Fighting stress with Omega-3
By: Dr. Maille Devlin, ND
When humans come in contact with a stressful situation or even thought, the body mounts a systemic ‘stress response’. This stress response starts with the release of adrenaline which causes the heart to race, breathing rate increases and blood starts to flow to vital organs. Within the body, nutrients such as fats and glucose are accessible in the blood for quick use. The body is now primed to run away from danger and react to an emergency situation. This response however, is short lived. As the adrenaline decrease in the blood, another hormone, cortisol, comes to help out. Cortisol continues to make fats and sugars available in the bloodstream for the body to use and prolongs the stress response.
This adaptive stress response is lifesaving if someone is in a dangerous situation-the body is alert and ready for action. However, if chronically put in this fight or flight state, several health conditions arise. Increased risk for cardiovascular disease occurs due to damage of blood vessels, glucose and fatty acids in the blood for a prolonged period of time can increase risk for diabetes, obesity and restrict growth of muscle tissue.1
So, what can omega-3 fatty acids do to help relieve the health implications of chronic stress?
First, we have to understand that the hormone cortisol impacts the immune response. With a prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels, the inflammatory response in the body becomes dysregulated.2 Those who have continued exposure to high cortisol levels often have high levels of inflammatory markers in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids on the other hand are anti-inflammatory therefore, creating the opposite reaction, helping regulate this response.2
Figure : How stress contributes to inflammation. Image taken from Psychology Today article Stress, Inflammation, and Microbes: A Moody Trinity. Scott Anderson.
Let’s look at some clinical trials putting this concept to the test.
The first study is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, which investigated effects of omega-3 fatty acids on the stress response.3 In the study, 60 healthy men between the ages of 30-60 years were split into two groups. One received 300mg of omega-3 fatty acids coated in phosphatidylserine, the other group took a placebo capsule with olive oil for 12 weeks.3
Outcome measures used: Trier Inventory for Chronic Stress which measured perceived chronic stress and the Trier Social Stress Test which looked at the acute biological stress response in a lab.3
The study found that after accounting for chronic stress level of the subjects, the omega-3 group had stress-reducing effects on the highly chronically stressed participants. The omega administration regulated the cortisol response.3
The authors concluded that groups of people with high chronic stress and a dysfunctional stress response may benefit from omega-3 supplementation.3
Note: In the above study, only 300mg of omega-3s were used. Perhaps, if a more potent dose of omega-3s were given to individuals, groups with moderate stress would benefit as well.
The second study looked at the role that both anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids have on inflammation associated with the stress response.3
The study was a placebo-controlled, double-blind 12-week randomized control trial. 68 medical students (38 men and 30 women) between the ages of 21 to 29 years provided blood samples during both lower stress and high stress time periods, such as exam time.4 The group of students were divided to receive either an intervention with 2.5g per day of omega-3 fatty acids (2085 mg eicosapentaenoic acid and 348 mg docosahexanoic acid) or placebo capsules that mirrored the proportions of fatty acids in the typical American diet for 12 weeks.4
The outcome measures were: Interleukin 6 (an inflammatory cytokine) production, anxiety symptoms, and fatty acids analysis.4
Compared to controls, students who received omega-3 supplementation showed a 14% decrease in interleukin 6 production and a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms.4 When the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids were studied in secondary analysis, the authors found that decreased omega-6: omega 3 ratios led to lower anxiety and reductions in stimulated IL-6 and tumor necrosis factor alpha (another marker of inflammation) production.4
The researchers concluded that omega-3 supplementation can reduce inflammation and anxiety even among healthy young adults.4
The above studies demonstrate the use of omega-3 fatty acids to not only control inflammatory markers within the body, which increased with chronic stress, but also as reduction in clinical symptoms of stress and anxiety. These studies therefore further validate the effectiveness of omega-3s for a population under high amounts of stress. The fatty acids were shown to both decrease feelings of stress and decrease risk factors for chronic disease associated with stress.
So, if you’ve been under increased amounts of stress lately, supplementing with a fish oil rich in omega-3s may help attenuate the symptoms and negative health implications of chronic stress on the body. When looking for a fish oil supplement, remember to find a pharmaceutical-grade, triglyceride form of omega-3 fatty acids. Always consult a healthcare provider before starting a new supplement.
- Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin. 2004 Jul;130(4):601.
- Thesing CS, Bot M, Milaneschi Y, Giltay EJ, Penninx BW. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels and dysregulations in biological stress systems. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Nov 1;97:206-15
- Hellhammer, J., Hero, T., Franz, N., Contreras, C., & Schubert, M. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acids administered in phosphatidylserine improved certain aspects of high chronic stress in men. Nutrition research, 32(4), 241-250.
- Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Belury, M. A., Andridge, R., Malarkey, W. B., & Glaser, R. (2011). Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 25(8), 1725-1734.