Columbus, Ohio – Omega-3 supplements are a booming business because of their link to heart health and other benefits. While claims that it can fight cancer, mental illness, and even COVID-19 are still up for debate, a new study finds that taking omega-3 supplements is a great way to stave off the damage caused by stress. Ohio State University researchers say that large doses of omega-3s not only protect against stress-related inflammation, but also slow down cell aging.
The study shows that daily supplements containing 2.5 grams of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids strengthen the body’s defenses against stress. Researchers note that this amount is the highest dose tested and well above what the average American consumes each day.
Compared to a placebo with generic oils, participants who took omega-3 supplements produced less stress hormone cortisol. The researchers also discovered lower levels of a pro-inflammatory protein in their bodies while the group was taking a stress test. While the participants who took a placebo experienced a sharp drop in protectants during this exercise, the omega-3 group did not.
The study’s authors say omega-3 supplements contribute to what they call stress resilience. This is the reduction in harmful damage from stress and the anti-inflammatory effects that protect parts of the cell that are shrinking due to aging. The OSU team adds that omega-3’s impact on aging is particularly surprising given that the study participants were generally sedentary, overweight, and middle-aged. These are all traits that normally put people at high risk for accelerated aging.
“The results suggest that omega-3 supplementation is a relatively simple change people could make that could have a positive impact on breaking the chain between stress and negative health effects,” says lead author Annelise Madison in a university publication.
A link to telomeres?
Madison is a professor of psychiatry and psychology in Janice Kiecolt-Glaser’s laboratory in the state of Ohio. The new report builds on studies showing that omega-3 supplements help preserve small pieces of DNA in white blood cells. Scientists call these strands telomeres and they are one of the key actions in human biological aging.
Telomeres sit like caps at the ends of DNA. As the body ages, these caps get shorter and shorter. Although they do not contain genetic information like the rest of DNA, telomeres play a role in stabilizing these strands. The researchers also find that factors such as illness, particularly heart disease, can accelerate the shortening of these telomeres.
In their previous work, OSU researchers monitored changes in telomere length in white blood cells called lymphocytes. The new study looked at how stress affects a group of biomarkers that include telomerase – an enzyme that rebuilds telomeres. The study’s authors say telomerase is a better target for measuring the effects of stress because enzyme levels react faster than actual DNA caps.
The researchers compared the participants who took 2.5 g or 1.25 g of omega-3 fatty acids or a placebo with various harmless oils. After four months, the group of 138 participants between the ages of 40 and 85 completed a 20-minute language and math test. The test is specifically designed to induce an inflammatory stress response in those who take it off.
The results show that those who took the highest doses of omega-3 had less stress-related harm than the placebo group. Cortisol levels were 19 percent lower in the high omega-3 group and pro-inflammatory protein was 33 percent lower.
How can a dietary supplement slow down the aging process?
Blood tests show that each dose of omega-3 fatty acids changes telomerase levels. The supplements can also alter a protein that reduces inflammation in the two hours following acute stress. In people who took the placebo, the body’s repair mechanisms suffered from stress. Telomerase decreased an average of 24 percent and anti-inflammatory protein decreased by at least 20 percent in these patients.
“One could consider an increase in the potential factors for cortisol and inflammation that would undermine telomere length,” explains Madison. “The assumption, based on previous work, is that telomerase can help rebuild telomere length, and you want enough telomerase to make up for stress-related damage.”
“The fact that our results were dose-dependent and that we see more influence with the higher omega-3 dose would suggest that this supports a causal relationship,” adds the PhD student in clinical psychology.
Researchers believe that by reducing stress-related inflammation, omega-3 may also break the link between stress and depressive symptoms. Previous studies indicate that people who have more inflammation from stress are more likely to experience depression later on.
“Not everyone who is depressed has increased inflammation – around a third. This explains why omega-3 supplementation does not always lead to a reduction in depressive symptoms, ”concludes Kiecolt-Glaser. “Unless you have increased inflammation, omega-3s may not be very helpful. But for people with depression who do, our results suggest that omega-3s would be more useful. “
The team notes that the 2.5-gram dose of omega-3 fatty acids did not appear to cause any side effects in patients.
The study appears in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.