The Role of Omega-3s in the Stress Response
It is no secret that the last 2+ years has created increased levels of stress and anxiety for nearly everyone. In fact, the American Psychology Association created a monthly analysis of stress levels for American’s based on the COIVD-19 pandemic and the numbers show that nearly 7/10 Americans say the government’s response to the pandemic has increased their stress levels with the same percentage (70%) admitting the economy is a significant source of stress.1 Parents are also under increased stress with distanced education and online learning causing increased stress levels in 1 in 7 parents.1
Fear and anxiety about COVID-19 and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. On top of this, public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety. So, it’s safe to say, the world is stressed, what does this mean for our health?
An overview of the stress response
The stress response begins in the brain, an area called the amygdala which is in charge of emotional processing. When there is perceived danger or stress, the amygdala, sends a signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus which acts as a control center, then begins to communicate with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system or ANS. The ANS is in charge of involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of blood vessels and bronchiole in the lungs.
The two main arms of the ANS are the Sympathetic (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). You may have heard of a ‘fight or flight’ response, this is the SNS whereas the PSNS in charge of rest and digest functions.
So far, the amygdala has sent the stress signal to the hypothalamus, which activated our SNS- the GO response. Now, through this SNS response, the adrenal glands are activated and begin to release epinephrine (adrenaline). This hormonal response creates the physiological changes we feel when in a stressful situation. The heart beats faster than normal, we breath faster and there are not as obvious changes for example pupil dilation, and increased sensitivity to sound.
This increase in adrenaline triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body so that they are available in the blood for our body to use (say to run away from a bear in the forest).
But this response is short lived and as the hormone adrenaline starts to decrease in the blood – our body has a backup. This back up is called the HPA axis. HPA represents the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. If the stress response is still present after the adrenaline response is over, a hormone called corticotropin release hormone (CRH) is released from the hypothalamus. This hormone activates the pituitary gland in the brain which then releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone goes all the way to the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. When ATCH gets to the adrenal glands it signals the release of a hormone called cortisol. See image on the right, taken from A Tilted Axis: Maladaptive Inflammation and HPA Axis Dysfunction Contribute to Consequences of TBI, 2019.5
You may have heard of cortisol. Cortisol is a type of steroid hormone which continues to make fatty acids and glucose available in the blood stream for the nervous system by not allowing its uptake into cells as well as releasing it from storage. Cortisol is anti-inflammatory (think of steroid cortisol creams given for some skin conditions or infections.)
With chronic stimulation of this stress system our health is severely impacted.
Constant activation of the first pathway cause spikes in adrenaline can damage blood vessels which increases risk for CVD and stroke. Also, the metabolic actions of cortisol over time lead to elevated blood sugar levels, increasing risk for diabetes, weight gain, and break down of muscle through a process called proteolysis.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels decrease the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory and immune response by decreasing tissue sensitivity to cortisol. This leads to inflammation and decreased immune capacity.2
While this SNS response is taking place in the body- blood is taken away from non-essential processes such as digestion, higher order thinking and reproduction. Evolutionarily this response was very useful, say if you come in contact with a tiger out bodies are alert and active and stores of nutrients are readily available. However, when thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic or a work deadline, or your child’s virtual education, these physiological processes are anything but helpful!
So, how can omega-3s help with this response?
High stress, low omega-3.
Individuals with higher levels of stress often exhibit increased inflammatory markers, higher cortisol, and increased heart rate. In a study which looked at these 3 factors, authors found that omega-3 fatty acids were significantly negatively correlated with all 3 measurements.3 They concluded that having “various indicators of dysregulation in stress systems was significantly associated with lower n-3 PUFA and DHA plasma levels.” They then stated that “If low [omega- fatty acid] levels are the cause of dysregulated stress systems, then supplementation might reduce biological stress and thereby improve somatic and mental health.”3
Omega-3s may reduce cortisol levels proinflammatory cytokines and stress levels.
In another study that looked at stress and anxiety levels, medical students provided blood samples during lower-stress periods as well as on days before an exam. The students were given either 2.5 g per day of omega-3 fatty acids (2085 mg eicosapentaenoic acid and 348 mg docosahexanoic acid) or placebo capsules.4
Students who received the omega-3s showed a 14% decrease in lipopolysaccharide stimulated interleukin 6 (a type of inflammatory cytokine) production and a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms. Authors concluded that “Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can reduce inflammation and anxiety even among healthy young adults.”4
So, although we may not be able to control the environment around us or what’s happening on a global scale, we may be able to attenuate our body’s response to the high stress levels collectively accumulating during 2020. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is another tool to add to a well-balanced- healthy, active lifestyle in fighting the negative health implications of a high-stress environment.