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Fatty Acids of Value in Anxiety

The value of omega-3 fatty acids has come under fire lately. But now a new systematic review suggests they might have benefits beyond the previous therapeutic targets of depression, cardiac health, eye health and arthritis.

Researchers have found that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) might reduce the symptoms of clinical anxiety, particularly among those people who had a specific clinical condition be it medical (such as Parkinson disease) or psychological (premenstrual syndrome).

“This systematic review…provides the first meta-analytic evidence, to our knowledge, that omega-3 PUFA treatment may be associated with anxiety reduction, which might not only be due to a potential placebo effect, but also from some associations of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms,” the review authors said in JAMA.

The finding is likely to be welcome news for patients with this condition. Be it the potential side-effects of medications or the cost and accessibility of psychological therapy, patients with anxiety, especially those with comorbid medical conditions are keen for alternative or at least supplementary safe, evidence-based treatments for their symptoms.

Previous research, in both human and animal studies had found that a lack of omega-3 PUFAs could induce various behavioural and neuropsychiatric disorders. What had not been shown was whether taking this supplement was effective in reducing the specific anxiety symptoms.

The review involved an extensive literature search through a wide range of databases including PubMed and Cochrane looking for trials that had assessed the anxiolytic effects of these fatty acids in humans. In the end they found 19 trials that matched their eligibility criteria, which allowed researchers to analyse the effect of supplementation in just over 1200 participants and compare it with about 1000 matched controls who didn’t take the fatty acids.

Overall, they found ‘there was a significantly better association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it.’

Subgroup analysis also showed that those taking at least 2000mg or more of the omega-3 PUFA treatment were more likely to have reduced anxiety. And somewhat surprisingly, those patients receiving supplements containing less than 60% EPA did better than those taking formulations with a greater concentration of EPA.

The studies in the review included very different cohorts, and because of this and the limited number of studies included, the authors understandably say the results need to be interpreted with caution.

However, while bigger, better studies are still needed to prove the benefit of omega-3 PUFAs in patients with clinical anxiety, this research certainly does suggest that higher dose formulations of less than 60% concentration of EPA might have a role as at least adjunctive treatment to standard therapy.



Su KP, Tseng PT, Lin PY, Okubo R, Chen TY, Chen YW, et al. Association of Use of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids With Changes in Severity of Anxiety Symptoms; A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Network Open [Internet]. 2018 Sep; 1(5): e182327. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2701735 doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.2327.