In a previous column, I discussed the effects of stress on health, but not everyone responds to stress in the same manner. Although we live in a society where stress seems to be lurking on every street corner and hiding behind every tree, some people respond to chronic stress more intensely than others. These folks are the ones who probably need more help.
One of the more potent dietary supplements for combating the effects of stress is omega-3 fat. Increasing omega-3 fats in the diet, especially docosahexanoic acid and phosphatidylserine can reduce stress hormone levels in both animals and humans. Supplementation with a specific omega-3 fats, phosphatidylserine has been shown to reduce a number of stress-related hormones such as adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol in both animals and humans.
Studies have shown that taking phosphatidylserine after a physically stressful event, such as long-distance running, weightlifting or competitive cycling, can reduce the usual increasing cortisol levels, reduce muscle soreness and accelerate recovery. Phosphatidylserine also can reduce the stress from demanding mental and emotional activities. Since phosphatidylserine levels decrease in the brain as we age, studies in the elderly have shown that phosphatidylserine supplementation can improve both long-term and short-term memory, cognition and logical thinking.
However, these results do not seem to be consistently reproducible. Some studies show a significant benefit, and other studies demonstrate either limited benefit or no benefit whatsoever. The question is "why are these results so different?" The answer may be that those participants who respond poorly to stress may benefit the most from phosphatidylserine. A study inadvertently composed of participants who have a difficult time handling stress, may skew the results toward a positive outcome. In contrast, if the study is composed of individuals who handle stress more easily, the results would probably trend toward no benefit.
One recent German medical study looked at the effect of supplementation with phosphatidylserine on subgroups of participants undergoing a mentally stressful test. In this study, participants were divided into two basic groups, one group receiving phosphatidylserine and the other group receiving a placebo. The patients then underwent psychologically stressful testing.
A number of psychological and physiological stress parameters were followed throughout the duration of the study. The results were then stratified into people who respond strongly to stress and those who don't respond very strongly to stress.
The results were interesting. for individuals who do not respond very strongly to stress, phosphatidylserine supplementation did not seem to be of benefit. In contrast, individuals who responded strongly to stress, saw significantly reduced stress measures after taking phosphatidylserine. In this subgroup, phosphatidylserine was very beneficial.
Phosphatidylserine is derived from soy and is generally recognized as safe by the FDA. The best dietary sources of phosphatidylserine are in seafood rarely found in the American diet: mackerel, herring and eel. For those who are under chronic stress (and are feeling the effects), phosphatidylserine supplementation seems to be to be a reasonable option. During stressful times of the year, I use it myself.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.