Throughout our life, we adapt our diets to fit the needs of our particular lifestyles, with drastic changes from childhood through to adulthood. Without a doubt, this must happen for purposes of growth, physical functioning, and brain activity. Although our diet is evolving to support these processes, some staple nutrients should be consistent over time. Some vitamins and minerals that come to mind are vitamin C, vitamin B12, or even calcium; however, a key contributor to our health is the lesser-known omega-3 fatty acid.
Better known for its role in reducing inflammation, omega-3 contributes to many other processes that work to fight back against disease and improve our overall health. From preventing and managing heart disease to protecting our eyesight due to degenerative diseases, omega-3 serves a wide range of functions. Possibly the most impressive function is its influence on various mental health conditions, more specifically, anxiety disorders. As an essential nutrient easily found in various food sources, omega-3 could be a simple yet healthy adjunct to traditional prescription-based approaches in treating anxiety disorders.
Before we dive deeper here, let’s get more familiar with this fatty acid.
Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid, meaning it’s a healthy type of fat-containing multiple double bonds in its structure. Depending on the type of omega-3 fat, it can either be a short-chained fatty acid with 18 or fewer carbon atoms or a long-chain fatty acid with at least 20 or more carbon atoms (1).
Omega-3 is a beneficial contributor to our health and longevity by working systemically to fight disease, prevent dysfunction, and support good health. Some of the ways it does this include (2):
– Mitigating risk factors associated with heart disease by lowering blood pressure, reducing the incidence of blood clots, improving levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol), and so on
– Fighting local and systemic inflammation which helps to combat numerous autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus)
– Supporting brain health during pregnancy and early life
– Fighting off age-related mental decline, such as with Alzheimer’s Disease
– Preventing brain disorders such as anxiety and depression
Omega-3 Food Sources
Unfortunately for us, omega-3 is an essential dietary nutrient, meaning it can’t be created naturally in our bodies. Instead, we need to supplement this source through diet. The major food sources you can find omega-3 fats include fish and fish oils (especially fatty fish, such as salmon or sardines), and nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts).
As an alternative for those who are less willing to replenish their omega-3 stores with these food sources, supplementing with tablets/pills may be a great option for you. Consult with your doctor to determine the best option for you.
The Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
1. Alpha-linoleic Acid (ALA)
ALA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in our diet. It’s derived from foods like flax seeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts and other nuts or seeds. Our bodies use ALA to convert directly into energy and until it’s translated into the two other types of omega-3 fats (EPA or DHA) it can only serve this one purpose. This translation occurs through biochemical processes with the help of various starting molecules, enzymes, and cofactors. Without all the nutrients and enzymes present, this translation isn’t possible. It’s best to make sure you’re achieving adequate intake of omega-3 by incorporating all 3 sources in your diet via food intake or supplementation.
2. Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
EPA, which is found in animal products such as fatty fish and fish oils, is commonly used for people suffering from heart disease, heart attacks, depression, and even menopause. It does all this and more by preventing blood clots, supporting immune health, as well as minimizing inflammation, pain and swelling throughout the body (3).
3. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
DHA is also found in animal products such as fatty fish and fish oils and even meat, eggs and other dairy products. As one of the most important omega-3 fatty acids, it serves as an integral structural component of our brain, parts of our eye, and other areas of our bodies. Within the brain, DHA improves nervous system functioning by preserving membrane health and promoting communication between brain cells. Both EPA and DHA are essential for fetal development and supporting the healthy ageing process. In addition, they’re both precursors to various metabolites that are lipid mediators, leading to research into the association of omega-3 supplementation as a beneficial treatment for many diseases (4).
Note: It’s important for vegetarians and vegans to outsource their omega-3 intake through means of supplementation to achieve enough DHA.
Let’s Talk About Anxiety
Anxiety is known as a specific feeling or fear, either real or perceived. Unlike certain mental health conditions that present obvious symptoms, such as depression or schizophrenia, anxiety presents differently in people depending on the type they’re experiencing. Some of the more common types of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorders, phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsion, and post-traumatic stress disorder (5).
Symptoms of Anxiety
Despite the unique nature of anxiety disorders, for the majority of cases, the symptoms are all quite similar. For the majority of cases, here is a list of common symptoms:
– increased heart rate
– heavy breathing
– feelings of panic or dread
– loss of concentration and focus
The Link Between Omega-3 and Anxiety
Our central nervous system consisting of our brain and spinal cord has a higher concentration of fat cells when compared to other systems. As mentioned earlier, DHA is one of the main types of polyunsaturated fatty acids that make up our brains and contributes to our nervous system functioning. With its presence, omega-3 fights back against anxiety through means of inflammation prevention and dopamine production and maintenance.
Omega-3 fatty acids are proven to have neuroprotective characteristics against brain diseases. One way it protects our brain is by minimizing neuroinflammation. The brain, like other parts of our bodies, is incredibly sensitive to inflammation. In fact, it’s a key mechanism in the pathophysiology of anxiety disorders and can be treated in order to manage the symptoms involved. As a signalling molecule, omega-3 and their metabolites limit the immune response that leads to an unwarranted inflammatory response (6).
Dopamine Production and Maintenance
Certain regions of the brain are associated with anxiety, including the amygdala (the emotions center of the brain), hippocampus (associated with learning and emotions), and prefrontal cortex (coordinating complex behaviour). These three areas of the brain are sensitive to disruptions in neurotransmitters and/or their associated receptors, ultimately leading to major mood changes. One neurotransmitter, known as dopamine, is recognized for playing an important role in anxiety modulation.
Better known as a “feel good” neurotransmitter, dopamine acts on our brain to affect levels of learning, pleasure, and motivation. In terms of brain health, dopamine and its receptors (D1 and D2) are essential toward mediating anxiety. Studies posit that the total depletion of dopamine in the brain can directly cause anxiety and depression-like behaviours in humans (7).
How Do We Fight Back?
Interestingly, omega-3 affects our brains’ concentration of dopamine. Combined with genetic and environmental factors, it can reduce our risk of developing anxiety disorders. More specifically, a diet rich in DHA can influence the production and maintenance of dopamine in our brain, improve our neural connections, and enhance our brain health (8).
Find Your Balance
Omega-3 has gained more recognition in the scientific community for its role in mental health. In the efforts to uncover its underlying benefits, research has determined its potential to treat anxiety disorders. It’s now better understood that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can improve your overall health through means of managing inflammation, improving heart health and protecting our eyesight. Small adjustments to your dietary intake to incorporate moderate amounts of omega-3 fats can be advantageous, not only to improving your health but also by reducing your risk of anxiety disorders.
For more personalized guidance, request an integrative medicine consultation with Dr. John Gannage, MD.
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