How does Omega-3 Reduce Inflammation?
No doubt you have heard about omega-3.
If you live with chronic pain or an inflammatory condition – you have probably been told to increase omega-3.
But like me you might be wondering…
How does omega-3 reduce inflammation?
Despite the substantial evidence omega-3 reduces inflammation, experts don’t fully understand how. Scientists think the omega-3 fatty acids affect certain immune cells and “switch off” the inflammatory response. Omega-3 also reduces the production of inflammatory signalling cells, such as eicosanoids and cytokines. (58, 59).
If that sounds a little like foreign language to you – read on below for more detail on inflammation.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is not necessarily bad. You need inflammation to protect & heal your body. It is your body’s natural defence against bacteria, viruses & damaged cells.
There are two types of inflammation – acute inflammation & chronic inflammation.
When was the last time you grazed your knee?
We all recognise the pain, redness, swelling, heat & weeping you get with a grazed knee. This reaction is your body working to prevent infection.
When you injure yourself, your body detects an injury and a potential breach in the defences. In the grazed knee example, the broken skin means you’re under threat from germs outside.
Your body responds by releasing histamine. Histamine increases the blood flow to the wound site which flood the area with:
- White blood cells (Leucocytes)
- Signalling cells (Eicosanoids and cytokines)
- Immune cells (macrophages, T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes and mast cells)
This mini army heads to the injured area to fight the germy invaders & start the rebuilding process.
The increased blood to the area causes swelling, reddening and a feeling of warmth and pain.
Another common example is the watery, itchy eyes & sneezing, runny nose we get in hay fever season.
Your body detects the pollen intruders so releases histamine. Histamine increases blood flow and sends in your army of immune cells.
This is why anti-histamine in hay fever medication is effective at stopping the reaction.
Acute inflammation has a very important role in the body. It’s essential to protect us and effective at preventing infection.
Acute inflammation starts quickly & disappears when the threat has gone (usually a couple of days).
Chronic inflammation, unlike acute inflammation, can last for months or even years.
It usually occurs inside the body – often with no noticeable physical signs.
Many diseases are linked to chronic inflammation including:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Crohn’s disease
- Heart disease
- Fatty liver
Despite the lack of external signs there are several common symptoms of chronic inflammation such as:
- Aches and pains
- Constant fatigue and insomnia
- Depression, anxiety or mood disorders
- Gastrointestinal problems such as constipation, diarrhoea, and acid reflux
- Weight gain
- Frequent infections
If you find yourself regularly suffering from the above symptoms, you may have chronic inflammation.
In chronic inflammation the immune cells have become overly sensitive and perceive threats where there’s none.
This can lead the immune cells to attack healthy tissue in joints and organs.
Does omega-3 lower inflammation?
Studies have consistently observed a connection between higher omega-3 intake and reduced inflammation.
Clinical trials examined the effects of omega-3 on several inflammatory and auto-immune diseases including:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- Crohn’s disease
- ulcerative colitis
- lupus erythematosus
- multiple sclerosis
Many of the trials resulted in a significant benefit. Benefits included reduced disease activity and reliance on anti-inflammatory drugs.
A study of 500 people with rheumatoid arthritis found those who took omega-3 supplements had a reduction in joint pain.
Studies examining a total of 4601 people found dietary intake of omega-3 significantly lowered markers for inflammation including C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin (IL-6). The inflammation lowering effect was most effective with long-term supplementation.
Another study of 68 medical students found those who took omega-3 had a 14% reduction in inflammatory cells. Interestingly, the students showed a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms. This study demonstrated omega-3 also has health benefits for healthy young adults.
How does omega-3 lower inflammation?
Scientists believe there are several ways omega-3 lowers inflammation.
Common theories include:
Omega-3 reduces the production of inflammatory molecules.
Several studies show omega-3 fatty acids reduce the production of our inflammatory body chemicals, such as eicosanoids and cytokines. (58, 59). The omega-3 alters the way your body interprets the information in your genes (known as ‘gene expression’). The altered gene expression means your body produces less of the inflammatory compounds.
Omega-3 converts switches inflammation off.
Researchers at the Women’s Hospital in Boston found the same signalling pathway which starts the inflammatory response includes an ‘off switch’. The study showed the body converted the omega-3 into other compounds including ‘resolvins’. These ‘resolvins’ are 10,000 times more powerful than the original omega-3. It’s thought when the omega-3s convert into ‘resolvins’ they put the breaks on the inflammatory process.
What are Omega-3 fatty acids?
“Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that we must get from our diets because our bodies cannot make them; they are crucial for early brain development, and there is much evidence that they promote cardiovascular health and cognitive function.” Dr Joel Furham
Omega-3’s are a specific type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. Now for the chemistry part…
Polyunsaturated refers to the number of double bonds in the chemical structure. The ‘3’ in omega-3 refers to the location of the first double bond. Similarly, the ‘6’ in omega-6 refers to the position of the double bond.
