Anxiety affects millions of people worldwide and finding effective ways to manage anxiety can be challenging. Many individuals turn to natural remedies in search of relief, and one popular option is fish oil. But does fish oil really have the potential to alleviate anxiety?
The answer is “maybe.” And we apologize if our answer to that question actually increases your anxiety. Fear not, we’ll explain more as we go on.
What is Anxiety?
Let’s start with a few basics.
When you’re suffering from anxiety, you’re likely feeling worry, fright, and trepidation. Anticipating (or being in) a stressful situation at work or at home, having an important decision to make, or walking into an unknown situation, likely means there’s anxiety. For some, that anxiety is more pronounced than for others.
Your palms may get sweaty, your heart may race, you may have difficulty sleeping—these are just some of the symptoms associated with anxiety.
The fact is that not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way and not everyone is able to manage the symptoms of anxiety, or the condition itself, in the same way.
Anxiety comes with living your life. Anxiety disorders, those panic-like and constant forms of fear that actually interrupt your ability to cope, or do the things you’d like to do, signal it’s time to talk with your doctor. The good news: there are tips and treatments that can help.
Can You Take Fish Oil for Anxiety?
Before we jump to what the science says about fish oil and anxiety, let’s examine some things you may not know.
First, what are omega-3 fatty acids? Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, sometimes abbreviated as PUFAs, and they’re counted among the “healthy fats,” along with monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). Those are the two kinds of fats referred to as the “good” fats—the ones you want to consume.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are two of the main omega-3 fatty acids and they confer many of the benefits of omega-3s. The richest sources of EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, tuna and others.
Fish oil is one dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids. And where is the fish oil in fish? In the oily part of the skin and tissues of fatty fish.
That’s the reason why you’ll see people interchange the term fish oil with omega-3 fatty acids. Unsurprisingly, the most nutrient-rich source of fish oil from food is from fatty fish. You can also get omega-3 fish oil from dietary supplements.
As an aside, not all omega-3s come from fish oil. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can also seek out EPA and DHA in algal form, which is a plant source of these important nutrients.
Before we get to the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for anxiety, let’s look at some of the other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Heart Health—omega-3s first gained notoriety—in a positive way—when scientists discovered that these fatty acids could help your cardiovascular system. More specifically, research shows that omega-3s can help lower your triglyceride levels thus decreasing your risk for heart disease and stroke. What’s more, omega-3s may help you increase your HDL (aka, the “good” cholesterol) and lower your blood pressure (in people with elevated levels). There is also some research that demonstrates omega-3s can lower your risk of: blood clots, sudden death from an abnormal heart rhythm, and death (if you already suffer with cardiovascular disease).
- Inflammation—your body uses inflammation to fight against injury or infection; however, when that inflammation sticks around too long or sets itself up in healthy tissues, that’s known as chronic inflammation—which is something you want to avoid. That’s where anti-inflammatory agents, such as omega-3s, come to your body’s rescue by helping reduce unwanted inflammation. Too much inflammation can lead to heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, type 2 diabetes, obesity, asthma and more.
- Pregnancy—The mother-to-be may benefit from omega-3s during pregnancy, running the gamut from regulating bodily functions such as blood pressure, blood clotting, nerve transmission, allergic responses, but omega-3 fatty acids can also reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia and pre-term births. And omega-3 deficiency in pregnant women may increase the risk of depression. On the other hand, having sufficient omega-3 levels during pregnancy may reduce postpartum mood issues. When women take fish oil in utero and while breastfeeding, research shows that the baby can benefit too through healthy brain and nervous system development and more.
- Eye Health—Some, but not all, research points to omega-3s as risk-reducers for dry eye and macular degeneration, exposing the potential for omega-3s for eye health. The scientific community is even more in alignment for the role of fish oil for eye development of the baby-to-be. With DHA as a main component of our eyes, it’s recommended that pregnant women get enough fish oil during pregnancy and while breastfeeding to confer those benefits to the fetus before and after birth.
There’s emerging research on omega-3 EPA and DHA in the areas of COVID, athletic performance, concussions in sports, ALS, brain health, mental health conditions and so much more.
As is common in scientific research, not all research confirms all benefits. That’s true for omega-3 fatty acid research too—but this nutrient has a whole library (over 40,000 published studies) of research and so much of it shows benefits.
Is There Enough Evidence to Support the Use of Fish Oil for Anxiety?
With regard to fish oil and anxiety, there are several studies that point to the possibility that this nutrient may serve as one source of relief for people with anxiety. However, the research is not conclusive.
Among the most promising is a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis published in JAMA that concluded that omega-3 PUFAs might help to reduce the symptoms of clinical anxiety. Pooling results from 19 clinical trials including 2,240 participants from 11 countries, the researchers wrote, in part, that “although participants and diagnoses were heterogeneous, the main finding of this meta-analysis was that omega-3s were associated with significant reduction in anxiety symptoms compared with controls.”
