We certainly live in stressful times, but it seems that “stressed out” has become the new normal along with face masks and dating apps. While we might believe that the world we are creating is better than ever, a study published in 2020 shows that people are more stressed today than in the 1990s, with the middle-aged population (people from 45-65 years old) taking the greatest hit.
Furthermore, the unusual combination of typical life stressors with a global pandemic is having real consequences on our minds and bodies. The American Psychological Association’s 2020 survey on Stress in America has made it clear: “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”
While there are many things that can be done to manage stress (some of which will be discussed in this blog), one of the most recent revelations comes from a new omega-3 study that examines the role EPA and DHA might play in reducing stress. But before we get into that, let’s talk about stress today — just how bad is it and what can we do about it?
Why are things more stressful today?
If you feel that daily life is more hectic, less certain, and more stressful now than it was decades ago, you’re not being dramatic. Even before the unexpected Coronavirus pandemic started to sweep the globe, research shows that stress levels were already on the rise. While the everyday stressors we deal with — i.e., political tension, racism and discrimination, financial concerns, and work and family life demands — have existed throughout the decades, there are a few changes to our current lifestyles that might be increasing stress across the board.
It’s been suggested that one of our greatest new age assets has also become one of our greatest sources of stress — technology. The leaps in technological innovation and the nonstop access to information are believed to have the most significant psychological impact over the last few decades. With exposure to the news and media seeming almost inescapable, one can easily become preoccupied and feel overwhelmed with challenging events happening around the globe.
Technological progress has also brought about a modern work-from-home (even outside of working hours) culture. With the ability to bring work laptops home or access emails and projects from anywhere with smartphones, we have created a world full of constant stimulation in the form of stress-inducing information and never-ending work.
The recent and current COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of crisis onto the “usual” life stressors. People might now be facing the devastating loss of life, illness, or long recoveries after infection, long periods of time in isolation, job loss, and uncertain futures for themselves and those who come after them.
Parents are bearing an enormous burden striving to maintain working lives while homeschooling their children. Children are dealing with isolation and changes in academia. And young adults have to navigate the new job market and university system in a time of extreme change. More than 7 in 10 Americans (71%) say this is the lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember, up from 56% in 2019.
Why stress is both good and bad
Stress can, in some cases, be a good thing. It is, after all, invoking coping responses to perceived danger. So, when that lion steps out from behind that bush, you’ll be grateful for your stress response when it increases your autonomic and hormonal activity to maximize your chances of getting away.
However, severe and prolonged stress, the “stressed out” is the new normal kind of stress, is likely to negatively influence mood, wellbeing, behavior, and health. So, when you’re suffering through a global pandemic while juggling the more common life stressors, chronic exposure to the physiological stress response can really do some damage both in adults and developing children.
Some ways stress can affect you and your loved ones:
- Brain Structure: Stress can cause structural changes to the human nervous system, and chronic stress can lead to atrophy of brain mass.
- Memory: there’s an inverse relationship between cortisol level (the stress hormone) and memory. Elevated cortisol leads to depressed memory function.
- Cognition and Learning: The pathophysiological changes in the brain after being exposed to chronic stress can manifest as behavioral, learning, and mood disorders.
- Immunity: stress can suppress the function of the immune system and modifies the secretion of hormones that play a critical role in immunity.
- Cardiovascular Health: Stress has harmful effects on cardiovascular function because it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which can lead to an increase in vasoconstriction, blood pressure, blood lipids, atherogenesis, disorders in blood clotting, and other vascular changes.
- Gut health: Stress can adversely affect the normal function of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract by affecting the absorption process, intestinal permeability, mucus, stomach acid secretion and by increasing GI system inflammation.
How can we better manage our stress?
While there are many lifestyle factors to consider when managing stress, from sleep habits to community building, accumulating data suggest that diet and nutrition can significantly impact mood and mental wellbeing.
Nutritional psychiatry, a growing field that uses food and supplements as part of an integrated treatment for mental health disorders, has found that what we eat directly impacts how we feel. The relevance of food, particularly dietary fat, in brain function is illustrated by the fact that 50-60% of the brain’s dry weight is made up of lipids. Of that weight, 10-15% is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in cold water fish such as salmon and herring, as well as dietary supplements.
It’s been well established that omega-3 fatty acids are indispensable to the development and function of cognition and the central nervous system. But what about the stress response?
What role does omega-3 play in stress?
Omega-3 fatty acids affect physiological and perceived reactions to mental stress by crossing the blood-brain barrier and directly influencing the brain and central nervous system cells. A recent study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry suggests that omega-3s could help break the chain between stress and adverse health effects.
In this study, researchers found that daily supplements containing 2.5 grams of omega-3s (EPA and DHA) helped the body resist the damaging effects of stress compared to a placebo group. The supplements contributed to what the researchers called stress resilience: a reduction of harm during and after stress. They observed positive changes like lower production of the stress hormone cortisol and increased production of “protective” compounds that typically decrease during stressful times.
Other studies have confirmed this finding, demonstrating that omega-3 supplementation prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stressors, leading to the mitigation of epinephrine and cortisol secretion and reduced adipose tissue lipolysis that is usually elevated with epinephrine secretion.
So what does this mean for you the next time someone cuts you off in traffic or a deadline is quickly approaching? Elevated omega-3 intake can reduce perceived distress symptoms, prevent aggression toward others during times of stress, and diminish the negative health consequences that come from chronic stress exposure.
Omega-3s also preserve DNA and slow aging — two indicators of chronic stress
An article published in 2012 revealed that omega-3 supplements could help preserve our DNA and slow aging, two other indicators of chronic stress. Telomeres serve as protective caps at the end of our DNA, like the plastic at the end of shoelaces. If that plastic comes off, the shoelace unravels. Telomere shortening is associated with DNA damage, aging, and several age-related diseases.
In the 2012 study, those who took 2.5 grams of omega-3s per day demonstrated a lengthening of telomeres in the immune system cells and reduced oxidative stress and inflammation compared to the placebo group. These findings suggest that by lowering stress-related inflammation and cellular damage, omega-3s may help disrupt the connection between repeated stress, depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress-related diseases.
So put the phone down
While our stress response was formed to help protect us during times of physical danger when we were running from lions and chasing down our food, our current society has created its own culture of constant and overwhelming perceived danger. Chronic stress can take a toll on our minds and bodies, and it’s up to us to adopt lifestyle factors that will mitigate the negative health consequences that will follow in its wake.
So put your phone down for the night, take a personal day off work, connect with a loved one, and ensure you’re eating a well-balanced diet with adequate brain-healthy nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids.