Fish oil and Stress

Copyright 2006 David McEvoy

It is well known that stress can potentially have a negative effect on both physical and mental health, but recent research conducted by the University of Valencia in Spain indicates that high-grade ethyl-epa fish oil could possibly prevent some of the adverse effects associated with chronic or prolonged stress. Ethyl-epa is a concentrated and purified form of the Omega 3 essential fatty acid Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA. Researchers found that ethyl-epa helps transport the stress hormone cortisol through the blood brain barrier. This indicates that ethyl-epa fish oil could help cortisol to return to normal levels, which is important when we consider that during periods of prolonged stress, cortisol levels can remain very high and pose a significant risk to health.

Previous Research

Previous studies have already shown us that Omega 3 fatty acids can help us deal with stressful situations. For example, an Israeli study by Yehuda and colleagues reported in 2005 that Omega 3 fatty acids appear to lower cortisol levels, reduce anxiety and improve test anxiety responses. Stress and anxiety related to tests and exams is quite common and can be a major problem for some people and the implications are that increasing intake of Omega 3 fatty acids by supplementing with fish oil might offer some relief. But it’s when we are under sustained pressure that we are most at risk of the negative effects of stress, particularly when we cannot relax and allow the body to return to normal afterwards.

A study at Lausanne University published in 2003 found that after giving fish oil for 3 weeks, there was a reduction in stress hormones. Also in 2003, Dr David Horrobin reported that EPA was effective for reducing cortisol and anxiety levels. According to Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendicronlogist and expert on the effect of stress on the body, sustained high levels of cortisol can actually damage the neurons in the hippocampus, the part of our brain we use for learning and memory. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the University of Edinburgh and published in February 2006 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, suggested that high levels of cortisol could be a cause of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is an important chemical that is produced by the body to help us cope with stress. It is part of the “fight or flight” mechanism and without it we would not survive. It is at its highest level first thing in the morning and at its lowest last thing at night. Problems arise when we are subjected to prolonged or continuous periods of stress when cortisol levels are likely to remain very high for some time. Some of the health problems associated with prolonged stress include:
• cardiovascular disease
• depression
• skin problems
• digestive problems
• memory loss
• high blood pressure
• inability to concentrate
• decreased immunity
• mood swings
• fatigue
• anxiety
• feeling of negativity

How can EPA fish oil help?

Research has shown that people under stress have an increased ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids in their blood. Omega 6 fatty acids are known to be pro-inflammatory and result in an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids which can not only lead to many new health problems arising, it can significantly worsen any existing health conditions.

Fish oil that is high in the Omega 3 fatty acid EPA helps the body to produce anti-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids, reducing the risk to health and at the same time can provide some relief for many existing health problems. The following list represents just some of the other health benefits of EPA fish oil:

• Helps the blood flow more efficiently through the body and to the brain
• Increases serotonin levels, the ‘feel good’ hormone, the opposite one to Cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’
• Stabilises mood and alleviates depression
• Alleviates symptoms of skin problems such as psoriasis, eczema and acne
• Improves memory, concentration and mental processing
• Lowers high blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides
• Reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis and stroke
• Lowers risk of sudden death in heart attack patients
• Boosts the immune system
• Reduces inflammation and associated pain of arthritis

Conclusion

Stress is a natural and necessary part of life and can be described as any event, external or internal, that causes us emotional worry and/or physical distress. It is when it is sustained and prolonged that it becomes a major risk factor for illness and disease. Increasing our intake of Omega 3 fatty acids by supplementing with fish oil can play a role in helping us to face and deal with stressful situations. However, ethyl-epa fish oil in particular, would appear to be an effective, natural and safe option not only to help us deal with stress as it arises, but to reduce the risk posed by the potentially serious effects of prolonged stress.