HEALTH

Study: Omega-3s credited with lowering inflammation, anxiety

BY Michael Johnsen

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A recent study gauging the impact of consuming more fish oil showed a marked reduction both in inflammation and in anxiety among a cohort of healthy young people, the Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science announced Wednesday.

“[And] the findings suggest that if young people can get improvements from dietary supplements, then the elderly and people at high risk for certain diseases might benefit even more,” stated Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and author of the study, which was published this month in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity. “The more we understand about the complex interplay between inflammation and immunity, the closer we’ll get to figuring out which lifestyle choices and changes have the biggest impact on long-term health.”

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), have long been considered as positive additives to the diet. Earlier research suggested that the compounds might play a role in reducing the level of cytokines in the body, compounds that promote inflammation, and perhaps even reduce depression. Psychological stress has repeatedly been shown to increase cytokine production so the researchers wondered if increasing omega-3 might mitigate that process, reducing inflammation.

To test their theory, they turned to a familiar group of research subjects — medical students. Some of the earliest work these scientists did showed that stress from important medical school tests lowered students’ immune status. “We hypothesized that giving some students omega-3 supplements would decrease their production of proinflammatory cytokines, compared to other students who only received a placebo,” Kiecolt-Glaser said. “We thought the omega-3 would reduce the stress-induced increase in cytokines that normally arose from nervousness over the tests.”

The team assembled a field of 68 first- and second-year medical students who volunteered for the clinical trial. Half the students received omega-3 supplements while the other half were given placebo pills. The students were randomly divided into six groups, all of which were interviewed six times during the study. At each visit, blood samples were drawn from the students who also completed a battery of psychological surveys intended to gauge their levels of stress, anxiety or depression. The students also completed questionnaires about their diets during the previous weeks.

“The omega-3 supplement the students received was probably about four or five times the amount of fish oil you’d get from a daily serving of salmon,” explained Martha Belury, professor of human nutrition and co-author in the study.

Part of the study, however, didn’t go according to plan. Changes in the medical curriculum and the distribution of major tests throughout the year, rather than during a tense three-day period as was done in the past, removed much of the stress that medical students had shown in past studies. “These students were not anxious. They weren’t really stressed. They were actually sleeping well throughout this period, so we didn’t get the stress effect we had expected,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

But the psychological surveys showed an important change in anxiety among the students: Those receiving the omega-3 showed a 20% reduction in anxiety, compared with the placebo group. An analysis of the of the blood samples from the medical students showed similar important results. “We saw a 14% reduction in the amounts of [the cytokine] IL-6 among the students receiving the omega-3," noted Ron Glaser, professor of molecular virology, immunology & medical genetics and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. Since the cytokines foster inflammation, “anything we can do to reduce cytokines is a big plus in dealing with the overall health of people at risk for many diseases,” he said.


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Surveys: HSA utilization on the rise

BY Michael Johnsen

DALLAS — Employers and consumers alike are adopting health savings accounts as a viable way to manage their healthcare costs without compromising care, according to two national surveys released Thursday.

The “2011 Employer and Account Holder Surveys,” commissioned by ACS and conducted by Buck Consultants, which both are Xerox companies, showed 77% of small employers believed that high-deductible health plans with an HSA are key in controlling healthcare costs. Additionally, more than half (56%) of account holders have found that their HSA-qualified plan provides an affordable healthcare option.

“This year’s survey results reveal an interesting phenomenon — HSAs are doing more than just saving consumers and employers money. They are prompting a shift in behavior that is helping employees make better decisions about their own health care,” stated Tom Hricik, principal for the ACS | HSA Solution.

The surveys found that HSAs put consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to managing their health services and care. Three-quarters of respondents said the ability personally to control their own health costs is an “extremely” or “very” important benefit of HSAs. Not only are account holders setting aside more money than before they had an HSA to cover potential medical costs (54%), but they also are engaging in healthier lifestyle choices (18%), researching preventive care programs (18%), shopping for lower-priced prescription drugs (28%) and planning health care better throughout the year (31%). Individuals perceived that they consume medical services at approximately the same rate but are shopping for care more than before.

Employers report that the cost of providing HSA-qualified plans is less than the cost of providing a standard preferred provider organization. The average direct cost to provide an HDHP/HSA is $5,469 for individual coverage and $9,909 for family coverage. The compared with the average PPO cost of $7,158 for individuals and $10,691 for family.

Hricik said surveyed employers are extremely committed to offering employer-sponsored health insurance for the foreseeable future, and are equally committed to retain their HSA-qualified plans. Only 6% stated that they are at least very likely to discontinue offering the HSA-qualified plan in the future. And, only 7% of employers stated that they would be at least very likely to move employees to future healthcare exchanges.

Other significant findings include:
2011 Employer Survey:

  • The average employer that implemented an HDHP and HSA program has 49% of eligible employees enrolled in the HDHP;

  • 69% of employer respondents contributed to their employees’ HSA accounts; and

  • Employers’ contributions to HSAs average $1,000 for individual coverage and $1,500 for family coverage.

2011 Account Holder Survey:

  • 72% of account holders indicated that they actively chose the HSA-qualified plan although other plan options exist for them;

  • 82% of account holders surveyed reported that the ability to save tax-free money was “extremely” or “very” important in selecting an HSA-qualified plan;

  • 79% of respondents stated that having an HSA is valuable to them; and

  • 64% of respondents stated that their HDHP/HSA combination meets their family’s needs.

These surveys, commissioned in the fall of this year by ACS and conducted by Buck Consultants, generated more than 14,000 existing account holder and 300 employer responses.


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Legislation introduced to ‘grandfather’ all supplements up to Jan. 2007

BY Michael Johnsen

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., last week introduced a bill — the Dietary Supplement Protection Act of 2011 — that would reclassify approximately 25,000 supplements launched between Oct. 15, 1994, and Jan. 1, 2007, as "grandfathered" supplements and not subject to proposed new dietary ingredient regulations.

The Food and Drug Administration recently issued draft guidance on NDIs suggesting that manufacturers would need both proof of prior marketing and proof that present-day manufacturing methods mirror those of manufacturing methods employed before Oct. 15, 1994.

"This standard could be difficult to meet for many dietary ingredients due to the lack of information on manufacturing methods used before the grandfather date," suggested a blog posted Wednesday on the FDA Law Blog site. "Moving the date for grandfather status to Jan. 1, 2007, would reduce the number of dietary ingredients for which the manufacturing method may have changed, and reduce the chance that industry no longer possesses information about the manufacturing method for a grandfathered dietary ingredient."

The bill (H.R. 3380) was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Nov. 4.


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