Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency Signs & Symptoms

Fact Checked

iDutko/iStock/Getty Images

The body requires essential fatty acids to function properly, but they are not synthesized by humans, so they must come from dietary sources. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the two essential fatty acids; they are abundant in fish and fish oils, vegetable oils and nuts and seeds. A proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the body is required, and deficiencies in one or both can lead to a variety of physical and mental complications.

Skin, Hair and Nail Problems

The skin and hair are significantly affected by essential fatty acid deficiencies, due to the role they play in maintaining healthy skin and cell membranes. Skin may become excessively dry and scaly in combination with an itchy rash. Small bumps on the skin may appear due to a buildup of dead skin around the hair follicles, according to Food and Behaviour Research. With fatty acid deficiencies, the fingernails grow slowly, become dull in appearance and become soft and brittle to the point they may crack or break easily. Dandruff may develop, along with hair that is dull and brittle, according to the website

Female-specific Symptoms

Essential fatty acid deficiency in women can result in menstrual cycle irregularities along with breast and vaginal problems. Deficient fatty acids can lead to water loss, resulting in inadequate vaginal lubrication, according to the website The breasts may become tender or painful before menstruation, and menstrual cramps can develop or become worse with fatty acid deficiencies.

Vision and Sleep

Essential fatty acid deficiency can also negatively affect vision and sleep. Due to increased water loss, individuals are more prone to developing dry eyes. Deficiencies also lead to poor night vision, increased sensitivity to bright lights and reading disturbances, in which words appear blurry and move around when reading, according to Food and Behaviour Research. Sleep disturbances include difficulty falling asleep at night and difficulties waking in the morning.

Mental Effects

Fatty acids are important for proper mental functioning, and deficiencies have been linked to a variety of mental and emotional problems. Deficiencies can lead to attention problems such as distractibility, and individuals with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders commonly exhibit fatty acid deficiencies, according to Food and Behaviour Research. Mood swings, anxiety and depression may also be due to essential fatty acid deficiencies.