Stiff knee joints, aching lower back, sore and swollen elbows – sound familiar? These little niggles have been around for a while now, but not being able to get out of the house as often as usual and working from home has meant extended periods of sitting for many of us, making those usual aches and pains even worse, and even more noticeable. You try to ignore them and go about your day, but even simple tasks are becoming a struggle and it’s getting you down. It’s just a part of the natural ageing process, right?
It doesn’t have to be.
Yes, sitting down all day certainly isn’t going to help, but you know those pains were lingering long before the current climate. So, if that’s not the cause, what is? It could be down to chronic, low-grade inflammation; luckily, a few simple changes to your diet could help reduce inflammation and allow your vitality to shine once again, so you can get back to doing the things that bring you joy – without pain. In this article I take a deep dive into a potent anti-inflammatory nutrient, omega-3.
What is omega-3?
Omega-3 is an essential polyunsaturated fatty acid; it is called essential because the body cannot produce it so we must eat enough of it in our diet. There are different forms of omega-3, with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) being the active forms that are readily available for the body to use – the best source of DHA and EPA is oily fish. Another form called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can be obtained from some plant foods, including chia seeds and walnuts. However, ALA isn’t readily available to use and the body doesn’t convert it to DHA and EPA very well, so the preferred food source is oily fish (1).
How can omega-3 help with aches and pain?
As I mentioned, aches and pains can often be caused by excess low-grade inflammation in the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules which can damage nearby healthy cells – this is one of the key causes of chronic low-grade inflammation. Antioxidants, like omega-3, work by ‘donating’ an electron to free radicals to stabilise them so that they can no longer cause damage to cells (2). In other words, omega-3 can support to reduce inflammation and associated pain.
Inflammation can be proliferated by several lifestyle factors, including over-exercising, stress and poor diet; over time, these factors can increase the production of circulating pro-inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, high levels of which have been linked with increased pain and stiffness, particularly in the joints. Omega-3 has been shown to dampen the production of these pro-inflammatory chemicals, helping to lower levels of inflammation in the body (3).
A common condition associated with pain is Rheumatoid arthritis; rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition which causes inflammation of the joints, causing pain, stiffness and swelling. Omega-3 has been extensively studied for its use in pain reduction for rheumatoid arthritis and clear benefits have been demonstrated – in fact, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society recommend it as a dietary therapy option (4). A recent meta-analysis (a review of a collection of studies – the most robust type of scientific evidence) confirmed that supplementation with omega-3 improved clinical outcomes for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis, finding reductions in inflammatory markers, stiffness and pain (5).
Is there anything else I should consider in regards to omega-3?
Not only is the type of omega-3 you choose important, it is also crucial to consider the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Omega-6 is another type of polyunsaturated fatty acid which is required in small amounts, but is pro-inflammatory when eaten in excess; omega-3 and omega-6 compete for the same metabolic pathway, and eating too much omega-6 can increase inflammation in the body. The typical western diet ratio is around 15:1 (omega-6 to omega-3), though an ideal ratio is closer to 1:1 (6). You can get closer to the ideal ration by reducing omega-6 food sources (such as vegetable oils, peanuts and grains) and swapping for omega-3 sources (salmon, mackerel, chia seeds and walnut oil).
How much omega-3 should I be consuming to reduce pain?
For the general population, it is recommended that we consume two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily – salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines all count – to reach our requirements of omega-3 (7). As previously mentioned, chia seeds, flaxseed and cold pressed walnut oil can also provide some omega-3 but it may not be adequate. Therefore, if you don’t eat oily fish and are considering a therapeutic dose of omega-3 to support with pain management, it is worth looking at supplementation. Studies on pain and omega-3 use varying doses, but on average a 3-6g dose per day has been found to be safe and effective; it is recommended that supplements are taken for at least six weeks to start noticing effects (8).
Finally, when choosing a supplement, you can either choose an omega 3 fish oil supplement or an omega 3 algae supplement (vegan), which by the way is the primary source of all omega 3 fats, as all fish feed of them. In one study, algae or vegan supplements were found to be nutritionally equivalent to a cooked salmon and work in the same way as fish oil in your body (9). Make sure to avoid fish liver oil as it can contain a large amount of vitamin A meaning you may exceed daily requirements.
Looking for dinner inspiration that packs an omega-3 punch? Watch out for my anti-inflammatory lemon and olive oil baked salmon and Greek salad recipe coming next week!