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Fish Oil Aids Hearts by Easing Stress
Clinical study finds fish oil counteracts the negative cardio effects of mental stress 06/10/2013 By Craig Weatherby
There's little doubt that fish and their special omega 3 fatty acids help deter cardiovascular disease.
The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish a week … especially salmon, sardines, tuna, and other fatty varieties rich in omega 3s.
Omega-3s moderate blood levels of triglycerides and inflammation – two key drivers of cardiovascular disease (CVD) – and exert beneficial effects on blood pressure and heart rhythms.
In addition, it's likely that omega-3s exert as yet unknown “nutrigenomic” effects on people's genes.
Until now, no one had ever examined the ways in which omega-3s might moderate people's physiological reactions to stress … some of which promote CVD or are or suspected of doing that.
Does stress promote cardiovascular disease?
This question has provoked substantial research … and recent evidence reviews suggest the answer is a qualified “yes”.
According to the Australian authors of one literature review, there exists “strong and consistent evidence” that depression and social isolation promote CVD (Kuper H et al. 2002).
They also estimated that these psychological factors promote CVD about as strongly as traditional risk factors such as smoking, inflammation, elevated blood fats, and hypertension.
Surprisingly, the Aussie team found no persuasive evidence that CVD is caused by chronic personal or work-related stresses, Type A behavior, hostility, anxiety, or panic disorders.
Now, a multi-center scientific team reports new clinical evidence that fish oil might counteract the detrimental effects of mental stress on cardiovascular health.
Omega-3s may aid hearts by easing reactions to stress
A placebo-controlled clinical trial was led by Jason R. Carter of Carter of the Michigan Technological University (MTU).
He and his MTU colleagues collaborated with scientists from New York Medical College, Michigan Technical College, and the Mayo Clinic (Carter JR et al. 2013).
They hypothesized that fish oil would blunt the blood pressure, heart rate (HR), and muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) response to mental stress, and/or moderate the increased forearm and calf blood flow associated with mental stress.
At the beginning of the eight-week trial, 67 adult volunteers underwent a battery of cardiovascular-function tests, including heart rate, blood pressure, MSNA (muscle sympathetic nerve activity), and blood flow through the forearm and calf.
(MSNA is part of the “fight or flight” response to stress. Increased MSNA is a response to congestive heart failure, and eventually leads to further worsening of cardiac function.)
These tests were performed under two different scenarios:
  • When the volunteers were at rest.
  • While they were performing a mental arithmetic test and the investigator encouraged them to hurry … a situation designed to yield mental and emotional stress.
Both groups had comparable results when their cardiovascular functions were tested when the subjects were at rest.
The study subjects were divided into two roughly equal groups, each assigned to a different supplement regimen for eight weeks:
  • Fish oil to (9 grams per day
  • Olive oil placebo (9 grams per day).
The study was “blind”, so none of the volunteers knew which supplement they were taking.
After eight weeks, the subjects repeated the same cardiovascular function tests.
Compared with the volunteers who took olive oil, those who took fish oil had milder responses to mental stress.
The fish oil group displayed advantages, including milder heart rate, MSNA, and calf blood flow reactions to mental stress … but no change in their blood pressure response to mental stress.
As the researchers wrote, “These findings support and extend the growing evidence that fish oil may have positive health benefits regarding neural cardiovascular control in humans.” (Carter JR et al. 2013)
The results might eventually help doctors prevent heart disease in select populations.
Presumably, the people who'd benefit most would be those under special stresses … such as caregivers, people in high-stress jobs, and people with type A personalities plus anger issues.
“Overall,” the study authors say, “the data support and extend the growing evidence that fish oil may have positive health benefits regarding neural cardiovascular control in humans and suggest important physiological interactions between fish oil and psychological stress ...” (Carter JR et al. 2013)
Future studies might focus on the effects of taking fish oil for longer time periods and examining this effect on older people, or people with cardiovascular disease.
  • Bunker SJ, Colquhoun DM, Esler MD, Hickie IB, Hunt D, Jelinek VM, Oldenburg BF, Peach HG, Ruth D, Tennant CC, Tonkin AM. "Stress" and coronary heart disease: psychosocial risk factors. Med J Aust. 2003 Mar 17;178(6):272-6. Review.
  • Carter JR, Schwartz CE, Yang H, Joyner MJ. Fish oil and neurovascular reactivity to mental stress in humans. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2013 Apr 1;304(7):R523-30. Doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00031.2013. Epub 2013 Feb 13.
  • Floras JS. Sympathetic nervous system activation in human heart failure: clinical implications of an updated model. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2009 Jul 28;54(5):375-85. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2009.03.061. Review.
  • Friedman M, Powell LH, Thoresen CE, Ulmer D, Price V, Gill JJ, Thompson L, Rabin DD, Brown B, Breall WS, et al. Effect of discontinuance of type A behavioral counseling on type A behavior and cardiac recurrence rate of post myocardial infarction patients. Am Heart J. 1987 Sep;114(3):483-90.
  • Friedman M, Thoresen CE, Gill JJ, Powell LH, Ulmer D, Thompson L, Price VA, Rabin DD, Breall WS, Dixon T, et al. Alteration of type A behavior and reduction in cardiac recurrences in postmyocardial infarction patients. Am Heart J. 1984 Aug;108(2):237-48.
  • Friedman M, Thoresen CE, Gill JJ, Ulmer D, Powell LH, Price VA, Brown B, Thompson L, Rabin DD, Breall WS, et al. Alteration of type A behavior and its effect on cardiac recurrences in post myocardial infarction patients: summary results of the recurrent coronary prevention project. Am Heart J. 1986 Oct;112(4):653-65.
  • Kent LK, Shapiro PA. Depression and related psychological factors in heart disease. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2009;17(6):377-88. doi: 10.3109/10673220903463333. Review.
  • Kuper H, Marmot M, Hemingway H. Systematic review of prospective cohort studies of psychosocial factors in the etiology and prognosis of coronary heart disease. Semin Vasc Med. 2002 Aug;2(3):267-314. Review.
  • Murphy MN, Mizuno M, Mitchell JH, Smith SA. Cardiovascular regulation by skeletal muscle reflexes in health and disease. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2011 Oct;301(4):H1191-204. doi: 10.1152/ajpheart.00208.2011. Epub 2011 Aug 12. Review.
  • Sirois BC, Burg MM. Negative emotion and coronary heart disease. A review. Behav Modif. 2003 Jan;27(1):83-102. Review.
  • Smith TW, Glazer K, Ruiz JM, Gallo LC. Hostility, anger, aggressiveness, and coronary heart disease: an interpersonal perspective on personality, emotion, and health. J Pers. 2004 Dec;72(6):1217-70. Review.
  • Volders PG. Novel insights into the role of the sympathetic nervous system in cardiac arrhythmogenesis. Heart Rhythm. 2010 Dec;7(12):1900-6. doi: 10.1016/j.hrthm.2010.06.003. Epub 2010 Jun 4. Review.

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