A recently published meta-analysis concludes that omega-3 oil supplements can reduce anxiety symptoms in some people.
Anxiety is one of the most common psychiatric symptoms in the United States.
It can appear as an anxiety disorder on its own or as part of another mental disorder such as depression.
Pharmaceutical interventions such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors can treat anxiety.
However, people with anxiety disorders are often concerned about side effects and addiction.
Other options include talk therapy, but these are time consuming and can be costly.
An estimated one in five adults in the United States develops an anxiety disorder each year. Hence, finding a safe and inexpensive way to treat anxiety would be of great benefit to millions of people.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are found in fish oils. Over the years researchers have attributed a wide range of health benefits to them, but not all are supported by evidence.
In the past few years, some scientists have tested omega-3’s potential to help treat psychiatric disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders.
Studies examining the anti-anxiety effects of omega-3 PUFAs in animal models have shown some success. For example, a study in rats found that a diet high in a PUFA called eicosapentaenoic acid reduced anxiety-like behaviors.
Research in humans has shown a link between PUFA levels and anxiety. For example, one study found that people with anxiety disorders had fewer circulating omega-3 PUFAs.
Another showed that omega-3 supplements reduced inflammation and anxiety in medical students during exams.
However, these and other studies have been limited due to their small size. To correct this, researchers recently carried out the first systematic review on the subject. They explain their goal:
“[W]In the results of clinical trials, we examined the anti-anxiety effects of omega-3 PUFAs in participants with increased anxiety symptoms to determine the overall effectiveness of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety symptoms regardless of diagnosis.
The researchers collected data from 19 clinical studies involving a total of 1,203 participants. Their results were published in the JAMA Network Open Journal. Once analyzed, their results supported their initial theory. Although the studies differed significantly in terms of the types of participants involved and the way anxiety was measured, they found a significant reduction in anxiety in the omega-3 fatty acid-treated groups compared to the placebo groups.
Most studies showed a positive effect of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety, although not all effect sizes were significant. However, when the data were pooled, the combined effect was statistically significant.
“This review shows that omega-3 PUFAs can help reduce clinical anxiety symptoms. More well-designed studies are needed in populations where anxiety is the main symptom. “
Interestingly, the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids were particularly pronounced in people with a clinical diagnosis of psychiatric illness.
Before omega-3 fatty acids are used on a larger scale, the authors suggest that more extensive studies will be required. How exactly these fatty acids could produce their beneficial effects is another question that needs to be answered.
Omega-3 PUFAs are present in brain membranes and, as the authors write, can “disrupt and possibly control several neurobiological processes such as neurotransmitter systems, neuroplasticity and inflammation”.
This could explain why they affect psychiatric symptoms, but much more research will be needed to find out the exact mechanisms behind it.
It is clear to the study’s authors that their analysis has some limitations. especially the relatively small sample size. They warn that “the results should not be extrapolated without careful consideration”.
More research is sure to follow. If an intervention as simple as omega-3 supplementation could reduce anxiety levels, it would have the potential to alleviate many people’s suffering.
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