Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Joint Health

By JoMo Contributing Nutritionist, Michelle Gibeault-Traub R.D.

The Basics

Omega-3 and omega-6 are two types of essential fatty acids. We cannot make fatty acids on our own and have to obtain them through diet or supplementation. There are a few natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids, mainly the fat of cold-water fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring and black cod.

There are two essential omega-3 fatty acids, (eicosapentaenoic acid, called EPA and docosahexaenoic or DHA), that the body needs. Some vegetarian sources, such as walnuts and flaxseeds contain alpha-linolenic acid (known as ALA) that the body must first convert to EPA and DHA.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids Comparison

Common Name Chemical Name Properties
EPA eicosapentaenoic acid Found in fatty fish.
EPA recommendations range from .22 to 2 g /day (generally combined with DHA).
DHA docosahexaenoic acid Found in fatty fish.
In the body, it is concentrated in brain and eye tissue.
DHA recommendations range from .22 to 2 g/day (generally combined with EPA).
ALA alpha-linolenic acid

Found in nuts and seeds and their oils.

Can be converted to EPA & DHA, but the conversion rate is very low (<10%).
ALA recommendations range from 1.5 - 3 g/day.


As an essential fatty acid, omega-3s are crucial for a variety of body processes. In particular, they play an important role in thinning the blood that aids in preventing heart disease. Omega-3 fats are also powerful anti-inflammatory agents that may help relieve joint and arthritis pain, aid in cancer prevention, improve brain function and mood, and much more.

Best Sources of Omega 3

Although nutrition experts generally prefer that people get their nutrients from foods, when it comes to omega 3 fatty acids many agree that EPA/DHA supplements are often the best source for these polyunsaturated fats. While fish is a good source of EPA & DHA, there is a concern that farmed fish could contain PCBs, while some varieties of ocean fish and shellfish may contain mercury and lead. In addition, since many people fry their fish in omega 6 oils (corn, soybean or sunflower oils); they are not reaping the full benefits of pure omega 3 fats. Finally, plant foods that are considered a good source of ALA have far too little of the nutrient to meet the generally accepted omega 3 recommendations.

Fish Oil supplements

While fish oil supplements offer the convenience of large amounts of omega 3 fats without the risk for mercury or PCBs, not all fish oil supplements are alike. Some brands contain little actual EPA & DHA, and use omega 6 oils as filler. Always be sure to read product information to be sure the variety you are purchasing is tested for quality and purity.

Omega 3 Foods

Foods can be a good means of getting omega 3 fats with careful diet planning. The following choices can help meet omega 3 needs:

Foods With EPA & DHA

Salmon Oysters Tuna Omega 3 Eggs & Poultry Mackerel
Halibut Algal Oil Sole Herring Fortified Foods
Anchovies Trout Sardines Flounder  


Foods With ALA

Flaxseed & Flaxseed Oil Chia Seeds & Chia Oil Canola Oil Pumpkin seeds Fortified Foods
Hemp Soybean Oil Walnuts    

How Much Omega 3 Do I Need?

Although there are currently no set requirements for omega 3 fats, research indicates that these essential fatty acids are needed in much larger amounts than are consumed in the average diet. Most nutritionists recommend taking up to 2000mg of EPA and 2000mg of DHA daily as a general supplement. Some arthritis researchers are recommending up to 2600mg a day with the Arthritis Foundation suggesting that the daily dosage be 3000mg twice a day for maximum benefit.

Omega 3 Benefits

Countless research studies over the past decade have uncovered the astounding health benefits of omega 3 fats. Since omega 3 fatty acids are used throughout the body to nourish cells and decrease damaging inflammation, they have been shown to prevent numerous chronic conditions. In fact, omega 3s have been associated with the following health benefits:

Omega 3 fats also calm the inflammatory response preventing the tissue damage and swelling that lead to pain and illness. Likewise, omega 3 fats thin the blood helping it flow more freely throughout the body. Finally, omega 3 fats are a vital component of brain, muscle, and immune cells, and therefore exhibit their health benefits from head to toe.

Omega 3 - Arthritis & Joint Health

Omega 3 fats are known for their ability to decrease inflammation in the body. It is this action that makes omega 3 fats and fish oils helpful for suppressing the joint inflammation and destruction that is common in arthritis. When joints are creaky and painful, omega 3 fats can be likened to a lubricant that helps them move more freely. In addition, omega 3 fats may aid in weight loss which helps to relieve added pressure from joints.

Diets rich in EPA and DHA, the types of omega 3 fats found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements, have also been associated with a reduction in the production of cytokines and eicosanoids. Since these compounds contribute to the joint inflammation present in rheumatoid arthritis, researchers believe that incorporating EPA & DHA into the diet could promote arthritis improvement.1

A comprehensive meta-analysis of 17 randomized, controlled trials assessing the ability of omega 3 fatty acids to relieve pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis was published in the May 2007 issue of Pain. The results of the analysis indicated that after supplementing with omega 3 fats (fish oil) for 3-4 months patients reported less joint pain intensity and morning stiffness, and fewer painful and/or tender joints, along with a decreased use of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).2

Researcher Joel Kremer, who has published over a dozen articles on the positive benefits of fish oil on rheumatoid arthritis, agrees that regular intake of fish oil can lead to a reduction in NSAID intake. He believes that the ideal dose for achieving arthritis relief is 3 grams (3000mg) of EPA and DHA taken for a minimum of 12 weeks. However, he notes that any changes in medication or supplementation should be monitored by a physician.3

