Painful, hot, swollen, stiff joints….all hallmarks of arthritic and degenerative joints. It’s what we experience when we have them. Until recently, the causes of arthritic joints were often thought to occur because of prior injury, over-use, getting old and obesity. And while these are certainly contributors to arthritis and its pain, more current studies are showing that what we eat may easily play a bigger role than any of them!
A recent study from Duke University was published in The Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases looked at the relationship between obesity and omega 3 fatty acids. Obesity is one of the main risk factors for osteoarthritis, though the exact way that this occurs is not completely understood. It was often assumed that excess weight would simply wear out the joint but in no way does that explain why arthritis found in the hands and other joints that don’t bear weight!
Omega 3 fats are healthy fats found in certain fish, nuts, seeds and plants such as avocado. They’re well known for their heart healthy character but less well known for their anti-inflammatory activity. But it is this very characteristic that made it appealing to research its effect on arthritic joints.
Researchers at Duke University had previously done arthritis studies in efforts to learn what whole body or systemic factors, other than body weight, affected arthritis. In one such study on mice, they learned that they could predict whether the mice had arthritis by the absence of an appetite hormone called leptin. F. Guilak, Phd., the study’s lead author, said, “This made us think that maybe it’s not how much weight you gain, but what you eat!”
In this current study, the researchers studied mice that had arthritic knees that had been caused by injury (which accounts for about 10-15% of all arthritis) some of the mice were of normal weight and some were obese. The mice received one of three high fat diets: one heavy in saturated fats; one with heavy concentrations of omega 6 fats and one which was rich in omega 6 fatty acids AND was supplemented with a small amount of omega 3 fats. Remember, saturated fats are the ones found in meats and animal sources and raise our cholesterol; omega 6 fats are found in corn oil, safflower and soybean oils as well as nuts and seeds. They’re thought to be a healthier type of fat. Lastly, omega 3 fats are found in fish and nuts and seeds with health benefits to the heart, brain and anti-inflammatory properties. Dr. Guilak noted, “A healthy diet would include roughly equal ratios of these fats but we’re way off the scale in the western diet.”
As a matter of fact, instead of the nearly 1:1 ratio noted by Dr. Guilak, the average American diet is between 25:1 and 50:1 in this ratio!
What the researcher unearthed when evaluating their data was startling: arthritis was significantly associated with the mice’s diets but not with body weight. The mice that consumed the saturated fats and omega 6 diets had marked worsening of their arthritis. Remarkably, the mice consuming the omega 3 fats had healthier joints. “In fact, omega 3 fatty acids eliminated the detrimental effects of obesity in the obese mice,” noted Guilak.
Also noted in the study was the effect that omega 3 fatty acids had on wound healing. Mice in studies are often identified using a small ear punch. In the groups with the omega 3 concentrations and supplementation, wound healing was much more rapid than in the groups without omega 3 fats. What was ultimately noted was that regardless of body weight, dietary fats (specifically the omega 3 fats) significantly regulate arthritis and even wound healing!
This is remarkable information as conventional thought about obesity and arthritis is dramatically challenged. Dietary considerations about joint inflammation, limited movement and pain are now requiring much more investigation.
Does this mean we all have to admit, one more time, that Mom was right when she said, “You Are What You Eat”! Dog gone it…we certainly do!