions, etc. Whether you are trying to overcome a particular health issue or are simply trying to preserve your health, then your balance of fatty acids deserves some attention.

Signs/symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency.

  • Dry skin (e.g. feet/face/general)
  • Scaly or flaky skin (e.g. legs)
  • Cracking/peeling fingertips & skin (e.g. heels)
  • Lackluster skin
  • Small bumps on back of upper arms
  • Patchy dullness &/or color variation of skin
  • Mixed oily and dry skin ('combination' skin)
  • Irregular quilted appearance of skin (e.g. legs)
  • Thick or cracked calluses
  • Dandruff or cradle cap
  • Dry, lackluster, brittle or unruly hair
  • Soft, fraying, splitting or brittle fingernails
  • Dull nails - lack of surface shine
  • Slow growing fingernails
  • Dry eyes
  • Dry mouth/throat
  • Inadequate vaginal lubrication
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Premenstrual breast pain/tenderness
  • Excessive ear wax
  • Excessive thirst
  • Allergic (e.g. eczema/asthma/hay fever/hives)
  • Crave fats/fatty foods
  • Stiff or painful joints

Treating vs. testing?

When a person is suspected of having a fatty acid deficiency a person has two options. They can either treat the suspected imbalance and observe the response or they can do a laboratory test to determine both the existence and nature of the imbalance. When treating a person may try either 6 grams of fish oil or 1 tbsp of flax oil for six weeks and observe what in the above table changes. If fatty acid deficiency markers show a great reduction during this time then obviously you were on the right track. If not then you may need to delve a bit deeper. Fish and flax oils are excellent sources of the omega-3 class of the polyunsaturated fats. These are much more commonly deficient than the other class, the omega-6 fats. A subgroup of the population (possibly 10%), particularly those with allergies, has a unique tendency towards omega-6 fatty acid deficiency. I suspect this issue when an individual shows no change in the above symptoms after omega-3 supplementation, they report feeling worse after supplementing omega-3 fats or they have certain allergic conditions (e.g. eczema). For these people evening primrose oil tends to be much more effective.

Laboratory tests are available and do take the guess work out of this process. The most accurate test is called the 'Red Blood Cell Fatty Acid Analysis'. It is offered via integrative medicine laboratories and not by standard conventional laboratories. You can see a sample report of a fatty acid profile via one integrative medicine laboratory HERE.

Article on fatty acid deficiency.

Testing offer for people in Australia.

I use PathLab in Melbourne for fatty acid testing. It costs $80 AUS. If anyone in Australia would like to have this test done please send us an email and we can post you a test form. Nutritional Healing will charge you no administration fees for doing this however we would request that you fill in a symptom questionnaire (similar to shown above) so that we can analyse the correlation between fatty acid levels and signs/symptoms.

Blake Graham, BSc (Honours), AACNEM
Clinical Nutritionist
Perth, Western Australia
Phone/Email: See Contact page
*Non-Perth residents may enquire about phone consultations.

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