Western-Style Diet With Omega-6s May Increase Pain

Key Takeaways

  • Eating foods that are high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids could increase the risk of chronic pain.
  • Researchers found individuals with diabetic neuropathy pain struggled more with higher amounts of omega-6s in their diet.
  • The issue here is inflammation, which is not only associated with pain but also numerous chronic health issues.

A Western-style diet, sometimes called a standard American diet, is characterized by highly processed, refined foods with high amounts of sugar and salt. This type of diet is also particularly high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, known as PUFAs, which have been shown to raise inflammation levels in the body.

Examples of these foods include high-calorie, low-nutrient options like cookies, hot dogs, sugar-sweetened beverages, deli meat, and potato chips.

Eating a diet high in Western-style options may significantly increase the risk of chronic pain, according to research in Nature Metabolism.

What Was Studied?

To assess the extent of that association, researchers looked at 16 people with type 2 diabetes who had diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage caused by uncontrolled high blood sugar. They had a control group of 12 people without diabetes. Diabetic neuropathy often affects nerves in the legs and feet the most, can be painful and debilitating, and may lead to diabetes-related amputation.

What Did the Study Find?

Participants who had the highest levels of omega-6 fatty acids tended to have the highest pain levels and were more likely to be taking pain medication, researchers found. Although the number of participants was modest, other research on both mice and humans has shown similar results, they concluded.

The Relationship Between Omega-6s and Migraine Pain

Another recent study, published in BMJ, also highlights the potential association between omega-6s and pain—specifically in migraines.

In that study, researchers looked at 182 people diagnosed with frequent migraines and split them into three groups for 16 weeks.

The first group ate a standard U.S. diet with an average amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, while the second group increased its omega-3s and maintained usual omega-6 levels. The third group ate meals that were significantly lower in omega-6s and much higher in omega-3s.

The first group, eating a standard diet, didn’t see much change. In the other two groups, as the omega-3s increased, the incidence of pain went down. The group with the least omega-6s saw the biggest improvement. That finding has been shown in previous research as well, according to Lisa Mosconi, PhD, author of “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.”

Lisa Mosconi, PhD

When we eat, fats are broken down into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and these support our immune system if they’re kept in balance.

— Lisa Mosconi, PhD

Mosconi continues, “When you have too much of omega-6, it creates inflammation and that boosts pain sensitivity.”

That can make you more likely to experience headaches and migraines, and can also make minor headaches worse, she says.

Inflammation and the Western-Style Diet

In the same way that brain tissue can be affected by inflammation, any tissues in the body can be affected when inflammation ramps up, adds Kim Rose-Francis, RD, a dietitian for the meal delivery service Splendid Spoon.

“Inflammation is actually a defense mechanism the body uses to protect itself,” she says. “Unfortunately, when there is excessive or unresolved inflammation present, this may lead to the development of certain conditions that can result in chronic pain.”

As you eat more foods with high levels of omega-6s, that ongoing inflammatory response can get worse, she adds. Foods considered part of the Western-style diet includes:

  • Highly processed foods, including refined grains
  • Fried foods, especially in seed oils like corn, canola, soybean, and cottonseed
  • Processed meat like bacon, hot dogs, and deli meat
  • Sugary treats, including candy and baked goods

This combination of foods has been linked to issues ranging from metabolic syndrome to asthma, inflammatory bowel diseases, and impaired immune system function, according to a study in Frontiers in Immunology.

How to Balance Omegas in Your Diet

Just because foods contain omega-6s doesn’t mean they should be avoided completely, Rose-Francis emphasizes. Instead, it’s better to add more foods rich in omega-3s to the diet to make sure the ratio of omega fatty acids is balanced. Those include:

  • Fatty fish like salmon, herring, and mackerel
  • Flax, hemp, and chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Dark chocolate

Rose-Francis, RD

Simply knowing which foods contain omega-3s will be sure to set you on the right track. For example, eating fatty fish twice a week can be very beneficial for getting more balance.

— Rose-Francis, RD

If you have chronic pain, it’s also helpful to focus on several other ways to lower inflammation, she adds. In addition to loading up on omega-3s and cutting back on inflammatory foods, you may find relief by managing stress, focusing on sleep quality, and increasing physical activity, all of which have been associated with reducing inflammation.

What This Means For You

High levels of omega-6 fatty acids in your diet could raise your risk of chronic pain, but there are some simple strategies, like eating more foods with omega-3s, that can help.

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