Can you eat your way out of pain?
January 9, 2008
There’s good evidence that certain types of chronic pain may be helped by consuming foods or supplements that are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Omega-3s, commonly called “fish oil” because of their primary source, have been shown to lessen the intensity of joint pain and stiffness in rheumatoid arthritis and neck and back pain, as well as pain caused by inflammatory bowel disease and menstrual cramps.
Omega-3 fatty acids lower inflammation within the body, which helps reduce conditions such as heart disease. The same mechanism may be at work in lowering pain.
Recent statistics indicate that nearly 99% of people in the United States do not eat enough omega 3 fatty acids. However, the symptoms of omega 3 fatty acid deficiency are very vague, and can often be attributed to some other health conditions or nutrient deficiencies.
Symptoms to look for include fatigue, dry and/or itchy skin, brittle hair and nails, constipation, frequent colds, depression, poor concentration, lack of physical endurance, and/or joint pain.
The highest levels of omega-3s in food are found in fatty fish such as mackerel, Atlantic or sockeye salmon, lake trout, herring, sardines and canned light tuna. Two 3.5-ounce portions weekly can help lower inflammation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Other excellent sources are flax seeds, walnuts, cauliflower, cabbage, tofu, kale, collards and Brussels sprouts.
If you feel you’re not getting enough through the foods you eat, supplements can also help. Research subjects with chronic pain who took 1,200 to 2,400 milligrams of omega-3 in supplement form daily were able to reduce or eliminate their use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, in less than three months. Those medications, such as ibuprofen, can cause troublesome and sometimes dangerous side effects, especially with long-term use. Fish oil, even in supplement form, appears to be safer.
Check with your health care provider if you are taking blood thinners or high doses of aspirin before taking omega-3 supplements. (It’s wise to talk with your health care provider before starting any vitamin or supplement regimen, especially if you have a chronic condition, such as high blood pressure, or take medication regularly.)
When buying fish oil or omega-3 supplements, read the label carefully. Note how much of the supplement is actually omega-3 fatty acids-it may differ greatly from the size of the capsule. Choose one with high omega-3 content and low (or no) saturated fats or omega-6 fatty acids (which contribute to inflammation). Look for supplements that are molecularly distilled, which removes mercury or PCB toxins. Also, fish oil taken from small, cold-water fish such as anchovies and sardines has the most omega-3 with fewer contaminants than larger fish. Many labels will list the fish source for the supplement.