You’ve probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids, especially if you have an inflammatory type of arthritis. They help reduce inflammation throughout the body, and some studies have shown benefits for heart health, brain function and diabetes.
There are two major types of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets. One type is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the other type is eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), fish oil (EPA and DHA) is the most commonly used dietary supplement in the United States. A study published in the Annals of Rheumatic Disease in 2013, found that when a high-dose fish oil supplement is added to so-called triple therapy for rheumatoid arthritis (methotrexate, sulfasalazine and hydroxychloroquine), patients achieved better outcomes: they were far less likely to “fail” treatment and twice as likely to reach remission than those who did not take a supplement.
According to the results of at least 13 studies involving more than 500 participants, people with rheumatoid arthritis who took omega-3s supplements had a reduction in joint pain – but not in joint damage. Other studies suggest that omega-3s may help RA patients lower their dose of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). And according to information from NIH, administering fish oil by IV reduces swollen and tender joints in people with RA.
Until somewhat recently, no one really knew what made omega-3s so beneficial. Researchers, however, believe they have uncovered the secret of omega-3 fatty acids. A study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston revealed that omega-3s actually convert into compounds that are 10,000 times more powerful than original fatty acids. So what does this mean to us? These compounds include resolvins, which help bring an inflammatory response in the body to an end, says the study’s lead researcher, Charles Serhan, PhD, director, Center for Experimental Therapeutics and Reperfusion Injury at Harvard Medical School, Boston.
In a healthy immune system, the normal inflammatory process repairs damage and protects the body from infections. But in inflammatory types of arthritis and related diseases, an overactive immune response leads to tissue destruction. Serhan’s research showed that the same pathway that signals the start of inflammation also includes an off switch. Omega-3s convert into these more powerful compounds, putting the brakes on this active process and causing it to screech to a halt, says Serhan. What is not yet known is how much omega-3s are needed to optimize the body’s conversion from omega-3s into resolvins, says Serhan.
Here are some others ways that omega-3s can boost your health, according to researchers.
Heart health. People with rheumatoid arthritis are at increased risk of heart disease, and omega-3s are perhaps best known for their role in promoting heart health.
Most studies confirming omega-3s heart benefits, however, have looked at men. So researchers in Denmark turned their attention to women ages 15 to 49, and found over an eight-year period, those who rarely or never ate fish had 90 percent more cardiovascular problems than those who ate fish high in omega-3s weekly. Their findings were published in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association.
But recently, fish oil supplements suffered a black eye. An analysis of 18 randomized controlled trials published in leading journals between 2005 and 2012 found that only two out of the 18 had results that showed fish oil supplements (compared to placebo) offered benefits to people at high risk of cardiovascular events. This study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014.
Still, information from the NIH states that fish oil lowers high triglycerides (an important measure of heart health), and it also seems to help prevent heart disease and stroke when taken in the recommended amounts. Be aware that taking too much fish oil can actually increase the risk of stroke. And if you are already take heart medications such as a “statin,” adding on fish oil may not offer any additional benefit. So, it’s important to talk to your doctor before beginning a fish oil regimen.
Cognitive health. Aging brings a greater risk for not only joint pain, but also cognitive impairment. The role of omega-3s for cognitive health is not as clear-cut as it is in heart health, but still bears consideration. Some studies have found that – in rats – a diet rich in omega-3s slows the development of changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. And a study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2011, found that taking fish oil supplements reduced mental fatigue and increased reaction times in participants ages 18 to 35 years old.
Diabetes. Although arthritis and diabetes are not directly related, they often coexist. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, found that more than half of people with diabetes also have arthritis. Again, omega-3s may be able to help, according to two reports.
One study looked at more than 3,000 older U.S. adults; it found that those with the highest blood levels of the omega-3s known as EPA and DHA (found in fish) were about one-third less likely to develop diabetes over a 10-year period than those adults with the lowest levels. Another report showed that among 43,000 Singapore adults, those who ate diets rich in ALA – the omega-3 fatty acid found in plant foods – were at reduced risk of developing diabetes.
Both the American Dietetic Association and the American Heart Association recommend food over supplements to reap omega-3 benefits. The best source: fish, especially salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel and herring. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends two servings a week (3.5-ounce portions) of fish for healthy omega-3 fatty acids benefits. How you prepare the fish makes a difference. Broiled or baked fish appears to reduce the risk of heart disease, but fried fish or fish sandwiches cancels out the benefits of fish oil and may actually increase heart disease risk.
Vegetarian sources of omega-3s include Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
If you choose fish oil or flax seed supplements instead, make sure to select a brand that contains mercury-free fish oils, and check with your doctor about potential drug interactions. Also be aware that because fish oil has a blood-thinning effect, increasing your intake too much beyond 3 grams a day could be hazardous if already take a blood-thinner or aspirin.
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