In reporting on this meta-analysis, a post from Harvard Health Publishing explained that the findings indicated that people who took high doses of omega-3s (up to 2,000 mg/daily, with the median in the treatment group of 1605.7 mg/d) appeared to have the most reductions in anxiety symptoms. Calling it “too soon for now” to recommend high-dose omega-3 supplements for treating anxiety, this article also pointed to the authors, themselves, calling for further well-designed, larger studies in this population to confirm the effectiveness of this treatment in clinical settings.
Another meta-analysis, published in 2019, looked at 31 trials including more than 41,000 adults with and without depression and found that “long-chain omega-3 supplementation probably has little or no effect in preventing depression or anxiety symptoms.” However, OmegaQuant explained in a blog that the dose may have been the reason for the results. A higher dose, like the one in the JAMA meta-analysis, may have found better results.
Another study, this one from 2013, linked lower EPA and DHA levels in people with major depressive disorder and depression with anxiety (in comparison to healthy people). The study, according to this post, further found that the severity of anxiety was linked to EPA and DHA levels. The study authors stated that the presence and severity of comorbid anxiety were associated with the lowest EPA and DHA levels.
The same post from Health Digest also identified a 2011 randomized controlled trial in 68 medical students (38 men and 30 women), mean age of 23.65 years, that found a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms in the omega-3 group (dosed at 2,500 mg/day) compared to the control group.
However, taking us on a roller coaster ride that is not unusual for scientific research, the Health Digest piece also led us to a 2022 study that found those in the group taking 2,400 mg/day of omega-3s fared better with anxiety symptoms in comparison to the group taking the antidepressant drug venlafaxine at four weeks of the trial. However, that advantage did not last throughout the 12-week study.
Any Effects on Other Mental Health Conditions?
Yes, there is some research on omega-3s and their role in other mental health conditions. We’ll point to a few of the positive studies.
For example, this article shared a published scientific review that found diets low in omega-3 fatty acids were linked to the onset of dementia, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. The authors reasoned in explaining why they undertook their review that “increasing evidence from the fields of neurophysiology and neuropathology has uncovered the role of polyunsaturated fatty acids in protecting neuronal cells from oxidative damage, controlling inflammation, regulating neurogenesis and preserving neuronal function.”
This piece identifies several brain-related issues—including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, depression and more—associated with low intake of omega-3s. It cites a 2020 literature review that connects the importance of omega-3 EPA and DHA for brain development as well as prevention and treatment of behavior, mood and other brain disorders.
This systematic review is one of a number of studies that emphasizes the need for pregnant women to consume omega-3 supplements during pregnancy (and beyond), not only for the health of the baby-to-be, but also for the mom’s own benefit. The authors in this article concluded that “dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids rich in EPA during pregnancy or postpartum reduces some symptoms associated with depression. DHA supplementation to healthy pregnant women can also reduce the risk of postpartum depression.”
And the American Pregnancy Association has a lot to say about the need for omega-3s, explaining that a deficiency increases the mother’s risk of depression and that postpartum mood disorders might become worse and begin earlier with subsequent pregnancies.
Bottom line: When it comes to omega-3 fatty acids and anxiety, here are some tips:
- For serious anxiety conditions (here’s that list again) don’t try to self-diagnose or self-treat. It’s important to work with your doctor or another trusted healthcare practitioner to find the plan that works best for you. Your doctor may suggest incorporating fish oil in your diet/supplement routine in combination with drugs or psychotherapy or lifestyle changes (like meditation or stress reduction). But get that advice; don’t go it alone.
- Remember that dose does matter. Some of the research benefits have demonstrated stronger results at higher doses. But that doesn’t mean you should take those higher doses without first consulting your doctor. What it does mean is that testing your omega-3 levels—through an order from your doctor or from an at-home test—should be part of the plan. At OmegaQuant, we have a number of relevant at-home tests: including one, two or three featuring progressively more detailed results for omega-3 levels plus two-more options specifically for testing prenatal DHA and DHA in mother’s milk. (Heck, if your dog is experiencing anxiety, we even have an at-home test to determine omega-3 levels to help you decide if adding fish oil to his/her diet is warranted.)
- Certainly, consider omega-3 supplements as a preventative measure for anxiety and as a possible weapon in lessening symptoms and managing anxiety levels—but know that the research is still emerging and has demonstrated mixed results for anxiety so far.
- Even more certainly, consider getting omega-3 fatty acids (through diet, through supplements) for the numerous potential benefits. If they also provide help for your anxiety, consider that the cherry on the top of the sundae.