Why Omega 3s Are Important for Autoimmune And InflammationJan 26, 2023
There’s a lot of talk about healthy fats these days, especially when you consider that those with autoimmune are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease than those who do not have autoimmune.
People are including more fat in their diets and forgetting about the fat-free diet crazes of the past, but are you adding the right type of healthy fats and in the right quantity?
In this article, you will learn:
- What are the difference between the Omega 3, 6 and 9?
- Which are best for autoimmune disease symptoms like pain, inflammation, skin and brain health
- Why Omega 3s are so important for autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus and other rheumatic and IBD conditions
- Considerations for heart health and cardiovascular disease (those with autoimmune are at higher risk)
- Why Omega 3s are one of my top autoimmune natural supplement recommendations
What’s the difference between Omega 3, 6 and 9?
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids (EFA’s). The body is capable of producing some fatty acids on its own, like Omega-9 (meaning you don’t need to get them from food). But the fatty acids the body can’t create on its own must be obtained from food, and therefore, are considered essential.
Both Omega 3 and 6 fats are needed for good health, but most diets contain an abundance of omega-6 and not enough omega-3. This skewed ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 is considered a cause of chronic inflammation that can contribute to heart disease and stroke.
This matters for autoimmune when you consider that many have co-conditions that feed into the development of cardiovascular disease, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease. Physical activity, which is one of the top recommended strategies to improve heart health, may be difficult due to joint pain or fatigue. All of this - in combination with the emotional stressors of living with chronic illness and inadequate nutrition - feed into the perfect storm for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death for women.
So, how do you work proactively on your overall health? That’s where Omega 3s can shine.
Most people eat too many Omega 6s and not enough Omega 3s in their weekly diets
A dietary intake ratio of 3x Omega 6s to 1x Omega 3 (3:1) is ideal for keeping inflammation at bay, but it’s estimated that most people have a ratio closer to 20:1! That’s 20 Omega 6s for every 1 Omega 3. That's because in today’s busy, modern world, people rely heavily on convenience or processed foods for daily meals and snacks. This makes sense when you look at food sources for these essential fatty acids.
Omega 6s are found in:
- Plant oils - like safflower, canola, vegetable, corn and soybean (including tofu) - all which are abundant in processed foods Whole foods like walnuts, hemp hearts, sunflower seeds, peanut butter also contain Omega 6s
Omega 9s are found in:
- Plant oils - olives, avocado, sunflower, peanut, soy, corn, nut oils, so there is some crossover with Omega 6.
Omega 3s are found in:
- Fish and shellfish, and in lesser degree in nuts/seeds like flax, chia, walnuts, organ meat and grassfed beef (also crossover with Omega 6s).
A low intake of dietary Omega 3’s means most people are missing out on the major health benefits of this essential fat. The protective qualities of Omega-3’s include:
- Improved immune system function. In fact, Omega 3 deficiencies are common with autoimmune ... either because people lack Omega-3-rich foods in their diet OR they are consuming too many Omega 6/9s in comparison with Omega 3
- Decreased inflammation. Some studies show that fish oil can be as effective as NSAIDs for managing pain/inflammation (outperforms Turmeric)
- Decreased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, and depression
- Improved triglyceride and cholesterol values
- Critical role in human development – the brain and retina contain lots of omega-3 in the form of DHA
What are the best food sources for Omega 3s and your anti-inflammatory meal plan?
There are three types of Omega 3s:
- ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid): is a precursor to EPA and DHA, found primarily in plant foods.
- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid): think skin (internal skin such as arteries) and external skin, found primarily in fish.
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid): especially high in the eyes, brain, and sperm cells, and play an important role in many bodily functions, found primarily in fish.
The best sources of ALA are vegetarian sources and these include flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. Canola and soybean oil are also good sources of ALA, BUT these oils aren’t the healthiest options since they quickly oxidize and turn rancid, which promotes inflammation and cancels out any beneficial effects of the omega-3s they contain.
Something else to consider (and one of the reasons why I don't advocate for vegetarianism for autoimmune), ALA needs to be converted into EPA or DHA by the body for it to be utilized. This process is pretty inefficient, with estimates of 1-20% of the ALA we consume being converted into a usable form.
Although it would be hard to meet all your omega-3 needs only with sources of ALA, flax, chia, and walnuts are still considered healthy fats with lots of other good-for-you vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
The best sources of EPA and DHA are found in fish because it is in a ready-to-use form. It’s recommended that most people obtain their omega-3’s from fatty cold water fish, like salmon, tuna, herring, and sardines. And here’s a fun fact … Did you know fish don’t actually produce the omega-3s they contain? Instead, algae makes EPA/DHA and fish accumulate the fat from the algae they eat. Cool fat fact!
How much Omega Fats should we be eating? Do I have to eat fish or take fish oil?
While there are no official recommendations for daily omega-3 intake, it’s thought most healthy people can meet their basic omega-3 needs by consuming fish 2x/week, so this is something for you to consider for your family. When following an autoimmune nutritional template, the recommendations are 4 to 6 servings of fish/seafood weekly for optimum nutrition.
To avoid taking in too much mercury, a toxic heavy metal in fish, you should alternate the types of fish you eat and limit varieties known to be high in mercury. The larger the fish, the higher the mercury content. That said, the selenium content in fish is typically higher than than the mercury content if you're eating smaller fish. Selenium naturally binds to mercury. AND we need selenium (found readily in seafood) for optimal immune and thyroid health.
If you choose not to consume fish because of mercury or other concerns, it’s best to supplement with fish oil or, if you’re vegan - try algae oil. Third party tested fish and algae oils don’t contain mercury as a result of processing. It’s generally considered safe to consume up to 3 - 6g of fish oil per day.
If you include a high quality fish oil supplement and a variety of sources of healthy fats in your diet, you don’t have to worry about counting omega-3s. In fact, fish oil (cod liver or other forms) is one of my #1 recommended supplements for many autoimmune disease symptoms, especially those with rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's colitis, and more. It includes additional vitamin D and A. I find that many of my clients don't like fish or seafood OR they aren't able to consume enough to help bring their ratios back into balance, so this fills the gap.
For this reason, a fish oil supplement can help quickly address the deficiency. Some cautions: while i’m a nutritionist, I’m not your nutritionist, so be mindful of these considerations:
- Fish oil is contraindicated with blood thinning medication. If you’re currently taking blood thinners or have surgery scheduled, you should check with a healthcare provider before supplementing. In this case, whole foods will be best.
- While most studies support the use of fish oil (in particular EPA) to lower triglycerides for heart health, some studies out of Europe are saying it can contribute to atrial fibrillation.
- Not all fish supplements are created equal. Make sure yours is third-party tested for toxins and purity. You can search IFOS certifications (International Fish Oil Standards) to check the purity of your favorite brand.: https://certifications.nutrasource.ca/certified-products?type=certification&value=IFOS
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