Omega-3s are essential nutrients because our bodies cannot make them *. So it’s ‘essential’ we obtain them through our diet.
* Our bodies can actually make most omega-3s – we just don’t do it well. So it’s important to get omega-3 from our diet.*
The 4 most common types of dietary omega-3 found are:
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): ALA is a plant-based form of omega-3. It is an ‘essential fatty acid’ so you must obtain them through dietary intake. Your body can synthesize it but the process is pretty inefficient. Only one percent of the ALA you eat is converted into a useful form for your body to use. Good sources of ALA are:
- leafy, green vegetables
- flaxseeds (also known as linseeds)
- chia seeds
- canola, walnut and soybean oils (although not as healthy as other sources)
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA): EPA is one of the better known omega-3 oils. It is ‘conditionally essential.’ If your body has enough of the right building blocks it can synthesize EPA. If you don’t have the right building blocks though then EPA becomes an ‘essential fatty acid’. Your body needs high quantities of EPA to obtain the health benefits so it’s wise to get plenty from your food. Good sources of EPA are:
- Oily fish (mackerel, sardines, salmon)
- Algae oil
- Krill oil
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): DHA is the other well-known omega-3. Like EPA it is also ‘conditionally essential.’ It is a good idea to make sure you have plenty in your diet. Your body converts some DHA back to EPA in order to keep them at fairly equal levels if you consume more DHA. Good sources of DHA are:
- Oily fish (mackerel, sardines, salmon)
- Algae oil
- Krill oil
Eicosatetraenoic Acid (ETA): ETA is a lesser-known omega-3 fatty acid. It has recently been noted for its powerful health benefits. Not only is ETA anti-inflammatory, but it can limit your body’s production of arachidonic acid (ARA). ARA is an inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid – discussed in more detail below. ETA redirects the enzyme which normally creates ARA to convert it to EPA instead. Good sources of ETA are:
- Roe oil
- Green lipped mussel
What are the other health benefits of Omega-3?
The science supporting the health benefits of omega-3s is incredibly strong. Few things in the nutrition world have been studied as extensively as omega-3s.
Some of the most important health benefits of omega-3s are:
1) Fight depression and anxiety
Depression and anxiety are some of the most common mental disorders in the world.
Interestingly, studies show people who consume omega-3s regularly are less likely to be depressed.
Studies also show if people with depression or anxiety start taking omega-3 supplements, their symptoms improve.
Interestingly, the most effective type of fatty acid seems to be EPA. EPA was found to be as effective as a commonly prescribed antidepressant drug.
2) Promote brain health during pregnancy and infancy
So it’s no surprise getting enough omega-3s during pregnancy is linked to numerous benefits for your child, including:
- Higher intelligence
- Better communication and social skills
- Fewer behavioral problems
- Decreased risk of developmental delay
- Decreased risk of ADHD, autism and cerebral palsy
3) Improve eye health
DHA makes up 60% of the fatty acids in the retina of your eye.
You may get vision problems when you don’t get enough DHA.
Interestingly, getting enough omega-3 reduces the risk of macular degeneration, one of the world’s leading causes of permanent eye damage and blindness.
4) Reduce the risk of heart disease
Heart attacks and strokes are humanity’s biggest killers being the leading cause of death worldwide.
In the late 1980s, researchers observed the Inuit people of Greenland and Canada had very low rates of heart disease and stroke. This was later linked to the high levels of omega-3 in their fish heavy diets.
Since then, omega-3 fatty acids have been tied to numerous benefits for heart health including:
- Reduce triglycerides usually in the range of 15–30%
- Reduce blood pressure in people with high blood pressure
- Raise “good” HDL cholesterol levels
- Prevent blood clots
- Protect arteries by preventing build up of plaque
- Reduced inflammation
5) Reduce symptoms of ADHD in children
Several studies found children with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids than their healthy peers.
Omega-3s were found to reduce the symptoms of ADHD. It improves inattention and task completion. They also decrease hyperactivity, impulsiveness, restlessness and aggression.
6) Reduce symptoms of metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions including:
- central obesity (belly fat)
- high blood pressure
- insulin resistance
- high triglycerides
- low “good” HDL cholesterol levels
Metabolic syndrome is bad news. It increases your risk of conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.
7) Fight Alzheimer’s and age related dimension
As the human brain is made up of 60%fatty acids – omega-3 can play a pivotal role in keeping it healthy.
Several studies link higher omega-3 intake to decreased age-related mental decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Keep in mind more research is needed on omega-3s and brain health.
8) Prevent cancer
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the Western world.
Interestingly, studies show people who consume the most omega-3s have up to a 55% lower risk of colon cancer.
9) Improve bone and joint health
Osteoporosis and arthritis are common disorders which affect your bones and joints.
