Omega-3s Help Reduce Anxiety By Stimulating The Vagus Nerve & More
When I was 12 years old, I had a big project that I left until 8 or 9 p.m. the night before it was due to start. My body became unbearably hot, and panic swept over me as I confessed my procrastination to my parents, tears streaming down my face. The feelings of guilt, stress, and overwhelm sent me into a tailspin of anxious despair. It wasn't long before I started hyperventilating and the short, shallow breaths left me gasping for air and dizzy.
That initial panic attack was only the beginning of my lifelong journey with anxiety. Since then, I've had many, many bouts of anxiety with varying degrees of severity sprinkled throughout high school, college, and early adulthood. Some days, racing thoughts were the symptom I faced; others, I battled up to three or four debilitating panic attacks within 24 hours.
At almost 28 years old now, I've become a pro at spotting anxiety well before it escalates into a full-blown panic attack. But my anxiety has never fully gone away and takes consistent stress-reducing practices to manage.
Recently, I've learned more about the vagus nerve and its role in anxiety. If you have anxious tendencies like me, you may want to learn more about this important nerve's influence on the parasympathetic nervous system as well.
Luckily, there's one extremely simple thing you can start doing today to help stimulate your vagus nerve that has nothing to do with breathwork or meditation (though we love a good mindfulness technique!). Let's talk about omega-3 fatty acids, shall we?
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve runs from the brainstem down to the abdomen and is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps regulate digestion, heart rate, neurotransmitter levels, hormone balance, immune function, and more.
When we're introduced to stressors, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered and our body goes into "fight or flight" mode. The parasympathetic nervous system helps calm our body back down so we can reach homeostasis and our organ systems can function optimally.
Why stimulating the vagus nerve is important for reducing anxiety symptoms
That said, when your vagus nerve isn't operating as it should, it can lead to widespread health concerns (including in the gut, brain, and immune system) over time that negatively affect overall well-being.
What's worse, our body can't distinguish between a real threat (e.g., a bear running at us, ready to attack) and a perceived threat (e.g., an approaching project deadline at work or a "we need to talk" text from your partner).
With stressors at an all-time high, it's easy for our bodies to get stuck in fight-or-flight for long periods of time. That said, if you have strong vagal tone (i.e., activity of the vagus nerve), your body won't get thrown into fight-or-flight every time you get nervous before a serious conversation or overwhelmed by your workload.
Luckily, you can stimulate your vagus nerve, essentially training it to handle stressors better. Some ways to stimulate the vagus nerve include cold exposure therapy, light exercise, singing or humming, and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.
Another easy way to increase vagal tone? Consider omega-3 fats.
How omega-3s help support anxiety management
According to a 2011 Frontiers in Physiology scientific review, consuming omega-3 fatty acids can help increase vagal tone1 and support a healthy parasympathetic nervous response by playing a key role in regulating heart rate variability (HRV).
A higher HRV indicates greater variability between heartbeats, which typically means the body is better equipped to tolerate stress and/or quickly and efficiently recover from accumulated stress. Considering the vagus nerve helps calm the body down (like from a panic attack) and promotes healthy stress management, it's no surprise that increasing HRV plays a part in a well-functioning parasympathetic nervous system.
If you're looking to improve your HRV, scientific research suggests that significantly increasing your daily omega-3 intake (specifically marine omega-3s EPA and DHA) can help increase HRV and support a healthy parasympathetic response2. Other research has found that upping your omega-3 consumption can help with anxiety in myriad ways.
For example, in one randomized controlled trial (RCT) published by Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, healthy medical students that significantly upped their daily omega-3 intake (i.e., 2,085 milligrams of EPA and 348 milligrams of DHA) leading up to major examinations reduced their anxiety symptoms by 20%3 and lowered stress-induced inflammation biomarkers by 14%. If that doesn't make you crave salmon, idk what will!
How to increase your omega-3 intake
So, if you're looking to increase vagal tone, reduce anxiety symptoms, and bolster your body's internal stress management system, might we suggest prioritizing omega-3s in your daily life?
Try adding fatty fish to the menu two or more times a week to get adequate amounts of marine omega-3s. Another great (and simple) way to cover your EPA and DHA bases in a meaningful daily dose is with a premium fish oil. To find a high-quality product to help you up your omega-3 intake, we recommend you check out mindbodygreen's comprehensive guide to buying a high-potency omega-3 supplement.
To help improve your HRV, support your parasympathetic nervous system, practice healthy stress management, and reduce anxiety symptoms overall, consider increasing your consumption of omega-3s EPA and DHA to nurture your nerves.
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.