Monday, 6 February 2012

Omega 3s, Stress and Cancer

Stress is a fact of life for cancer sufferers not just when they are undergoing treatment, but beyond that too, once they are in remission. It’s a fact life for people with Li Fraumeni Syndrome and other TP53-related conditions, and for those with Lynch Syndrome or other inherited conditions that predispose to cancer. This would be bad enough if we didn’t also know that stress can negatively affect the health, including negatively affecting the immune system. And, to cap it all, this knowledge itself causes stress, thereby creating one of those horrible vicious cycles that can lead to depression and anxiety.

Before reaching for the anti-depressants though, there are some positive things that can be done to tackle this stress. And, as a bonus, many of these steps to tackle stress can also boost the immune system and generally have a positive effect on health. What’s more, there is also accumulating evidence that many of the steps that I will outline are also good for people in the middle of cancer treatment, not just those who are in remission or worried about the next test results.

These positive steps include:

  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Tackling sleep problems
  • Improving diet
  • Omega 3 fatty acids


This article will focus on the last of these, but in time I hope to write about all of the items on that list.

It is well known that consumption of omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) from fish are inversely associated with depression and anxiety. We know this from evidence in the broader population. There is also evidence that stress and anxiety can cause an increase of inflammatory signalling in the body, and there are some doctors who believe that a part of the anti-stress/anti-depressant activity of omega 3s is because they are anti-inflammatory – they help to damp down all the harmful pro-inflammatory signalling. And let’s note, that inflammation is itself implicated in cancer progression.

None of this is news. There are plenty of popular articles out there that describe the many positive health benefits associated with the increased consumption of omega 3s. However, let’s focus on one recent paper [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21784145] that is especially interesting for our purposes. It focused not on people suffering from clinical depression but from young, healthy medical students suffering from stress and anxiety. Now this isn’t to suggest that people with LFS or those who have just been through the major trauma of chemotherapy are in the same boat as first and second year medical students, but neither can we suggest that they are all suffering from clinical depression.

The study consisted of splitting the students into two groups, the first received 2.5g a day of omega 3’s (around 2.0g of EPA, and around 350mg of DHA), while the second group received a placebo (dummy) pill that contained a mix of non-omega 3 oils. The scientists then tracked the two groups of students for a period of 12 weeks. The students were given various blood tests that looked at the levels of specific blood markers associated with inflammatory processes and stress, and also assessed for mood at times deemed to be low or high stress (such as just before exams).

The results were clear:

Students who received n-3 PUFAs showed a 14% decrease in stimulated IL-6 [a marker of stress] production and a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to controls.

Furthermore, the researchers point out that:

The differences in inflammation are particularly striking because our medical students had higher levels of n-3 and lower n-6 than anticipated, based on population data (Simopoulos, 2002).… Despite this fact, we nonetheless saw significant decrements in inflammation related to changes in their plasma n-6:n-3 ratios in response to the n-3 PUFA supplements.

In other words, the omega 3 supplements, at a dose of 2.5g a day lead to a decrease in inflammation and a measurable decrease in feelings of anxiety.

This study is only one of a number indicating the benefits of omega 3 supplementation. There are many more, showing positive effects in a range of physical and psychological conditions.

For those worried about cancer, there are also other benefits aside from reduced anxiety. The medical literature is full of reports and trials showing that taking omega 3s can slow tumour progression, delay metastases, fight against chemoresistance and improve the efficacy of radio- and chemotherapy. Indeed there are a number of trials taking place that use omega 3 PUFAs alongside conventional cancer treatments.

For all these reasons, supplementing with omega 3s is worth serious consideration and certainly worth discussion with your medical team.

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