Something “fishy” about chronic inflammation

In the first article in this series we introduced how chronic inflammation can impact our health and function.  Low levels of consistent inflammation in the body have been linked to pain, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.  Research has found that in some cases lowering the chronic inflammation has resulted in decreased severity of those conditions. In this article we will discuss one dietary change you can make to decrease the widespread low levels of inflammation that may be affecting your body and how it functions.  

There are many ideas now about the use of food to treat inflammation within the body.  Anti-inflammatory diets, turmeric, green tea, chili peppers, etc, have all been thought to decrease inflammation. Unfortunately there is not a lot of proven benefit of these products.  Many of the randomly controlled studies done to assess their benefit are inconclusive at this time.

This article will focus on one type of food that has been proven to decrease chronic inflammation, and that is omega 3 fatty acids.   Research studies not only indicate that they decrease chronic inflammation but as a result they decrease pain, lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.  Using omega 3’s to control inflammation is especially effective when done in conjunction with lowering the consumption of omega 6 fatty acids. Both of these fatty acids are essential for our bodies’ function, but omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, where omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory.  Several studies have even shown that omega 3 acids not only prevent future inflammation but also actively address current inflammation. Our western diet is very dominated by omega 6-rich food. Experts typically recommend consuming a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 to no more than 4 to 1, some experts even argue 1 to 1.  A common western diet typically has 30 times as much omega 6 foods as omega 3.

Foods high in Omega 6 fatty acids

  1. Whole-grain breads
  2. Cereals
  3. Wheat
  4. Baked goods, ie foods containing sugar, flour, etc
  5. Corn and corn oil
  6. Corn based sweeteners such as corn syrup
  7. Peanuts and many other nuts
  8. Sunflower oil and most vegetable oils
  9. Meat from animals that were fed corn or wheat products (not grass)

Food high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

  1. Cold water fish including salmon, sardines, halibut, herring.
  2. Chia seeds
  3. Walnuts
  4. Ground flax seeds
  5. Free-range chicken or pork (note grass-fed beef has more omega 3’s than grain fed, but the amount is still a lot less than an equivalent amount of fish).
  6. Brussel sprouts
  7. Cauliflower
  8. Cabbage
  9. Broccoli
  10. Beans such as kidney beans and navy beans have small amounts of omega 3’s, but do have good ratios of omega 6’s to omega 3’s.  

Studies showed a minimum consumption of 3000 mg/day of omega 3’s are needed for anti-inflammatory benefit.  The following table lists amounts of omega 3’s for common foods.

Serving Size Amount (mg) of omega 3
Chia seeds 1 oz 5060
Flaxseeds 1 Tbs 2350
English walnuts 1 oz (about ¼ cup) 2570
Salmon, cooked 3 oz 1800
Canola oil 1 Tbs 1280
Sardines, canned 3 oz 1290
Salmon, canned 3 oz 920
Edamame, frozen ½ cup 280
Brussel sprouts 1 cup 270
Cauliflower 1 cup 210
Tofu 4 oz 660
Shrimp 4 oz 340
Broccoli 1 cup 190


Without getting too complicated, there are 3 types of omega 3 fatty acids.  EPA and DHA are animal based are the best for inflammation, ALA is plant-based and beneficial but not near as effective as EPA and DHA.  The best sources for omega 3 are from salmon, mackerel, and herring. While consuming your omega 3’s from real food is ideal, supplementation can help boost your omega 3 levels when eating that much fish is just not feasible.  There are several things to consider to ensure your omega 3 products are actually providing you with omega 3.

  1. Heat, light, and oxygen destroy omega 3’s, so fish oils are very prone to spoiling.  The fish oil must be cold-pressed in an anti-oxygen environment. They should be stored away from light, but not refrigerated.  It is best to buy smaller quantities more often to minimize spoiling.
  2. Fish oil should NOT smell or taste like fish when you consume it. You should not burp it up.  If there is any sort of fish smell or flavor your supplement has spoiled and the omega 3 acids are not beneficial.  It should smell/taste sweet similar to a light olive oil.
  3. Fish oil should be molecularly distilled to ensure toxins from the oceans or streams are filtered out.  
  4. Flaxseeds need to be ground to be effective.  They can be stored in the freezer to help preserve their value.  But watch out, they can make oatmeal gooey and can cause severe gas.  Start small.
  5. Cooking fish with omega 3’s does not alter its omega 3 content, but cooking with omega 3 oils can.  Consume omega 3 oils uncooked, such as in salad dressings.
  6. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant should consult their physicians before consuming fish products due to the mercury content of fish. This includes both fresh fish and fish oil.  
  7. Increasing your intake of omega 3’s may interact with blood thinning medications (coumadin, warfarin) and blood sugar lowering medication, so please discuss omega 3 consumption with your doctor if you take any of these medications.  

For those of you who may struggle with chronic inflammation, increasing your intake of omega 3’s to 3000 mg per day or more and decreasing your intake of omega 6’s may be a way to decrease your pain, decrease your risk of various health conditions, and be a better version of you.  

Reference:  Taming Pain: Lessons from the Trenches, Cheyrl Wardlaw, 3rd edition, 2016

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