Combined, all anxiety disorders cost upwards of $42 billion a year in health care, including people who seek relief for anxiety symptoms that mimic physical ailments.
The types include social anxiety disorder (15 million cases), generalized anxiety (6.8 million cases), obsessive-compulsive disorder (2.2 million cases), panic disorder (6 million cases), post-traumatic stress disorder (7.7 million cases, with many related to rape).
Social anxiety disorder or SAD is the most common type, occurs about equally among men and women, and typically begins around age 13.
The number of SAD sufferers is probably greater than the official 15 million number, because more than one-third of affected people go 10 years or more before seeking help.
Adolescents appear especially vulnerable to SAD, with more than one in four teens aged 13 to 18 affected, and almost six percent suffering severe SAD (NIMH 2011).
Why would teens be especially prone to social or other kinds of anxiety?
The brain circuitry involved in emotional responses changes during the teen years.
And brain imaging studies suggest that – compared with younger children or adults – teenagers have stronger responses to emotionally loaded images and situations (NIMH 2011).
Omega-3s may ease depression … what about anxiety?
Many population studies link low blood levels of seafood-type omega-3s – and high levels of omega-6 vegetable-oil fats – with risk of depression.
Unfortunately, this generally unhealthful “omega imbalance” typifies the average American’s diet and blood fat profile.
Clinical trials testing omega-3 fish oil supplements against depression have had mixed results, but this may be due to the fact that researchers have used various mixes of omega-3s (EPA and DHA) at various doses, in patients with varying degrees of depression.
Overall, as the American Psychiatric Association concluded in 2006, the evidence is encouraging … see “Top Psych Panel Says Omega-3s Deter Depression, Bipolar Disorder.”
Given the very close connections between depression and anxiety, many researchers suspect that omega-3s hold the potential to ease or allay anxiety … and preliminary studies support this idea.
Anxiety patients tend to have lower omega-3 blood levels, while omega-3 fish oil supplements can quiet a brain system linked to anxiety, and seems to ameliorate some symptoms (Ross BM 2009).
And according to a recent evidence review, omega-3s help protect the brain’s neurotransmission (communication) system from damage induced by stress, “possibly preventing the development of stress-related disorders such as depression or anxiety” (Hennebelle M et al. 2014).
Clinical evidence remains scant, but the signs are promising … for example, see “Fish Alleviates Women's Anxiety”, “Omega-3s Axed Anxiety” and “Feeling Anxious? Fish and Fish Oil May Help”
BDNF: A key factor in mood health?
Brain researchers are deeply interested in a protein thought to play a key role in mood control, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
Dozens of animal studies show that omega-3-rich diets raise brain levels of BDNF, aid brain “plasticity” and resilience, and reduce stress and fear.
We’ve reported on some of that evidence that omega-3s , in part because they tend to boost levels of BDNF and other helpful chemicals … see “Alzheimer’s Drug Apes Omega-3s and Berries”.
(As we’ve reported, the polyphenol-type “antioxidants” in other foods – including extra virgin olive oil, curcumin from turmeric, berries, dark chocolate, and natural, non-alkalized cocoa – also appear to boost brain levels BDNF and/or other brain-function factors linked to better brain “plasticity” and resilience.)
Several studies have linked anxiety-related conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder to low blood levels of BDNF.
And preliminary clinical research suggests that omega-3s regulate brain levels of BDNF in ways that may help prevent and treat anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (Matsuoka Y et al. 2011).
Now, a Brazilian study offers more evidence that omega-3s support healthy levels of BDNF, which in turn supports brain functions key to mood health.
Their findings come from an especially (and perhaps increasingly) anxiety-prone group … adolescents.
Brazilian study links higher omega-3 intakes to lower anxiety
The new clinical study comes from neuroscientists at Brazil’s University of Rio Grande do Sul.
The Brazilians wanted to see whether higher intakes of omega-3s by teens were linked to their blood levels of BDNF.
They recruited 137 adolescents (88 female) with an average age of 14, who took a standard test for anxiety.
Teens scoring at all levels on the test were equally represented in the sample – no to very low, mild, moderate, and severe anxiety.
Blood samples were collected and blood BDNF levels were measured, while intakes of omega-3s were estimated using a diet questionnaire designed for adolescents.
The researchers’ analysis showed a significant statistical link between higher omega-3 intakes and higher blood BDNF levels.
There were limitations to the reliability of the results. As they wrote, “Our study was limited by its small sample size, and our external validity may be restricted by the oversampling [unusually high percent] of anxious adolescents.”
Does this study prove that omega-3s ease anxiety in adolescents?
No, but it seems significant, given the link between low BDNF levels and depression, which is very closely related to and often accompanies anxiety.
And it seems to represent a good reason to conduct more clinical research … sooner rather than later.
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