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Omega-3 From Fish Oil Reduces Cigarette Craving

Smokers may not realize their habit is reducing crucial fatty acids in the brain, which are associated with pleasure - and addiction, says an Israeli scientist.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Salmon, like that found in sushi rolls, contains the right sort of omega-3 acids that can reduce nicotine cravings. But how much of it can you eat?
Salmon, like that found in sushi rolls, contains the right sort of omega-3 acids that can reduce nicotine cravings. But how much of it can you eat?Credit: Limor Laniado Tirosh
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Smokers might find it easier to kick the tobacco habit if they take omega-3 supplements from fish oil, says an Israeli scientist.

Large doses of the fatty acid reduces the craving for nicotine, says Dr. Sharon Rabinovitz Shenkar, head of the addictions program at the University of Haifa’s School of Criminology and of the Psychopharmacology laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, who conducted the study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

No effective cure exists for cigarette addiction: not behavioral therapy – not even aversion therapy - nor drugs. Moreover, existing treatments can cause adverse effects, says Rabinovitz Shenkar.

The dangers of smoking have been known for over a century. Less commonly known is that smoking, beyond being implicated in cancer, heart disease and ashtray-breath, also reduces the levels of essential fatty acids in the brain. Especially that of the omega-3 family.

Omega-3 deficiency is bad. It damages nerve cells and the communication between them, notably in areas of the brain involved with feeling pleasure and satisfaction. These are key areas in decision-making – and the inability to stop smoking. In other words, explains Rabinovitz Shenkar in a statement: "Omega-3 deficiency makes it harder for the smoker’s body to deal with its craving for another cigarette."

Omega-3 supplements, typically fish oil in capsules, have been touted as improving brain power and reducing the probability of heart attack and stroke. (At the other end of the rainbow, reports that omega-3 supplements actually increase the incidence of prostate cancer have been soundly refuted, says Rabinovitz Shenkar.)

What has been proven in previous studies is that omega-3 imbalance can impair mental health, and the ability to cope with pressure and stress, which are famously associated with the urge to smoke.

Can't fix abnormal damage with normal doses

The study, a small one, was done under the strictest scientific conditions - double-blind, randomized, and placebo-controlled. It encompassed 48 smokers aged 18 to 45 who averaged about 14 cigarettes a day. All were diagnosed as having a moderate dependency on nicotine and had been puffing for an average of 11 years.

The groups were given capsules five times a day for 30 days. The group taking the omega-3 swallowed altogether 2.7 grams of the fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and 2 grams of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) per day. Both are omega-4 acids found in fish oil.

The control group was given placebos with mineral and soybean oil.

The U.S. Food and Drugs Administration advises that adults consume no more than three grams per day of the two fish oils, one gram per day from fresh foods, and no more than two grams per day coming from dietary supplements.

"Indeed the dosage is higher than the recommended daily dose," confirms Rabinovitz Shenkar by email to Haaretz. A recommended daily dosage is for "normal people" who take the supplements over time to preserve their condition, she explains. The purpose of her study was to test whether "acute consumption" could change the significant fatty-acid imbalance and damage to health caused by prolonged smoking.

To repair substantial damage, it isn't enough to take the recommended daily dose, as numerous studies testing the effect of fatty acids on various behavioral and medical disorders have found, she writes.

It would be very difficult to achieve levels like this of omega-3 through diet alone, certainly not if one confines shopping to affordable fresh foods. And, one would have to eat vast amounts. "How much salmon can Yossi Cohen of Hadera eat in a week, and for how long?" Rabinovitz Shenkar quips.

At the beginning of the study, mo difference was found between the smoking habits of the groups. By its end, after 30 days, smokers who had taken omega-3 reduced their habit by an average of two a day, which is 11%. The placebo takers felt no change. After a month without taking omega-3, the smokers' nicotine craving had started fight back, but they still had a lower baseline craving than at the study's start.

Will they stop smoking? That remains to be seen. Addictions can have a profound emotional component.

A. used to smoke but hasn't touched a cigarette in 20 years, though his wife never stopped smoking. How did he do it? "I changed my image of myself in my own mind, from a man who is cool and smokes to a man who is cool and doesn't smoke," he answers. And nary a salmon in sight. If only it were that simple for everyone.

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