New research supports the notion that eating more Omega-3 rich foods and fewer Omega-6 rich foods can lower inflammation and arthritis pain.
The study,1 published in this month’s Clinical Journal of Pain, looked at 167 adults with knee arthritis. The researchers took blood samples from each subject and categorized the samples based on the blood’s ratio levels of omega-6 to omega-3. The researchers then compared knee pain and function among people who had relatively high ratio levels of omega-6 to -3 and relatively low ratio levels of omega-6 to -3.
What researchers found was that individuals who had a relatively high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 had more knee arthritis pain, worse knee function, and more stress. What’s the difference between omega-3 and omega-6? Both omega-3 and omega-6 are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that are essential to the body. However, there are important differences:
- Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with decreased inflammation. Omega-3’s are found in many foods, including salmon, eggs, walnuts, and flaxseed, as well as leafy green vegetables, like spinach. Perhaps not surprisingly, these foods are commonly recommended as part of an anti-inflammatory diet.
- Omega-6 fatty acids are associated with increased inflammation. Omega 6’s are found in most vegetable oils, including sunflower, corn, and canola oils, and meats, such as chicken, pork, and beef (—though grass-fed beef can be a source of omega-3’s).
Why does the ratio level of omega-6 to omega-3 matter? These two essential fatty acids require the same enzyme for bodily digestion and absorption. Because of this, health experts believe omega 6’s and omega-3’s compete for absorption2—so even if you eat enough omega 3s, the omega 6s you eat may elbow out the omega 3’s during digestion, and you may not derive the omega 3’s full anti-inflammatory benefits.
To be clear, just about everyone eats more omega-6 than omega-3, and that’s okay. They key is to lower the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Experts suspect that for most Americans, that ratio is currently about 16:1,3 so there is lots of room to improve omega-3 intake and absorption—and possibly reduce inflammation and knee pain.
- Sibille KT, King C, Garrett TJ, et al. Omega-6: Omega-3 PUFA Ratio, Pain, Functioning, and Distress in Adults With Knee Pain. Clin J Pain. 2018;34(2):182-189.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). National Institutes of Health. Updated: November 2, 2016. Accessed February 7, 2018.
- Simopoulos AP. The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2008;233(6):674-88.