Can Omega-3s Help With Arthritis?


As a kid, you may have heard on TV or from your parents that drinking cod liver oil was good for you – even though it had (and still has) a strong aftertaste. And indeed, there was some truth to that belief. Cod liver oil contains omega-3 fats, one of the essential nutrients found in food.

According to dietitian Mira Illic, RD, LD, omega-3s are part of the polyunsaturated fats, which differ from solid saturated fats like cheese and butter. They are primarily plant-based and are liquids at room temperature. 

Regular consumption of omega-3s – which is strongly recommended as your body can not produce them – can significantly improve your body and brain health and even help with your arthritis pain.


Benefits of Omega-3s

The most touted benefit of Omega-3 fats is their significant contribution to brain development in both fetuses and infants. In adults, they help to enhance cognition and improve memory. Most importantly, Omega-3s have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which may bode well with people with inflammatory conditions like arthritis.

However, as Ms. Illic says, you need to consume very high amounts of Omega-3s to unlock their anti-inflammatory strengths, considering that most of the foods you eat contain more Omega-6s than Omega-3s. 

Omega 6s are pro-inflammatory (in most cases, they can worsen the symptoms of arthritis) and are present in 10 times as many foods as Omega-3s. So to balance the two, you need to regularly consume foods rich in Omega-3s. 


Omega-3s and Arthritis

The potent anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-3 fats have made them a prime subject of many studies touching on rheumatoid arthritis, and the results have been very encouraging. 

For instance, it has been proven that people who take fish oil supplements or eat more fatty fish do not experience as much joint stiffness and joint pain as those who don’t.

Some studies also suggest that finding a good balance between Omega-3s and Omega-6s can help alleviate certain types of arthritic pain. For example, with Omega-6s potentially worsening both inflammatory pain (e.g., from arthritis) and chronic pain (from conditions like diabetes), lowering their intake and increasing consumption of Omega-3s can ease both types of pain.


Are Omega-3 Supplements Good for You?

According to Illic, certain supplements may be effective, but overall, switching up your diet to better serve your nutritional needs is the most effective and sustainable solution. And before you do that, you need to understand the different forms of Omega-3s. These are as follows:

  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) – Primarily found in cold-water fatty fish, but may also be found in small concentrations in algae.
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) – Appears alongside EPA in the aforementioned marine sources.
  • Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) – Mostly plant-based, with the highest concentrations occurring in nuts (mostly walnuts) and vegetable oils like flaxseed.

The ideal Omega-3s intake is 2-3 servings per week, which you can quickly achieve by sticking to the Mediterranean diet. The diet mainly involves seafood, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and is said to lead to a healthy body and mind, lower susceptibility to chronic diseases, and consequently, added longevity.

In case you are wondering where to start with your seafood diet, here are types of fish you may want to go with for a start:

  • Sardines
  • Halibut
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Atlantic Mackerel
  • Trout
  • Herring


What to Avoid

Although most cold-water fish can be good sources of Omega-3s, many of them don’t pass the food safety test due to their inherent toxicity. 

In particular, it is advisable to avoid fish that contain high mercury levels, such as sharks, albacore tuna, king mackerel, and swordfish.

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