Omega 3 Demonstrates Surprising Benefits in Study

Kate H. Gamble
Published Online: Friday, July 15, 2011
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A study gauging the impact of consuming more fish oil demonstrated a marked reduction both in inflammation and anxiety among a cohort of healthy young individuals.

The findings, which are published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, suggest that if young patients can experience such improvements from specific dietary supplements, then the elderly and those who are at high risk for certain diseases might benefit even more.

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), have long been considered as positive additives to the diet. Previous research suggested that the compounds might play a role in reducing the level of cytokines in the body, compounds that promote inflammation and perhaps even reduce depression.

Psychological stress has repeatedly been shown to increase cytokine production, leading the investigators to question whether increasing omega-3 might mitigate that process, reducing inflammation.

In the study, 68 first- and second-year medical students that were randomly divided into 6 groups submitted blood samples, completed a battery of psychological surveys intended to gauge their levels of stress, anxiety, or depression, and completed questionnaires about their diets during the previous weeks. Half the students received omega-3 supplements while the other half were given placebo pills.

“The supplement was probably about 4 or 5 times the amount of fish oil you’d get from a daily serving of salmon, for example,” said Martha Belury, professor of human nutrition and co-author in the study, in a statement.

Part of the study, however, didn’t go as planned. Changes in the medical curriculum meant that tests were spread out over a longer period of time, which removed much of the stress that students had shown in past studies.

“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,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

The psychological survey did show an important change in anxiety among the students, however, as those receiving the omega-3 demonstrated a 20% reduction in anxiety compared to the placebo group.

An analysis of the of the blood samples from the medical students showed similar important results.

“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),” said Ron Glaser, professor of molecular virology, immunology & medical genetics and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

“We saw a 14% reduction in the amounts of IL-6 among the students receiving the omega-3,” he noted, adding that 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.”

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