If people at risk of rheumatoid arthritis consume more omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and fish-oil supplements, they can probably decrease their chance of developing the disease, according to research published in Rheumatology.

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Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain, damage and, ultimately, disability.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “RA causes premature death, disability and a lower quality of life in the industrialized and developing world.” It can begin at any age, and it causes fatigue and prolonged stiffness after rest.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a systemic inflammatory disease affecting multiple joints in the body. It usually presents in the lining of the joints (synovial membrane) but can impact other organs. A higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) has been observed among patients with RA.

Pain, swelling and redness are common joint symptoms, and as the lining of the joint become inflamed, cartilage and even bone become eroded, sometimes causing joint deformity.

The exact causes are unknown, but it is thought to be due to a faulty immune response, in which the body’s immune system causes inflammation in the tissue that helps joints move. Autoantibodies, or immune proteins, are believed to target the body’s tissues and organs mistakenly.

Family history can help predict whether a person is likely to have the autoantibodies that precede the disease’s development.

There is no cure for RA, but specific exercise techniques can help to manage it. There is also some evidence that dietary factors may help.

Researchers wanted to know if patients with a higher omega-3 intake would have a lower risk for developing RA.

They analyzed self-reported data about omega-3 consumption from 30 people who had autoantibodies for RA and 47 control patients who did not.

Just 6.7% of the patients who had the autoantibodies for RA reported taking an omega-3 supplement, compared with 34.4% in the control group. Blood tests also showed that those with the autoantibodies for RA were “significantly more likely” to have lower levels of three essential omega-3 fatty acids than the control patients.

It seems that two of the crucial omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, may be effective in suppressing a particular protein that regulates the intensity and duration of the immune response.

Principal investigator Jill Norris, PhD, a professor in the department of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, comments:

There was a very substantial difference in the blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids between the people who took omega-3 supplements and those who did not.”

Norris adds that genetics may also play a role in the ultimate effectiveness of omega-3 in individual patients at risk of developing RA.

Fast facts about RA
  • Around 1.5 million Americans have RA, or 0.6% of the population
  • Women are three times more likely to have it than men
  • Prevalence appears to be increasing, particularly among women.

Learn more about RA

This is the first study to find an association between omega-3 and the autoantibodies that lead to RA among patients who are at risk but have yet to develop the disease.

Despite the small number of participants, the results indicate that omega-3 may help protect against RA by preventing its development during the period before symptoms emerge.

Next, researchers hope to track a larger group of patients over a longer period, including those with the RA autoantibody, to see how the disease progresses.

Omega-3 is found in cold-water fish, such as salmon or mackerel, as well as in dietary supplements derived from fish or algae; but food sources alone may not suffice to provide beneficial effects because modern farming practices have lowered the amount of omega-3 in many foods by as much as 40-fold since the 1900s.

The researchers recommend a healthy, balanced diet that includes fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as 1-3 grams of fish oil a day, for those who may be at risk for RA and perhaps other inflammatory diseases, in order to decrease the risk of developing them.

Medical News Today recently reported on a new drug that could help with difficult cases of rheumatoid arthritis.