A high daily dose of an omega-3 supplement can help slow the effects of aging by suppressing damage and increasing protection at the cellular level during and after a stressful event.

Ohio State University researchers found that daily supplements containing 2.5 grams of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, the highest dose tested, were best at helping the body withstand the harmful effects of stress.

Compared to the placebo group, participants who took omega-3 supplements produced less stress hormone cortisol and less pro-inflammatory protein during a stressful laboratory event. And while the levels of protective compounds in the placebo group decreased sharply after the stressor, no such decreases were seen in people who took omega-3 fatty acids.

The supplements contributed to what the researchers call stress resilience: reducing damage during and after acute stress, sustained anti-inflammatory activity and protecting cellular components that shrink as a result of aging.

The potential antiaging effects were seen as particularly noticeable, as they occurred in healthy, but also sedentary, overweight, and average people – all traits that could lead to a higher risk of 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,” said Annelise Madison, lead author of the Papers and PhD student in clinical psychology in Ohio State.

The research will be published today (Monday, April 19, 2021) in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Madison works in the laboratory of Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology and director of the Ohio State Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. This paper is a secondary analysis of an earlier study by Kiecolt-Glaser showing that omega-3 supplements altered the ratio of fatty acid consumption so that tiny segments of DNA were retained in white blood cells.

These short fragments of DNA are called telomeres, which act as protective caps at the end of the chromosomes. The tendency for telomeres to shorten in many cell types has been linked to age-related diseases, particularly heart disease, and early mortality.

In the first study, the researchers observed changes in telomere length in white blood cells known as lymphocytes. For this new study, researchers looked at how sudden stress affected a group of biological markers that included telomerase, an enzyme that rebuilds telomeres because enzyme levels would respond to stress faster than the length of the telomeres themselves.

In particular, they compared how moderate and high doses of omega-3 fatty acids and a placebo affected these markers during and after an experimental stressor. Study participants took either 2.5 g or 1.25 g omega-3 fatty acids per day or a placebo with an oil blend that represents the daily intake of a typical American.

After four months on the supplements, the 138 research participants, ages 40 to 85, took a 20-minute test that combined a speech and mathematical subtraction task that is known to reliably induce an inflammatory stress response.

Only the highest dose of omega-3 fatty acids helped suppress damage during the stressful event compared to the placebo group, lowering cortisol and a pro-inflammatory protein by an average of 19% and 33%, respectively.

The results of blood tests showed that both doses of omega-3 fatty acids prevented changes in telomerase levels or a protein that reduced inflammation in the two hours following acute stress in participants, meaning a necessary stress-related cell repair – including the telomere recovery – possible is carried out as usual. In the placebo group, these repair mechanisms lost ground: telomerase fell by an average of 24% and anti-inflammatory protein by an average of at least 20%.

“You might consider an increase in the potential factors for cortisol and inflammation that would undermine telomere length,” Madison said. “The assumption, based on previous work, is that telomerase can help rebuild telomere length, and you want to have enough telomerase to make up for stress-related damage.

“The fact that our results were dose-dependent and we see more impact with the higher omega-3 dose would suggest that this supports a causal relationship.”

The researchers also suggested that omega-3s, by reducing stress-related inflammation, might help disrupt the link between repetitive stress and symptoms of depression. Previous research has shown that people with a higher inflammatory response to a laboratory stressor may develop more depressed symptoms over time.

“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, ”said 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 2.5-gram dose of omega-3 fatty acids is much higher than what most Americans consume on a daily basis, but study participants showed no signs of problems with the supplements, Madison said.

The research was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Other Ohio State co-authors include Martha Belury, Rebecca Andridge, Megan Renna, Rosie Shrout, and William Malarkey.

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