Confucius allegedly once said, “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.” Sure, he was referring to a larger life lesson about education and growth, but he may also (perhaps unknowingly) have been helping people with arthritis. The reason is that fish, particularly cold-water fish, contains lots of omega-3 fatty acids, which are “healthy” fats that have been well-documented for their anti-inflammatory effects and association with a lower risk of heart disease. This is why the American Heart Association recommends a weekly helping of fish. As for arthritis patients, more fish could mean less arthritic pain and swelling.
However, the reality is many of us don’t eat enough fish in our diets. Thankfully, we don’t have to miss out on those health benefits even if we less surf than turf — thanks to fish oil supplements, that is. In this article, we’ll discuss the use of fish oil for arthritis and the other benefits of the supplement.
What is Fish Oil?
Fish oil is exactly what it sounds like: oil extracted from the body of a fish. It comes from fatty cold-water fish with oily skin, like salmon, trout and mackerel. Fish oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered essential nutrients our bodies can’t produce. Therefore, it’s extra important to get them from our diet by eating foods high in omega 3s (like fish and olive oil) or through supplements, like fish oil. In fact, about 30% of fish oil is composed of omega-3s — and it’s those specific fatty acids that make it beneficial for people with arthritis.
How Can Fish Oil Improve Arthritis Symptoms?
Fish oil contains high levels of two powerful omega-3 fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Both DHA and EPA reduce swelling and pain in the joints. For those of you with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), taking fish oil could be particularly beneficial — patients with mild forms of RA that took fish oil daily for eight weeks were able to cut out non-steroidal anti-inflammatories completely from their medication regimen. Plus, even the number of tender joints on the body were reduced. This means that taking fish oil could help manage rheumatoid arthritis by reducing the amount of painkillers needed, whisking away morning joint stiffness and kicking pain and inflammation out of the joints before it even gets there.
Fish oil might also be beneficial for osteoarthritis, but there hasn’t yet been enough research to show a proven connection between the supplement and the benefits.
How Do You Take Fish Oil?
Don’t worry — if you want to take fish oil, you don’t have to do anything outrageous like eating mountains of fish skin. You also don’t need a prescription for the supplement. There are various ways you can get more fish oil in your diet:
- Fish: You can simply eat more fish instead of a supplement. Make sure they’re cold-water oily types like tuna, salmon, sardines, cod, herring, or mackerel. Try two three-ounce servings of broiled or baked fish per week.
- Capsules: Fish oil supplements in their various forms are a more efficient way to get the oil into your body. The recommended dosage is 2 to 3 grams twice daily.
- Liquid: Liquid fish oil comes in a dropper or pump so it’s easy to administer. Take it with food.
- Chewable Tablets: Heads up with this one, fish oil tablets both taste and smell quite strongly of fish. Just be prepared.
- Softgels: For any fish oil supplement, look for 30% EPA/DHA.
Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t monitor fish oil supplements — so be sure to read the label carefully of anything you plan to take. Also, make sure that you aren’t getting fish liver oils. They have benefits of their own but can lead to Vitamin A toxicity and pregnancy complications if you take the recommended dose for plain fish oil.
What Else Does Fish Oil Help?
There’s a reason people have long touted the benefits of fish oil supplements. It’s not just for arthritis. The anti-inflammatory properties and omega-3s may also help ease symptoms of depression, high blood pressure, lupus, Raynaud’s, diabetes, and heart disease. Plus, people who take fish oil regularly are less at risk for heart attacks.
What Are the Side Effects of Fish Oil?
Everybody’s body reacts a different way to supplements or additions to your diet. Some of the side effects you could possibly have when taking fish oil include:
- Excess gas
- Bad breath
- Mercury poisoning (if the dose is far too large)
- Fishy aftertaste
- Blood clotting problems (if you’re taking anticoagulants)
If you take fish oil right before eating, you have a better chance of avoiding any of the unpleasant side effects.
What if I Don’t Eat Fish?
Not to worry — if you don’t eat fish because of allergies or dietary preferences, you can still get the benefits of fish oil’s omega-3s. Try walnuts, eggs, kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, or flax — or any other food that helps fight inflammation. Just know that the concentration of DHA and EPA isn’t as strong in these as it is in actual fish oil.
Regardless of how you get it, be sure to talk to your doctor or arthritis relief specialist before starting a fish oil regimen, especially if you’re taking other medications or have severe arthritis, which might not respond to fish oil.