I was always very stubborn about taking supplements. I thought that you can always get what your body wants from the food you eat. However, when you are dealing with a chronic inflammatory disease, your body may need an extra boost. One of the most effective supplements I take for my joints is fish oil, which is full of omega 3 fatty acids. Plus, there is a lot of research on the anti-inflammatory benefits when you shift your diet to include more omega 3 fatty acids and less omega 6 fatty acids. Yes, the numbers can be confusing. And why is it that fish oil, essential fatty acids, and certain types of fatty acids can help my joint pain?
What are Essential Fatty Acids?
Fats that are in our food are made up of these long carbon chains called fatty acids. Each fatty acid is different based on its structure and shape. There are some your body can break down and reconfigure into new fatty acids. However, there are other fatty acids that your body cannot make. These are what we call “essential” – our bodies cannot make them and we need them to survive. The most popular essential fatty acids are omega 3 and omega 6, which are also linked to inflammation.
Essential Fatty Acids and Inflammation
The omega 3 fatty acids are best known for their anti-inflammatory properties, while omega 6 fatty acids are known for being inflammatory, but they can be anti-inflammatory as well. Omega 3s can:
- Reduce the production of inflammatory chemicals,
- Reduce the creation of specific immune cells to lessen an inflammatory response,
- Help get your body back in balance after an inflammatory response faster, which helps lower low-grade chronic inflammation (1).
So it’s not just about eating more omega 3s to take advantage of all of those anti-inflammatory benefits. It is really important to focus on the ratio of how much omega 6 to omega 3s you are eating and supplementing. Prior to the explosion of processed and convenience foods, it was thought that our omega 6 to omega 3 ratio was closer to 1:1. As you can guess, this ratio has drastically changed. Those of us following a standard American diet are eating an omega 6:3 ratio closer to 18:1! Following a high omega 6:3 ratio increases our risk of:
- Heart attacks,
- Chronic inflammation, and
- Hypertension (2)
The good news? Lowering this ratio can really improve our health. Studies have shown that:
- Eating a ratio of 4:1 can reduce cardiovascular mortality by 70%,
- A ratio of 2.5:1 can reduce colon cancer risk,
- Lower ratios can lower our risk of developing breast cancer,
- A ratio of 2-3:1 suppresses inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, and
- Asthma symptoms improved when following a 5:1 ratio (3).
What about Joint Pain?
Numerous studies have looked at the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids and joint pain. One study in particular compared diets (including supplements) and pain levels of 591 patients taking methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis. They found that a higher omega 3 intake was related to less refractory pain, and a high omega 6:3 ratio was associated with more refractory pain (4). Another double blind randomized trial found that a high dose of fish oil supplementation combined with a low omega 6 fatty acid intake improved rheumatoid arthritis symptoms over 15 weeks (5).
How Can I Use These Omega 3s to Reduce Joint Pain?
Making small changes to take advantage of the amazing benefits of omega 3s is much easier than it looks. Take these 3 essential steps to start using your own diet to reduce inflammation:
1) Include omega 3 rich foods in your diet
Fish oil and fatty fish is where you are going to find your biggest bang for your buck. These contain both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which your body uses more efficiently. Good sources of these foods are salmon, mackerel, tuna, rainbow trout, sardines and herring. You can also find omega 3s in plants in the form of alpha linoleic acid (ALA). However, your body can’t use this form as efficiently, so you will likely need to eat more of the foods that contain it. These include flax seed, hemp, walnut, soybean and green leafy vegetables (2).
2) Reduce omega 6 rich foods in your diet
When you think of highly processed plant and seed based oils, think of omega 6. These are your safflower, sunflower, soybean and corn oils. This is mostly where this fatty acid enters into our diet – chips, fried foods, crackers, candy, bread and even seemingly healthy snack foods like gluten-free or grain-free products. Other foods that have high amounts of omega 6 are eggs, dairy, grain-fed beef and chicken (2).
It comes down to this, eat more plants and seafood and less processed foods.
3) Consider Supplements
If you don’t like seafood or you live in an area where it is hard to get, you may want to take a supplement. According to the natural medicines database, taking up to 3 grams of fish oil daily may be effective in reducing joint pain. Like food, not all supplements are created equal. Make sure that you choose a brand that is third party tested and of high quality. One concern with fish oil is the potential for mercury contamination, so you want to make sure the manufacturer is testing mercury levels in their supplements. Feel free to grab my supplement guide for my recommendations on fish oil and other supplements to help with joint pain. Additionally, there are several home remedy options you can try for joint pain as well.
Although joint pain can be completely debilitating, there are diet and lifestyle changes you can make to help improve symptoms. Do you have a remedy or treatment that works for you? Please share below, I would love to hear from you.