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Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Reduce, Prevent Osteoarthritis


Did you know guinea pigs naturally develop osteoarthritis? This turns out to be a fortunate situation for people, as a new study showed omega-3 fatty acids fed to guinea pigs reduced their disease by 50 percent, suggesting it may reduce or even prevent the disease in humans.

Omega-3 comes from fish oil and flax seed

Researchers at the University of Bristol fed a standard diet or an omega-3 diet from 10 to 30 weeks to groups of disease-prone or disease-resistant animals. Cartilage parameters were evaluated in all the guinea pigs.

Omega-3 reduced osteoarthritis in the disease-prone guinea pigs, based on the changes seen in cartilage parameters, by 50 percent compared to a standard diet. According to Dr. John Tarlton, from the Matrix Biology Research group at the University’s School of Veterinary Sciences, “there was strong evidence that omega-3 influences the biochemistry of the disease, and therefore not only helps prevent disease, but also slows its progression, potentially controlling established osteoarthritis.”

Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative arthritis, develops when there is a breakdown and loss of the cartilage of one or more joints. Cartilage is a protein substance that acts as a cushion between the bones of joints. When it wears away, the bone ends thicken, resulting in painful, stiff joints.

Approximately 27 million people in the United States and 8 million in the United Kingdom are affected by osteoarthritis. The World Health Organization estimates that the disease affects 9.6% of men and 18% of women ages 60 and older, and that the condition will be the fourth leading cause of disability by 2020.

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Tarlton explained that while the only way to be certain that omega-3 can work in humans as it did in guinea pigs is to apply the fatty acid to people, “osteoarthritis in guinea pigs is perhaps the most appropriate model for spontaneous, naturally occurring osteoarthritis, and all of the evidence supports the use of omega-3 in human disease.”

While fish oil is the most commonly used omega-3 supplements, Tarlton noted that flax seed oil is a viable alternative for vegetarians. Since most diets lack a sufficient amount of omega-3 while containing excessive omega-6, “taking omega-3 will help redress this imbalance and may positively contribute to a range of other health problems such as heart disease and colitis,” he said.

Omega-3 has been studied for relief of various conditions, ranging from depression to heart disease, macular degeneration, and obesity. A study from University of London, Harvard Medical School, and Queen Mary found a reason why the fatty acid may help people with another type of arthritis—rheumatoid arthritis—when they announced that the body converts the omega-3 fatty acid DHA into a chemical that results in an anti-inflammatory response.

For now, further studies are necessary to determine the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on osteoarthritis in both guinea pigs and humans.

Koelling S, Miosge N. Arthritis & Rheumatism 2010 Apr; 62(4): 1077-87
University of Bristol news release

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons