Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Inflammation

We’ve all heard that inflammation is bad, but why?

Inflammation is actually a normal, beneficial part of your body’s response to injury. When you hurt yourself, the area becomes painful, red, swollen, and warm as blood, immune cells, and chemical signals swarm the area to begin the healing process.  

However, when this inflammation lasts for too long, it becomes chronic and can begin to damage healthy tissues. 

Chronic inflammation has been implicated in many common diseases throughout the body including:

  • Cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease, arteriosclerosis, and high blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis
  • Lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and psoriasis
  • Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety
  • Metabolic diseases such as  Type 2 diabetes and obesity
  • Neurodegenerative disorders such as  Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
  • Some types of cancer such as colon, liver, pancreatic cancers
  • Musculoskeletal issues such as arthritis, joint, and disc pain

These diseases of chronic inflammation are the leading causes of death and disability worldwide.1 Many of them can also be prevented in many cases with some simple lifestyle modifications that decrease inflammation in the body.

Essential Fatty Acids

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential to us. However, our body is unable to make them so we have to get them from our diet.

There are two main types: omega-6s and omega-3s.

While both are essential, omega-6s are pro-inflammatory while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. Maintaining an appropriate balance of these two types of fat is essential to managing inflammation in the body. 

The main sources of omega 3s are fish and other seafood. Omega-6s come from the unhealthy oils found in many of the processed foods that most Americans consume everyday. The biggest source of omega-6s in the American diet is soybean oil. If you were to check the labels of many of the processed foods you buy at the grocery store, you would be alarmed at how many contain this oil. 

Before industrialization, most people consumed an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 4:1 to 1:4. Today, the ratio we eat tends to be more like 16:1.2 This causes a massive imbalance in the level of pro to anti inflammatory fatty acids.

What should we eat to reduce inflammation?

The easiest way to move your body towards a more anti-inflammatory state is with your diet. This involves increasing your consumption of omega-3s and other anti-inflammatory foods while limiting your consumption of omega-6s and other pro-inflammatory foods. 

Foods that cause inflammation:

  • Sugar (For tips on how to break your sugar habit click here). 
  • Refined carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, baked goods and pastries
  • Processed foods like packaged snacks, crackers, and cereals
  • Fried foods like French fries and chips
  • Soda and sugar-sweetened drinks like sweet tea and sports drinks
  • Unhealthy oils like soybean, vegetable, canola, and corn oil
  • Margarine and shortening

Foods that fight inflammation

  • Fish like salmon, cod, mackerel, and sardines
  • Healthy oils like olive and avocado
  • Fruits and vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes, avocados, berries
  • Spices like turmeric, black pepper, cayenne, and ginger
  • Coffee, green tea, and unsweetened chocolate 
  • Fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, and unsweetened yogurt (For more information on these click here).

What else can we do to reduce inflammation?

For many people, eating fish everyday is not a realistic solution. While cutting out processed foods will help a lot to reduce omega-6 levels, omega-3s still need to be consumed on a daily basis. This is why omega-3 supplements are so important. Most people should be taking a high quality omega-3 supplement made from fish oils that contain both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) on a daily basis. For more information on finding an omega-3 supplement, click here.

The Benefits of Omega-3 Supplements

When many people feel pain, they take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen. These drugs work by inhibiting the activity of cyclooxygenase enzymes. These enzymes catalyze the formation of chemicals involved in the inflammatory process. When they are inhibited by NSAIDs, the production of these chemicals is inhibited. This decreases the inflammatory response, reducing pain. 

While NSAIDs may be effective at reducing pain caused by inflammation, they are also associated with dangerous complications. These include gastric ulcers, excess bleeding, heart attack, kidney damage and even death. 

Few people realize that supplementing with omega-3s can have a similar effect with less risk. Omega-3s inhibit the same cyclooxygenase enzymes that NSAIDs do. Studies have shown that omega-3 supplementation is  equivalent to ibuprofen at reducing back and neck pain with little to no risk of any adverse events.3

Studies also show that omega-3 supplementation reduces symptoms of anxiety, arthritis, and autoimmune conditions.4 5 6 Others show that omega-3s reduce your risk of diseases like cancer and heart disease.7 8

With all these demonstrated benefits, everyone should consider adding an omega-3 supplement to their daily routine.

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