For heart health and a host of other benefits, everyone from physicians to herbalists are recommending pain patients consume more omega 3 fatty acids as an anti-inflammatory supplement. But what are omega 3 fatty acids, and how are they best incorporated into a healthy diet?
What are omega 3 fatty acids?
The body is able to manufacture most fat that it needs from other foods, but this is not the case with omega 3 fatty acids. These types of fats are often called essential fats because they are key to a number of processes in the body but must be sourced directly from foods that contain them. Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, and there are three types:
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
The first two are found primarily in fish and are sometimes referred to as marine omega 3s. ALA is more common in diets in the U.S. and is found in leafy greens, nuts, and seeds, plus occasionally in grass-fed meat.
What do omega 3 fatty acids do?
On a very basic level, omega 3 fatty acids are a part of the cell membrane and affect the cell receptors. They are responsible for assisting in blood clotting, artery function, and controlling inflammation in the body. Omega 3 fatty acids are also tied to genetic functioning and may control some of the genetic messages that are transmitted through reproduction.
Controlling inflammation in the body is one of the most important functions of omega 3 fatty acids. This helps decrease the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, and can help with pain management in the case of chronic conditions such as chronic pain and diabetes.
What does the research say?
Time and again, research studies are proving that lack of omega 3 fatty acids is linked to inflammation in the body and that supplementation seems to be effective and side effect-free.
Inflammatory joint pain
A study of 250 patients referred to a neurosurgeon for nonsurgical neck or back pain found that taking 1,200 mg of omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA found in fish oil supplements) resulted in 59% of participants discontinuing their use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain. There were no side effects to the supplementation at this level, and 80% of patients were satisfied with their improvement.
Omega 3 fatty acids are also linked to better cognitive function and improved serotonin production that can help better understand and treat brain disorders. In other neurological researcher, a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign found that omega 3 fatty acids can improve cognitive flexibility for older adults at high risk for Alzheimer’s, which is often classified as an inflammatory disease.
Researchers at the American College of Cardiology found that omega 3 fatty acids lowered the risk of a second heart attack. In a study presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 64th Annual Scientific Session in San Diego, patients who suffered from heart attack but included four grams of prescription-strength omega 3 fatty acid capsules in their diet daily for six months afterwards were significantly less likely to suffer another cardiovascular event than those taking a placebo. This was largely due to the lack of fibrosis in those taking omega 3 fatty acids.
Raymond W. Kwong, M.D., M.P.H, director of cardiac magnetic resonance imaging at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the study’s senior author, tied this result directly to the anti-inflammatory effects of omega 3 fatty acids, noting that they worked when other traditional treatments failed:
“Omega-3 fatty acids may have anti-inflammatory effects and also promote better cardiac healing. This is important because other anti-inflammatory agents, including steroids and NSAIDS, have failed to make a difference after myocardial infarction.”
This is just a small sample of the growing body of research on omega 3 fatty acids and their link to lowered inflammation.
It can be easy to get the benefit of omega 3 fatty acids through food and supplementation.
What are omega 3 fatty acids and where are they found in foods? They’re often found in quantity in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines and in nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.
A superfood salmon salad brings many of these delicious ingredients into one dish. Choose fresh, wild salmon and add avocado, kale, quinoa, pomegranate seeds, and a delicious vinaigrette to make a healthy meal.
Other ways to incorporate omega 3 fatty acids in every meal include:
- Avocado whole grain toast: Avocadoes are filled with healthy fats, one of which is omega 3 fatty acids. Top whole grain bread with sliced or mashed avocado, a sprinkle of black pepper and a drizzle of best-quality olive oil.
- Walnuts: Walnuts can be included in any type of salad or pasta or can be eaten daily in the morning on cold or hot cereal. Other nuts include omega 3 fatty acids, but walnuts are the best bet for the biggest benefit.
- Flaxseeds: Flaxseeds contain only ALA and should be eaten in combination with other omega 3 fatty acids to get a complete benefit. Use ground flaxseeds in bread, smoothies, or sprinkled over cereal or in salad dressing.
- Chia seeds: This unassuming little black seed provides a burst of omega 3 fatty acids in a variety of different applications. Try easy chia seed pudding: combine one can of coconut milk with 1/3 cup of chia seeds. Sweeten to taste with maple or agave syrup and add a splash of vanilla. Mix thoroughly, then chill for at least one hour.
It can be difficult to meet the recommended daily allowance of omega 3 fatty acids through food alone, but it will be delicious trying!
A therapeutic dose of omega 3 fatty acids is much different than a regular dose for a healthy individual. For example, the Arthritis Foundation recommends the following guidelines for certain arthritis-related and other conditions such as:
- Lupus and psoriasis: Two grams EPA/DHA three times a day
- Raynaud’s phenomenon: One gram four times a day
- Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis: Up to 2.6 grams, twice a day
- Depression:6 grams daily
Fish oil capsules should have at least 30% EPA/DHA listed as the active ingredients. Anything less will produce less pronounced relief.
As with any dietary change for chronic pain patients, consult your doctor before supplementing with fish oil capsules at therapeutic levels.
Have you tried omega 3 fatty acids for chronic pain and inflammation?