Omega-3 fatty acids, or “omega-3s,” have the potential to reduce inflammation in your body. Reducing inflammation can improve pain and suffering associated with some conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In this article, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about omega-3 fatty acids. Then, we share how powerful omega-3 fatty acids benefit those with RA.
What are omega-3s and where can I find them?
Dietary fats come in many forms. Contrary to what you might believe, eating the right type of fats can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. You can divide dietary fats into two main groups: saturated and unsaturated. Some refer to saturated fats as “unhealthy fats,” although this has recently been a topic of debate. You can find saturated fats in foods such as beef, pork, and cream. You can find healthier, unsaturated fats in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, and fish. Many people call unsaturated fats “healthy fats,” and for a good reason.
Unsaturated fats include omega -3s and omega-6s. You can find omega-6s in corn, soy, and peanut oil. Omega-6s are inflammatory in nature. Omega-3s include ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Although all omega-3 fats have health benefits, EPA and DHA, in particular, are known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
ALA is in flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and canola oil (Table 1). EPA and DHA are primarily in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. The latter two omega-3s are often referred to as omega-3 fish oils. You can also find EPA and DHA in fortified foods like eggs, milk, yogurt, soy products, and juice. Omega-3s are also available as dietary supplements.
|Table 1: Selected Food Sources of ALA, EPA, and DHA|
|Food||Grams per serving|
|Flaxseed oil, 1 tbsp||7.26|
|Chia seeds, 1 ounce||5.06|
|English walnuts, 1 ounce||2.57|
|Flaxseed, whole, 1 tbsp||2.35|
|Salmon, Atlantic, farmed cooked, 3 ounces||1.24||0.59|
|Salmon, Atlantic, wild, cooked, 3 ounces||1.22||0.35|
|Herring, Atlantic, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.94||0.77|
|Canola oil, 1 tbsp||1.28|
|Sardines, canned in tomato sauce, drained, 3 ounces*||0.74||0.45|
|Mackerel, Atlantic, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.59||0.43|
|Salmon, pink, canned, drained, 3 ounces*||0.04||0.63||0.28|
|Soybean oil, 1 tbsp||0.92|
|Trout, rainbow, wild, cooked, 3 ounces||0.44||0.4|
|Mayonnaise, 1 tbsp||0.74|
|Oysters, eastern, wild, cooked, 3 ounces||0.14||0.23||0.3|
|Sea bass, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.47||0.18|
|Edamame, frozen, prepared, ½ cup||0.28|
|Shrimp, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.12||0.12|
|Refried beans, canned, vegetarian, ½ cup||0.21|
|Lobster, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.04||0.07||0.1|
|Tuna, light, canned in water, drained, 3 ounces*||0.17||0.02|
|Tilapia, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.04||0.11|
While your body can convert some ALS to EPA and DHA, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, this is an inefficient process. Therefore, getting your EPA and DHA from food or supplements is much more efficient.
How much omega-3 do I need?
The answer to this question can begin with “that depends.” According to the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), Americans can get enough omega-3s in their diets by eating a variety of foods rich in omega-3s.
The only omega-3 with a government established “adequate intake” (AI) level is ALA. The AI for ALA is 1.6 g for men and 1.1 g for women each day. That said, the established AI may not be enough for adults with certain health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. While there is no official AI level for EPA and DHA (the omega-3s from fish), these two types of omega-3s are essential for overall health and can decrease inflammation.
In addition to eating a variety of foods containing omega-3s, the American Heart Association recommends two or more servings of a variety of fatty fish or seafood each week. Eating the recommended amount of fatty fish will provide at least 450-500 mg of EPA and DHA.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that people consume omega-3s primarily through food, but eating enough foods rich in omega-3s regularly can be difficult. If you don’t eat enough of these foods, or you have certain health conditions, you can get enough EPA and DHA by taking a high-quality omega-3 fish oil supplement.
How do omega-3 fatty acids benefit those with RA?
Unlike other types of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disorder caused by the body’s immune system. Many people with RA experience pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function of joints.
A 2014 position statement by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics stated that fish oil or fish oil consumption can reduce inflammation and are most likely anti-inflammatory. They also concluded that EPA and DHA specifically play a role in reducing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
In 2017, researchers reviewed 1188 patients with rheumatoid arthritis using dietary and supplemental sources of omega-3s. They showed that omega-3 supplements could be a valuable treatment option for those with rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3s were shown to reduce pain and the amount of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications taken. This same study also suggested that omega-3s could decrease early morning stiffness and swollen and tender joints.
In 2018, another review of 1252 adults showed fewer markers of inflammation with omega-3 supplements. Recent research of this nature led the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to suggest omega-3 supplements may be helpful in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and decreasing patients’ need for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
Eating a diet rich in omega-3s is beneficial for your health. Higher amounts than what current guidelines suggest may be beneficial for people with RA. Omega-3 supplements may contribute to potential anti-inflammatory effects. While more research is needed, omega-3s are proving a promising treatment option to help reduce pain and suffering for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
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