Many people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) wonder if the benefits of fish oil for their condition are real or just hype. The results of several studies offer positive evidence that fish oil can relieve several symptoms of the inflammatory disease such as stiffness, pain and swelling. Taking fish oil daily can also lower the risk of related health complications such as cardiovascular disease.

Fish oil comes from cold-water fish such as cod, halibut, herring, salmon, tuna, and mackerel. The benefits of fish oil for rheumatoid arthritis are due to their high content of omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), in particular, two fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In an editorial titled Collateral Benefits of Fish Oil Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Journal of Rheumatology, Chak Sing Lau, a professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology and clinical immunology at Hong Kong University, states that dietary supplementation with essential fatty acids has been considered useful for RA treatment.

Dr. Lau points out that the prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis is low in Eskimos, who consume large amounts of oily fish rich in EFAs. These compounds play a role in many biological functions, including inflammatory and immune processes, explains Lau. In a three-year study in the same issue of the journal, researchers investigated the effects of fish oil treatment in patients with rheumatoid arthritis who were using disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs).  

One group of patients took bottled fish oil with juice to reach a daily intake of 4 to 4.5 grams of EPA plus DHA. The second group didn't take any fish oil. Researchers found that the fish oil group had a much higher percentage of patients in remission at three years - 72 percent versus 31 percent in the group that didn't take fish oil. The fish oil patients were also able to reduce or discontinue their use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Patients in the fish oil group also had improvements in their plasma triglycerides, HDL cholesterol and total cholesterol compared to the group that didn't take the supplement. It's well-known that rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. By improving blood lipids such as triglycerides and cholesterol, fish oil offers patients with rheumatoid arthritis increased heart protection.

Although the number of participants in the study was low (73 were recruited only 31 completed the three-year study), Lau explains that the length of the study offsets the low participation. Also, there are many other studies that back up the findings of this study, confirming that fish oil can provide patients with rheumatoid arthritis with relief from symptoms such as inflammation, morning stiffness and pain symptoms.

The benefits of fish oil also include fewer side effects. Many arthritis drugs cause serious adverse reactions such as NSAIDs, which may cause nausea, vomiting, constipation, headaches, kidney failure and liver damage. Most patients tolerate fish oil supplements very well, with only occasional nausea being a drawback.

How Much Fish Oil Do You Need to Treat RA?

You can get fish oil from eating two 3-ounce servings of fish a week. However, the Arthritis Foundation states that it's hard to get the benefits of fish oil for rheumatoid arthritis or a therapeutic dose from food. They recommend taking 2.6 grams of fish oil (1.6 g EPA) twice a day.

To reap even more benefits of fish oil when treating rheumatoid arthritis, try taking it with vitamin E or olive oil as studies show these oils significantly increases the effectiveness of fish oil therapy. For instance, supplementation with 3 grams of fish oil and 9.6 mL of olive oil can reduce RA-related fatigue, increase handgrip strength, and make it easier for patients with RA to bend over or get in and out of a car.

Study Reference

Journal: The Journal of Rheumatology, Vol. 33 No. 10, p. 1973

Study Date: October 2006

Study Name: Reduction of Cardiovascular Risk Factors with Longterm Fish Oil Treatment in Early Rheumatoid Arthritis


Authors: Leslie G. Cleland, Gillian E. Caughey, Michael J. James and Susanna M. Proudman

Journal: The International Journal of Applied and Basic Nutrition, Volume 21, Issue 2, Pages 131-136

Study Date: February 2005

Study Name: Supplementation of fish oil and olive oil in patients with rheumatoid arthritis


Authors: Alair Alfredo Berbert, Cacilda Rosa Mitiko Kondo, Cecília Lisete Almendra, Tiemi Matsuo, Isaias Dichi