Omega-3s are popular supplements in our culture as they have beneficial anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce chronic inflammation. When reducing chronic inflammation, chronic pain induced by this inflammation subsides. To understand omega-3’s role better, let's understand what exactly it is.
Omegas are fatty acids consumed from our diet or made within our bodies. Fat in our diets has a bad reputation, as many people associate being overweight with eating fat-filled foods. Fats are essential in our bodies and are one of the three macronutrients our body needs to function, alongside carbohydrates and protein. Functions of fat in our body include:
Providing our bodies with energy
Insulation for temperature management
Cushion for our internal organs
Facilitating fat-soluble vitamin absorption (Vitamin A, D, E and K)
Form cell membrane structures
Help proteins function
Maintain healthy skin
Promote inflammatory and anti-inflammatory functions
Regulate blood clotting factors
Different Types of Fats
Saturated fats are considered to be “bad fats.” These types get a bad label but mainly because they are mostly solid at room temperature. Saturated fats have longer shelf life than unsaturated fats as they are straight molecules packed tightly together. These fats need more energy for our bodies to
break down, and they increase our low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). These proteins transport cholesterol throughout our blood vessels and deposit it into our tissues. If enough LDLs accumulate in our blood vessels, the cholesterol can build up on the vessel walls and become plaque. This plaque increases our risk of coronary artery disease, strokes and heart attacks. Examples of saturated fats are:
Whole-milk dairy products
Unsaturated fats are considered to be “good fats.” These fat molecules have single (monounsaturated) or multiple (polyunsaturated) double bonds throughout, and they are kinked, making them not pack easily or straight. These molecules are easier for the body to break down. These fats are liquid at room temperature and help increase our high-density lipoproteins, which lower the total cholesterol circulating in our blood by returning excess cholesterol to our liver.
Olives/ Olive oil
The more kinked the shape of fatty acid, the quicker it becomes spoiled. To increase the shelf life of polyunsaturated fat oils, manufacturers perform a process called “hydrogenation,” which adds more hydrogen to the fat, which can manipulate the molecule from its natural form, creating synthetic trans fats. Trans fats can increase your LDL and cholesterol more than saturated fat, putting you at a higher risk for vascular disease and other illness.
Are All Good and Bad Fats, Good and Bad?
When referring to examples of good and bad fats, this can be a gross generalization. In general, unsaturated fats help decrease vascular diseases, but as we see, vegetable seed oils are polyunsaturated fats, like cottonseed and canola oil. Although these seed oils can have some beneficial properties, they also have non-beneficial properties because they are highly processed and over-consumed with low nutritional value and can increase inflammation. Ideally limiting your seed oil intake (canola, grape seed, sunflower seed, cottonseed, corn, vegetable oils) will be more beneficial for overall health and inflammation.
The Essential Fatty Acids: Omega-3 & Omega-6
Omega-3 and omega-6 are polyunsaturated essential fatty acids. Our bodies do not synthesize essential fatty acids, so we must obtain them through our diet. Both omega-3 and omega-6 have specific roles in our body’s inflammatory response.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids comprise synthesizing other fatty acids, forming cell
membranes and signalling pro-inflammatory mediators in our tissues. Our inflammatory response is a vital part of our body’s defence against insults and diseases, and omega-6 fatty acids help signal molecules participating in the inflammatory response. Two main omega-6 fatty acids are:
Linoleic acid (LA)
Arachidonic Acid (ARA)
LA converts to ARA. ARA converts further to inflammatory mediators called Eicosanoids. Eicosanoid mediators are:
Eicosanoids converted from ARA are responsible for inflammatory symptoms like pain and blood clotting.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in the anti-inflammatory response as it responds to the pro-inflammation response by balancing it out. When the inflammatory mediators have done their job, omega-3 fatty acids help stop the inflammatory process and allow the mediators to leave the tissues.
The three primary omega-3 fatty acids that we consume in our diets are:
Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA),
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
EPA & DHA sources:
Fatty fish- salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovy, sardines, herring
Marine algae-fortified foods
ALA: vegan and vegetarian sources:
ALA is eventually converted to EPA, followed by DHA. However, only 5- 5% of consumed ALA converts to EPA and DHA, so it takes a lot more ALA consumption to see the anti-inflammatory benefits from direct EPA and DHA sources of fish or fish oil supplements.
The Balancing Act of Omega-3 & Omega-6
In North America, the average diet consumes much more omega-6-rich foods than omega-3s. Vegetable seed oils are rich in omega-6 and are used heavily in food manufacturing and restaurants. These oils are highly processed to manipulate their shelf life to make food products last longer and are usually used in bulk because they are more affordable. Although we need omega-6 fatty acids, the average ratio to omega-3 fatty acids is quite unbalanced at an average ratio of 20:1. Ideally, the consumption should be equal between omega-3 & omega-6 for our bodies to benefit from their essential roles. As omega-6 outweighs omega-3 in the average diet, our inflammatory response is in overdrive, and there is not enough omega-3 to settle the inflammation. This inflammation can remain chronic in our bodies, producing chronic pain and discomfort.
Menstrual Pain Induced by Inflammation
One specific process that breetheclub endorses is omega-3 supplementation for primary dysmenorrhea pain, more commonly known as painful menstrual cramping. During menstruation, prostaglandins cause pain when contracting the uterine muscles to shed the uterus lining. If a woman is outweighed by omega-6 to her omega-3s, the prostaglandins are more abundant in the uterine tissue and contract stronger and longer. Since the anti-inflammatory mediators are not as available to help balance out the prostaglandins, women can experience much more intense cramping compared to if they had an equal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Can Omega-3 Consumption Help Reduce Period Pain?
One study in 2012 in the International Journal of Gynecological Obstetrics compared women taking omega-3 supplements daily to women taking a placebo over three months. They examined if their menstrual cramping pain decreased with the omega-3 control group. The trial concluded that women taking the daily omega-3s had a decrease in the amount of ibuprofen they needed for their menstrual cramping than before the study when they weren't taking omega-3s. So in this specific study, YES! Omega-3s did help these women's menstrual cramping subside!
NSAIDs Versus Omega-3s
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs use is for muscle and joint pain relief. These drugs block inflammatory mediators like prostaglandins, decreasing inflammation and pain. Using the above mentioned study, Omega-3s have also proven to do this.
A significant difference between NSAIDS and omega-3 is that much more milligrams of omega-3 supplements need to be taken compared to NSAIDs. An average of 2000mg of EPA/DHA supplements should be consumed daily to see anti-inflammatory effects, compared to 400mg Ibuprophen which may help subside inflammatory pain.
That said, omega-3s are a more natural way to decrease inflammation, especially if you receive them from your diet. Choosing omega-3s can help avoid side effects of NSAIDS like:
Increased risk of ulcers
*NSAIDs and Omega-3s can thin someone’s blood by blocking blood clotting in the inflammatory process. If you have any health history, speaking to your healthcare provider before taking NSAIDs or Omega-3s is important to determine if either is right for you.
Incorporating rich omega-3 foods into your diet is a great way to counteract inflammation naturally, but taking quality omega-3 supplements can be just as beneficial! When it comes to EPA and DHA, breetheclub finds the CanPrev Omega brand & Genuine Health's Omegas to be high quality and a good source of EPA & DHA.
Written By: Lauren O'Malley, RN Edited By: Bree Lowry, BKin
*This blog provides general information and discussions about health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, website or any linked materials are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.*