According to a recent investigation evaluating the impact of consuming more fish oil, omega-3 reduced both anxiety and inflammation among a group of young healthy individuals. The report is published this month in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
The study, backed by the Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS), was carried out by a group of scientists that have spent over 30 years researching connections between immunity and psychological stress.
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and author of the report, explained: “The findings suggest that if young people can get improvements from dietary supplements, than the elderly and people at high risk for certain diseases might benefit even more.
The more we understand about the complex interplay between inflammation and immunity, the closer we’ll get to figuring out which lifestyle choices and changes have the biggest impact on long term health.”
For a long time it’s been believed that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are beneficial to the diet.
Prior investigations indicated that the compounds – that promote inflammation, and maybe reduce depression – may help reduce levels of cytokines in the body.
As studies have repeatedly shown that psychological stress increases the production of cytokines, the investigators were curious to discover whether an increase in omega-3 might diminish that process, reducing inflammation.
In order to test their belief, the researchers enrolled medical students. According to some of their earliest work stress from vital medical school tests lowered student’s immune status.
Kiecolt-Glaser said: “We hypothesized that giving some students omega-3 supplements would decrease their production of proinflammatory cytokines, compared to other students who only received a placebo. We thought the omega-3 would reduce the stress-induced increase in cytokines that normally arose from nervousness over the tests.”
The group enrolled 68 first- and second-year medical students who volunteered to participate. Half of the participants received omega-3 supplements, while the other half received placebo pills. The participants were then randomly split into six groups. During the course of the investigation all groups were interviewed six times. At each visit the researchers took blood samples from the students and asked them to fill out a battery of psychological surveys designed to evaluated their stress, depression or anxiety levels. In addition the students filled out questionnaires regarding their diets during the previous weeks.
Martha Belury, professor of human nutrition and co-author in the study, explained: “The omega-3 supplement the students received was probably about four of five times the amount of fish oil you’d get from a daily serving of salmon.”
However, part of the investigation did not go according to plan because of changes in the medical curriculum and the distribution of important tests throughout the school year, instead of during a tense three-day period as was done previously. This eliminated the majority of the stress that medical students had experienced in prior investigations.
Kiecolt-Glaser said: “These students were not anxious. They weren’t really stressed. They were actually sleeping well throughout this period, so we didn’t get the stress effect we had expected.” Although results from the psychological survey revealed a crucial change in anxiety levels among the participants. Those who received omega-3 had a 20% reduction in anxiety levels compared to participants who received the placebo. An evaluation of participant’s blood samples also revealed similar important results.
Ron Glaser, professor of molecular virology, immunology & medical genetics and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, explained: “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 (TNFα).
We saw a 14 percent reduction in the amounts of IL-6 among the students receiving the omega-3. Since the cytokines foster inflammation, anything we can do to reduce cytokines is a big plus in dealing with the overall health of people at risk for many diseases.”
Although inflammation is a natural immune response that helps heal the body, it can also be harmful and host a range of diseases from heart disease and arthritis to cancer.
Despite results from the investigation indicating that omega-3 supplements reduce inflammation and anxiety as well as some of the researchers stating that they take the supplement, they are not ready to suggest that the public begin taking omega-3 daily.
Belury said: “It may be too early to recommend a broad use of omega-3 supplements, especially considering the cost and the limited supplies of fish needed to supply the oil. People should just consider increasing their omega-3 through their diet.”
Also collaborating on the investigation with Kiecolt-Glaser, Glaser and Belury were William Malarkey, professor emeritus of internal medicine, and Rebecca Andridge, an assistant professor of public health.
As well as funding from the CCTS and the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA), the investigation was also funded in part by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Written by: Grace Rattue