Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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For the 1.3 million Americans with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids may help alleviate pain and stiffness as well as protect you from joint damage.

The most common sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish oil and flaxseed, which contain different types of omega-3s. While you can get them through food, omega-3s are also available in supplement form.

Effects of Omega-3

One hallmark of rheumatoid arthritis is inflammation in the lining of your joints—a type of tissue called the synovium. Because omega-3 fatty acids may lower your body's production of inflammatory chemicals, it's theorized that intake of omega-3s can help inhibit this inflammation and thwart joint damage.

Omega-3 fatty acids may also help treat rheumatoid arthritis by influencing immune activity. Classified as an autoimmune disorder, RA occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium. It's thought that omega-3 fatty acids may help regulate the immune response and prevent the attacks.

Some research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may improve the heart health. RA is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, so careful management of cardiovascular risk factors is important.

Research: Omega-3 for RA

A 2020 review of literature on omega-3s for RA concluded that these fatty acids may be beneficial to people with the disease because they modulate the immune system and block inflammatory actions. They said adding supplements to the treatment regimen reduced the number of painful, swollen joints.

A 2017 paper also stated that fish-oil supplements appear to be a beneficial part of the RA regimen and pointed to numerous effects on the immune system and the inflammation cycle.

A 2012 report found that people with RA who took omega-3 supplements tended to see small improvements in symptoms, such as swelling and stiffness, and in overall physical function. These participants also were less likely to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—a class of drugs often used to alleviate the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

Risks of Omega-3

While studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids are likely safe for most people when taken in doses of three grams or less per day, there's some concern that higher doses may interfere with blood clotting and increase your risk of bleeding. RA can cause problems with clotting via abnormal platelet levels in the blood, so you may want to ask your doctor if you should have blood tests before starting omega-3s or while you're taking them.

Omega-3 in Foods

Omega-3 fatty acids come in several forms, depending on the source.

Fish oil is abundant in two forms of omega-3:

  1. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  2. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

Flaxseed, meanwhile, is rich in a third type called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

You probably get some omega-3 fatty acids via your diet without trying. The National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements says most people in the United States get enough ALA through food, and also get small amounts of EPA and DHA. (No recommended daily amounts have been established for EPA and DHA.)

Foods that provide omega-3s include:

  • Fish and other seafood, especially cold-water fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring)
  • Nuts and seeds, especially flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts
  • Plant oils, including flaxseed oil and soybean oil
  • Fortified foods, which includes some yogurts, juices, milk, soy beverages, baby formula, and even eggs

Omega-3 Supplements

If you want to make sure you get a consistent amount of omega-3s, supplements are a good way to accomplish that.

You can find many different formulations on the market, including some with just fish oil, just flaxseed, or a mix of the two. Some supplements also include omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids.

Some people find that fish oil supplements leave them with bad, fishy-tasting breath, heartburn, or nausea. If those are a problem for you, it may help to switch to flaxseed-based supplements or concentrate on dietary sources.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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Other Health Benefits

Omega-3 fatty acids appear to have several health benefits, including:

Omega-3s have been studied as a treatment for numerous other illnesses, including depression, ADHD, and Alzheimer's disease, but thus far, results are mixed.

A Word From Verywell

While omega-3 is generally considered a healthy addition to your diet, don't start using it medicinally without talking to your doctor. That can help you avoid potential negative interactions with medication and ensure your dosage and sources are safe.

Since rheumatoid arthritis can lead to serious health problems, including major joint damage and disability, it's important to work closely with your physician in managing this condition rather than attempting to self-treat the disease with omega-3 fatty acids or any other form of alternative medicine.

Effective treatment of rheumatoid arthritis usually relies on medications, supplemented by a variety of lifestyle changes like practicing stress reduction, getting sufficient sleep, and following an anti-inflammatory diet.

Moreover, proper treatment of rheumatoid arthritis can help protect you from many emotional and psychological issues commonly experienced by patients, like depression and anxiety.

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  9. Arthritis Foundation. Rheumatoid arthritis

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