Studies indicate omega-3s improve bone strength by boosting the amount of calcium in your bones. The increased calcium means bones are stronger, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
Arthritis patients taking omega-3 supplements have reported reduced joint pain and increased grip strength.
10) Reduce menstrual pain
Menstrual pain occurs in your pelvis, tummy and thighs. It can be incredibly debilitating for some women.
Interestingly, studies repeatedly prove women who consume the most omega-3s have milder menstrual pain.
One study even found an omega-3 supplement was more effective than ibuprofen in treating severe menstrual pain.
11) Improve mental health conditions
People with psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and biopolar often have low levels of omega-3.
Studies suggest omega-3 supplements can reduce the frequency of mood swings and relapses.
Omega-3 supplementation may also decrease violent behavior.
12) Reduce a fatty liver
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is on the rise.
With the obesity epidemic, NAFLD has become the most common cause of chronic liver disease in the Western world (85).
Omega-3 fatty acids effectively reduce liver fat and inflammation in people with NAFLD.
How much omega-3 should you take per day?
The best way to get omega-3 is by eating fatty fish at least twice a week.
Opt for wild caught fish as farmed fish can contain high levels of toxins such as mercury or pesticides.
Good options for dietary omega-3 are:
- Wild caught salmon
- Wild caught ocean trout
- Green lipped mussels
- Flaxseeds (also known as linseeds)
- Leafy green vegetables
If you are not a fan of fatty fish, you should consider taking a supplement.
Most supplements contain EPA and DHA but it is important to check your supplement contains sufficient quantities.
There is no set standard for how much omega-3 you should get each day.
Experts recommend a minimum of 250 – 500mg each day for healthy adults.
The recommended amounts may vary for certain health conditions.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same enzymes during digestion.
Therefore, your omega-3 needs may depend on your omega-6 intake. If you consume a lot of omega-6s, you may need even higher amounts of omega-3s. For more on omega-3 to omega-6 ratio see below.
It is also important to note – as with anything in life you can have too much of a good thing.
Excessive omega-3 can cause blood thinning or excessive bleeding in some people.
The FDA recommends no more than 3000mg per day while the European equivalent states up to 5000mg per day is safe.
Omega-3 v Omega 6
Omega 6 is another polyunsaturated fatty acid. Like omega-3s they have double bonds in their chemical structure. The 6 in omega-6 refers to the position of the double bond.
Omega 6 is also an ‘essential fatty acid’ – specifically linoleic acid – because your body cannot produce it for itself. You must therefore eat sufficient quantities to meet your nutritional needs.
Omega-6 plays a crucial role for our brains and is vital for healthy growth and development. Omega-6 also helps to regulate metabolism, maintain good bone health, keeps the reproductive system healthy and much more.
Unfortunately, the usual western diet tends to contain significantly more omega-6 than omega-3. This is because omega-6 is in a lot of unhealthy foods, such as processed meats (like sausage), potato chips, pizza, pasta, salad dressings…and the list goes on.
But why is omega-6 bad when it’s consumed in high amounts?
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same enzymes in the digestion process. These enzymes convert the fatty acids into their active forms.
Excessive consumption of linoleic acids (vegetable oils) can contribute to inflammation. It also increases the risk of serious conditions like arthritis, heart disease, cancer, asthma and depression. You should keep your intake of omega-6 in moderation.
Omega-6 can contribute to inflammation but it also plays a vital role in keeping us healthy.
You shouldn’t cut omega-6 out of your diet altogether.
As with most things in life – it is all about moderation.
Aim for a balance of omega 3 and omega 6 foods in your diet.
The average western diet contains an omega 6 vs omega 3 ratio of around 15:1. The recommended ratio should actually be closer to around 2:1.
Also avoid unhealthy sources of omega-6 – especially processed junk food.
Omega-3 has been proven to have an enormous range of health benefits including reduced risk of heart disease, depression and Alzheimer’s.
Omega-3 is also proven to reduce inflammation.
So how does omega-3 reduce inflammation?
Experts don’t fully understand how omega-3 reduces inflammation. It’s thought omega-3 fatty acids affect certain immune cells and “switch off” the inflammatory response. Remarkably, omega-3 changes the way your genetic information is interpreted. This reduces the production of inflammatory body chemicals, such as eicosanoids and cytokines (58, 59).
There are 4 main types of omega-3 including EPA, DHA, ALA, and ETA.
The best dietary forms of omega-3 are wild caught oily fish, chia seeds, flax seeds and green lipped mussels.
You should aim to eat at least 2 portions of oily fish per week. If you don’t like oily fish consider taking a supplement containing at least 250-500mg of EPA and DHA.
Omega-6 fatty acids can cause inflammation but they do play a vital role in the body.
Try to get your omega-6 from healthy dietary sources not processed junk food.
Remember – omega-6 consumption can affect your absorption of omega-3 so try to aim for a ratio of 2:1.
Although western diets are typically low in omega-3 – it is something we could all benefit from.