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Does stress deplete omega-3 fatty acids?

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Highlights
  • The increased production of stress hormones depletes omega-3 levels, and having a low omega-3 status may increase the production of stress hormones
  • Supplementation with omega-3s can help reduce the negative effects of stress hormone production on omega-3 status and vice versa
  • Severe life stress reduces antioxidant levels, which can make omega-3s more vulnerable to damage

If asked to identify the things in our lives that irritate or “stress us out”, most of us could come up with a pretty comprehensive list. What helps determine whether these stressors lead us down a path potentially linked to poor mental health, cognitive decline, and chronic disease is how effectively we are able manage them.

Sadly, operating from a “stressed-out state of mind has become part of the norm in American culture. According to the most recent Global State of Emotions report, a whopping 55% of American respondents reported having experienced a significant amount of stress within the last day, compared to the global average of 35%.1 Indeed, roughly 40 million adult Americans are believed to struggle with anxiety every year.2

Because chronic stress is linked to numerous adverse health outcomes, finding effective stress-management strategies and ways to neutralize the ill-effects of stress are of the utmost importance.3,4

In this article, we discuss how chronic stress can increase the production of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and how these changes negatively affect omega-3 status. We also look at how omega-3 fatty acids may influence the fight or flight response—another key player in the body’s response to stress. 

Do people with high levels of stress have lower omega-3 levels?

To analyze the correlation between stress and omega-3 fatty acid levels, researchers have primarily studied individuals with stress-related disorders, such as anxiety and depression.5 However, it stands to reason that the physiological relationship between stress and omega-3 levels in people with stress-related conditions could be reflective of what’s happening in healthy individuals that experience high amounts of perceived stress, such as work or financial stress.6

In a study recently conducted in the Netherlands, researchers examined the omega-3 fatty acids levels and stress biomarkers of over 2,700 people suffering from stress-related conditions.5 They found that lower omega-3 levels were associated with higher levels of cortisol, increased heart rate, and higher levels of acute-phase proteins (proteins that help ramp-up the body’s flight or fight response, and are associated with the body’s inflammatory response).5

Because this was an observational study, whether low omega-3 levels contributed to these adverse biological and psychological changes, or whether poor mood stability led to lower omega-3 levels could not be inferred. However, scientists have suggested that a “vicious cycle” exists, where a low omega-3 status may increase stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline – which in-turn would cause decreases in omega-3s.7

Why might stress lead to reductions in omega-3s?

Human and animal research shows that severe stress caused by life-event triggers such as divorce, loss of a job, sleep deprivation, or social isolation increases oxidative stress (similar to the rusting that happens in pipes from oxidation).6 Oxidative stress can damage many different types of cells and substances in the body, including the omega-3 fatty acids.8 This is particularly concerning for omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is the most prominent fatty acid in the brain, and more susceptible to oxidative stress than certain other fatty acids.

As a result, the cells in the brain that contain higher amounts of DHA are more likely to become damaged.9 Notably, DHA-rich membranes are responsible for cellular communication in the brain, so if the DHA content embedded in the membranes get attacked, serotonin, dopamine, and other critical neurotransmitters involved in mood and brain function could become compromised.9

Increased oxidative stress that occurs outside of the brain can also damage and deplete omega-3 fatty acids.10,11 Adrenaline and cortisol are well-known substances that get released from the adrenal gland during a stressful event. Once adrenaline or cortisol interacts with the body’s fat cells, the omega-3 fatty acids stored within those cells get released into the blood.12 So why is this important?

The benefit of omega-3 fatty acids getting pushed into the blood is that it gives the body the additional energy it needs for fight or flight responses. However, the downside is that omega-3 fatty acids released from the body’s fat stores are more vulnerable to oxidative damage. In other words, by prioritizing its immediate needs for survival over its long-term needs for cellular health, this is the body’s way of saying “I don’t care about damaging and depleting my omega-3s  I need to use them for fuel when I feel threatened!” 

Because higher cortisol output is involved in the release of omega-3s from our fat cells, we will now look at the scientific studies that have analyzed the connection between cortisol levels and omega-3 status. 

Do those with higher cortisol levels have lower omega-3s?

Some studies have shown that individuals with certain stress-related conditions tend to have higher levels of cortisol and lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids.5,13 However, it’s important to note that measuring cortisol levels in scientific studies remains challenging and larger studies are needed to confirm the relationship between cortisol and blood levels of the omega-3s.

Can cortisol be lowered by omega-3 fatty acid supplementation?

While being stressed out tends to cause increases in cortisol concentrations (which may lower omega-3 levels), having a low omega-3 status may also increase cortisol levels.14 This is because a low omega-3 status can lead to increased production of certain proteins known to activate the stress response and increase cortisol production.11,15 Fortunately, some trials have shown that omega-3 supplements may reduce cortisol levels.16,17 Once again, larger repeatable trials are necessary before making any hard conclusions that omega-3 supplements might lower cortisol levels.

Are omega-3 supplements effective for managing stress? 

Omega-3 supplementation has been shown to reduce acute-phase proteins and lower the anxiety scores of healthy medical students who regularly faced stressful exams.18 Another trial showed that fish oil supplementation helped decrease feelings of anxiety in those who experienced a recent heart attack.19 Future research is needed to confirm if omega-3 supplements are effective at reducing stress levels and to identify what it is about omega-3s that appears to provide a calming effect.

Conclusion

According to recent research, Americans report feeling stressed out significantly more than the global average, and this may have implications for our overall health and omega-3 levels. Simply stated, the more stress that you have, the more your omega-3 stores may become depleted. And the more depleted your omega-3 stores become, the more acute-phase proteins your body produces, and the more activated your stress response becomes. Put even more simply; low omega-3 levels can lead to greater stress, which can lead to lower omega-3 levels (and so on, and so forth). Are you getting enough?

Adin Smith, MS is a Science Researcher and Writer for Nordic Naturals. He holds a Masters Degree in Nutrition, and believes that many health conditions are the result of suboptimal nutrient status. For this reason, Adin is committed to informing others about the latest research in nutrition, lifestyle modification, and dietary supplements.

Acute-phase proteins: Serum proteins whose levels increase or decrease in response to inflammation, trauma, stress, and infection; considered a useful marker of inflammation.

Adrenaline: Two substances (norepinephrine and epinephrine) that are released from the adrenal gland during a state of hyperarousal.

Cortisol: A steroid hormone released by the adrenal gland, which is triggered during a state of hyperarousal.

Dopamine: A neurotransmitter that plays a role in reward-motivation behavior, and influences voluntary movement, pleasure, and memory.

Oxidative stress: Cell damage or stress caused by an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body.

Serotonin: A neurotransmitter implicated in regulating mood, appetite, sleep, memory and learning.

Stress biomarkers: Measurable indicators of the body’s physiological response to stress. (e.g., certain inflammatory proteins, hormones, etc.)

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