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Dr. Sears' Blog

Keep Up with the Latest Nutrition Science
Written By: Dr. Barry Sears Creator of the Zone Diet

Written by Dr. Barry Sears
on June 28, 2021

It’s common knowledge that stress can be a killer. But what is not clear is why is it harmful and what you can do to reduce it? A new research article provides more insight into both questions (1). The subjects in this study were middle-aged, overweight healthy adults. Thirty days before the trial, the subjects were split into three groups consuming either placebo capsules, 1.25, or 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA daily.

The stress they were exposed to was being given 10 minutes to prepare a 5-minute speech. This speech entailed telling why they were the best candidates for a job. Furthermore, the speech was delivered in front of two live judges wearing white lab coats who were told to keep neutral facial expressions during the speech. The subjects couldn’t use any notes for their job interview speech in front of the judges. If they didn’t use their allotted 5-minute time, they were told to continue speaking until their five minutes were up. If that wasn’t enough stress, they also had to immediately do an oral 5-minute serial subtraction test after their speech before the same judges. If they made a mistake, they would have to start over from the beginning. This test is known as the Trier Social Stress Test, which produces stress and inflammation (2).

About one and half hours before this stress test, the subjects had their blood drawn for cytokine levels and saliva for cortisol levels. Then, they ate a standardized breakfast and then answered a questionnaire on their current state of anxiety. After the 20-minute stress test, the same parameters were measured several times over the next two hours.

What happened? Quite a lot. Those taking the 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA per day had significantly lower cortisol levels during and for the next two hours after the test. They also had lower pro-inflammatory cytokine levels and less inhibition of the telomerase enzyme activity that repairs damage to your DNA caused by stress. Similar results of lowered cytokine levels were found in a study of elderly, obese healthy adults taking 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA per day (3).

So, what are the implications? If you are in a high-stress occupation, then taking adequate daily levels of EPA and DHA can be your best defense against the inflammation and damage to your DNA that comes with that occupation-induced stress. This group would also include elite athletes who live in a world of constant stress due to training and competition. However, most of us live with chronic low-level stress. The impact of this type of stress on the immune system is the same. It is unlikely that stress will be eliminated in our lives. Still, you can significantly reduce the inflammatory and genetic consequences of that stress by taking adequate EPA and DHA levels on a lifetime basis.



  1. Madison AA et al. Omega-3 supplementation and stress reactivity of cellular aging biomarkers. Mol Psychiatry doi:10.1038/s41380-021-01077-2 (2021)
  2. Allen AP et al. Biological and psychological markers of stress in humans: Focus on the Trier Social Stress Test. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 38: 94-124 (2014)
  3. Tan A et al. Supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid reduces high levels of circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines in aging adults. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 132:23-29 (2018)


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