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, new research suggests.
Ohio State University researchers found that daily supplements containing 2.5 grams of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, the highest dose tested, best help the body withstand the harmful effects of stress.
Compared to the placebo group, participants taking omega-3 supplements produced less of the stress hormone cortisol and lower levels of an 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 decrease was seen in people who took omega-3s.
The dietary supplements contributed to what the researchers call stress resilience: reducing damage under stress and after acute stress, lasting anti-inflammatory effects and protection of cellular components that are shrinking with age.
The potential antiaging effects were seen as particularly noticeable as they occurred in healthy, sedentary, overweight, and middle-aged people – all traits that could lead to a higher risk of accelerated aging.
“The results suggest that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is a relatively simple change people could make that could have a positive effect to break the chain between stress and negative health effects,” said Annelise Madison, lead author and PhD student in clinical psychology at Ohio State.
The research is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Madison works in the laboratory of Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology and Director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State. This paper is a secondary analysis of one of Kiecolt-Glaser’s earlier studies showing that omega-3 supplements altered the ratio of fatty acid consumption to preserve tiny segments of DNA in white blood cells.
These short fragments of DNA are called telomeres and 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 monitored 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, including telomerase, an enzyme that restores 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 grams or 1.25 grams of omega-3 fatty acids or a placebo, which contained a mixture of oils that represented the daily intake of a typical American.
After four months of taking the supplements, the 138 research participants, ages 40-85, 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, compared to the placebo group, helped suppress damage during the stressful event by lowering cortisol and an anti-inflammatory protein by an average of 19% and 33%, respectively.
Results from blood samples showed that both doses of omega-3 fatty acids prevented changes in telomerase levels, or a protein that reduces inflammation, in the two hours following acute stress in participants, meaning any stress-related cell repair required – including the Telomeres recovery – could be done as usual. In the placebo group, these repair mechanisms lost ground: telomerase decreased by an average of 24% and anti-inflammatory protein by an average of at least 20%.
“One could consider an increase in cortisol and potential inflammatory factors that would erode telomere length,” Madison said. “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 effects with the higher omega-3 dose would suggest that this supports a causal relationship.”
The researchers also suggested that omega-3 fatty acids, by reducing stress-related inflammation, may help disrupt the link between repetitive stress and symptoms of depression. Previous research has shown that people with a stronger inflammatory response to a stressor in the laboratory may develop more depressive symptoms over time.
“Not everyone who is depressed has increased inflammation – about a third. This helps explain why omega-3 supplementation doesn’t always reduce depressive symptoms,” said Kiecolt-Glaser. “Unless you have increased inflammation, omega-3s may not be very helpful. But for people with depression who do this, 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.
Reference: Madison AA, Belury MA, Andridge R, et al. Omega-3 supplementation and stress reactivity of biomarkers for cell aging: a supplementary sub-study of a randomized, controlled study in middle-aged adults. Mol. No. Psychiatry. 2021: 1-9. doi: 10.1038 / s41380-021-01077-2
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