The Arthritis Foundation is also in support of fish oil as an arthritis treatment option citing the many studies demonstrating that fish oil may decrease joint tenderness and enable rheumatoid arthritis patients to require less pain medication (i.e. NSAIDs or corticosteroids). They explain that obtaining a therapeutic dose of EPA & DHA is difficult through fish alone since many species of fish carry the risk of mercury (particularly shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish). Their recommendation for patients with rheumatoid arthritis is up to 2.6 g (2600mg) of fish oil twice a day.4*

Omega 3 and Weight Loss

Given the clear association between obesity and arthritis, losing weight is a key component to improving joint health. Fats in the diet take longer to digest and are therefore often associated with satiety. As a result, incorporating healthy fats such as omega 3 fatty acids into your daily diet is a great way to eat less by naturally reducing your appetite.

In addition, studies have shown that the omega 3 fats from fish oil supplements can further assist in weight loss efforts by having a positive impact on fat loss. In an Australian study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 75 participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups each of which either took fish oil (260 mg DHA and 60 mg EPA) or a placebo oil (sunflower oil), or who took fish oil or a placebo oil combined with exercise three times per week. Subjects who consumed fish oil supplements not only lowered their triglycerides and increased their good cholesterol (HDL) (which are measures of improved cardiovascular health), but they also reduced their body fat. In this study, both fish oil intake and exercise were associated with improvements in body composition.5 Several animal studies have also indicated that fish oil may impact the way fat is metabolized making it less prone to cause weight gain.6,7

Omega 3 Studies - The VITAL Trial - While there are already many studies exhibiting the positive benefits of omega 3 fats, there is still much more to come. In fact, a large randomized trial of 20,000 participants, which has been dubbed the VITAL trial (VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL) will soon set out to examine the roles vitamin D and omega 3 fats have on reducing heart disease and cancer. The study will be funded by the National Institutes of Health and is being run by Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA. For more information see:


Omega 6 - The "Bad Fatty Acid"

By contrast, sources of omega-6 fatty acids are numerous in modern diets. As a group, polyunsaturated fats are considered to be healthy additions to the diet, as opposed to saturated fats that have been attributed to high cholesterol and heart disease. However, omega 6 (n-6) fatty acids, the other type of polyunsaturated fat, is utilized in different ways than omega 3 fatty acids. When a person's intake of omega 6 fats exceeds their intake of omega 3 fats, as is often the case in the typical Western diet, increased inflammation can result.

Omega 6 fats are found in seeds and nuts, and the oils extracted from them. Refined vegetable oils, such as soy oil, are used in most of the snack foods, cookies, crackers, and sweets in the American diet as well as in fast food. Soybean oil alone is now so ubiquitous in fast foods and processed foods that an astounding 20 percent of the calories in the American diet are estimated to come from this single source.

The body also constructs hormones from omega 6 fatty acids. In general, hormones derived from the two classes of essential fatty acids have opposite effects. Those from omega 6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while those from omega 3 fatty acids decrease those functions. Both families of hormones must be in balance to maintain optimum health.

Many nutrition experts believe that before we relied so heavily on processed foods, humans consumed omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in roughly equal amounts. But to our great detriment, most North Americans and Europeans now get far too much of the omega-6s and not enough of the omega 3s. This dietary imbalance may explain the rise of such diseases as asthma, coronary heart disease, many forms of cancer, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative diseases, all of which are believed to stem from inflammation in the body. The imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may also contribute to obesity, depression, dyslexia, hyperactivity and even a tendency toward violence. Bringing the fats into proper proportion may actually relieve those conditions, according to Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health, and perhaps the world's leading authority on the relationship between fat consumption and mental health. At the 2006 Nutrition and Health Conference sponsored by the University of Arizona's College of Medicine and Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Hibbeln cited a study showing that violence in a British prison dropped by 37 percent after omega 3 oils and vitamins were added to the prisoners' diets.

Dangers Of Omega 6 Fatty Acids

Omega 6 fats do have a place in a healthy diet, yet given their widespread occurrence in the food supply very little attention needs to be made in obtaining these essential fatty acids. Instead, it is important to reduce omega 6 fats, while increasing omega 3 fats. This can contribute to a healthier ratio of these fats.

Tips to Reduce Omega 6 Fats Increase Omega 3 Fats

Reduce Omega 6 Fats Increase Omega 3 Fats

Limit frying and avoid vegetable oils such as corn oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oil. Try sautéing foods in wine, vinegar, or fruit juices.

Use small amounts of cooking oils such as olive, walnut, or flaxseed.

Avoid or limit grain-fed meats and dairy products (i.e. cows and chicken raised on feed, along with the milk and eggs from these animals)

Choose grass-fed meats and dairy products (i.e. cows and chickens raised on grass, flax and other greens that result in meat, dairy products and eggs with increased omega 3s).

Avoid fried foods and packaged snacks.

Choose baked fatty fish (i.e. salmon, mackerel, and herring).

Reduce meat intake and replace with a low fat protein like beans.

Try a fish oil supplement that contains EPA & DHA.


More Ways To Reduce Omega 6 Fats

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Individual results vary.

**As with any program of diet, exercise, weight loss or therapy, consult your medical practitioner, especially if you have a history of heart disease or other conditions.

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