In an article published this month in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, researchers at Ohio State University report that supplemental omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil) lower anxiety as well as reduce the stress-associated increase in pro-inflammatory molecules known as cytokines.
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues divided 68 first and second year medical students (who experience significant levels of stress) to receive omega-3 fatty acids or a placebo. “The supplement was probably about four or five times the amount of fish oil you’d get from a daily serving of salmon, for example,” noted study coauthor and professor of human nutrition Martha Belury.
Blood samples were drawn at six time points over the course of the trial, and the participants were surveyed in order to determine levels of anxiety, depression or stress. Those who received omega-3 had a 20 percent reduction in anxiety compared to those who received the placebo, as well as lower amounts of pro-inflammatory cytokines. “We took measurements of the cytokines in the blood serum, as well as measured the productivity of cells that produced two important cytokines, interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFa),” explained Ohio State professor of molecular virology, immunology & medical genetics Ron Glaser, PhD. “We saw a 14 percent reduction in the amounts of IL-6 among the students receiving the omega-3.”
"Anything we can do to reduce cytokines is a big plus in dealing with the overall health of people at risk for many diseases,” he added.
The study's results suggest that other human populations, such as the elderly and those at risk of specific diseases, could also benefit from the reduction in inflammation and stress that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation provides. While the researchers hesitated to recommend the use of omega-3 fatty acid capsules among the general public, some members of the team acknowledged that they personally use them.
Anxiety can occur independently or in conjunction with other psychiatric or medical conditions, such as depression, phobias, chronic fatigue, cardiac disease, or respiratory compromise. Moreover, chronic anxiety is associated with a higher risk of morbidity and mortality from cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases, such as hypertension, cardiac ischemia, and arrhythmias, and it predisposes people to a range of other disorders (Muller JE et al 2005; Weissman MM et al 1990; Coryell W 1986, 1988).
The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are necessary for proper brain function. In the typical Western diet, people often suffer from an increased ratio of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. It has been established that this imbalance can lead to a number of negative health problems.
Fortunately, the imbalance can be addressed easily by supplementing with EPA and DHA, which have been shown to have mood stabilizing effects and possibly other neuropsychiatric effects. In one multipart study that relied on both human student volunteers and animals, DHA was shown to reduce aggression and anxiety in both stressful and nonstressful settings (Hamazaki T et al 1999). Another human study showed that a mixture of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can reduce test-taking anxiety among students (Yehuda S et al 2005).
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