Omega-3s for Better Mental Health

By now, most people have at least heard of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in fish but are also in flaxseeds, walnuts, and products like eggs from hens who have consumed an Omega-3 rich diet. Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats that are also essential nutrients – this means that our bodies cannot produce them on our own, and we thus need to obtain them from dietary sources. Omega-3s are often described in terms of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and you may see these descriptors on fortified foods or supplements containing them. DHA is believed to play a role in the brain’s structure. EPA and EPA plus DHA supplementation have been associated with decreased inflammation and improved mood.

You may also have heard of Omega-6 fatty acids. These too are essential nutrients; however, most Americans consume far more of these than Omega-3s, because Omega-6s are found in vegetables oils, among other foods. Many of the processed foods that we consume contain plenty of Omega-6s, such as soybean, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, and corn oils. Most of us wind up having too much of the latter foods, unfortunately.

The Right Ratio is Important

Consuming too many Omega-6s and too few Omega-3s is associated with a variety of health problems. The research to date has revealed a link between a high ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s with cardiovascular disease, major depression, increased risk of suicide attempts in patients who are depressed, as well as chronic inflammation. Conversely, diets high in fish consumption (Omega-3s) have been linked to reduced risk of the above conditions in large population studies.

Omega-3s and Mental Health: The Data

These findings have prompted a number of clinical trials examining the potential benefits of supplementation with Omega-3s. With regard to mental health, in several studies, Omega-3 supplementation has been associated with improvement in depressive symptoms, and in one study, improved symptoms of depression in patients who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Furthermore, in a small trial of depressed children aged 6-12, Omega-3 supplementation (where the ratio of EPA to DHA was 2:1) was associated with a marked reduction in depression scores as compared to receiving a placebo.

A particularly interesting group of findings came out of a small 2003 study of patients who met diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder. Borderline personality is often marked by impulsive aggression and reactive mood swings, which do not always respond sufficiently to treatment with antidepressants or mood stabilizers. In this study, participants were provided with either a 1000 mg daily dose of 97% EPA or a placebo containing mineral oil. At the end of the 8-week trial, EPA supplementation was associated with significantly decreased severity of depressive symptoms and reduced aggression as compared to placebo.

Finally, a very recent study examined whether daily supplementation comprised of 2085 mg of EPA and 348 mg of DHA supplementation could reduce anxiety in healthy medical students who did not meet criteria for an anxiety disorder but nonetheless experienced periodic symptoms. The researchers found that anxiety symptoms were 20% lower in those who took the Omega-3s, and that these participants also had lower levels of inflammation as measured by blood samples. There were no differences in levels of depression between the two groups.

Recommendations

It is important to note that more research needs to be done before Omega-3 supplementation can be recommended as a stand-alone treatment for psychological symptoms. Yet, there is evidence to suggest that increasing intake of Omega-3s could be helpful for managing mood symptoms as well as to maintain cardiovascular and overall health.

The easiest and safest way to improve the Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio is to increase the amount of Omega-3-rich foods consumed, such as fresh seafood, walnuts, flaxseeds, and fortified eggs, and decrease Omega-6-laden choices such as processed foods and packaged baked goods. Give yourself at least several weeks to a few months to notice a difference. If you are considering taking Omega-3 supplements, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor or a registered dietician to determine an appropriate dose, or whether there are any contraindications for you.

Finally, if you have symptoms of depression or other mental or physical health issues, be sure to see a qualified professional to explore all appropriate treatment options.

References:

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

This website has information about Omega-3s and other CAM topics for consumers and health professionals: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/omega3/

Food and Drug Administration

Information to help you include lower-mercury fish options in your diet: http://www.fda.gov/food/foodsafety/product-specificinformation/seafood/foodbornepathogenscontaminants/methylmercury/ucm115644.htm

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Marlarkey, W. B., & Glaser, R. (2011). Omega‑3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 1725-1734.

Owen, C., Rees, A., & Parker, G. (2008). The role of fatty acids in the development and treatment of mood disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 21, 19-24.

Zanarini, M. C., & Frankenberg, F. R. (2003). Omega-3 fatty acid treatment of women with borderline personality disorder: A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 167-169.

Related Articles:
Yoga for Balancing Mind and Body
Taking Care of Yourself Will Enhance Your Relationship
New Research Reveals Benefits of Omega 3 Fatty Acid in Bipolar Mice

© Copyright 2011 by Traci Stein. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • Ben

    Ben

    November 11th, 2011 at 7:57 PM

    I know that supplements can be a huge benefit to many diets. There are simply people who are never going to get enough of what they need with the food that they eat. And I am all for supplements too- I happen to take them myself. But I do also think that it is important to remember that this is not the ebst way to get those omega 3s and other important minerals and vitamins. There are so many great foods and natural ways to get this into your diet without always having to rely on a pill. Yes these can be a great way to SUPPLEMENT but they should never be relied on as the only source for them.

  • mark childers

    mark childers

    November 12th, 2011 at 7:22 AM

    This is one huge reason why the Mediterranean diet makes sense. It is full of natural goodness and foods that are naturally blessed with omega 3s. We have a lot to learn from those brethren.

  • Ivory

    Ivory

    November 12th, 2011 at 10:04 PM

    If our bodies don’t produce omega3’s on their own after several millions, even billions of years of evolution, then how can it be that important? If it’s a substance that we absolutely needed to function optimally then our bodies would produce it!

  • Lorne Callaghan

    Lorne Callaghan

    November 12th, 2011 at 11:00 PM

    “Furthermore, in a small trial of depressed children aged 6-12, Omega-3 supplementation (where the ratio of EPA to DHA was 2:1) was associated with a marked reduction in depression scores as compared to receiving a placebo.”

    Exactly how small was this trial, out of curiosity? I have trouble placing my faith in data obtained from studies that have participants than number less than triple figures.

  • Alisha Summers

    Alisha Summers

    November 12th, 2011 at 11:23 PM

    @Ivory–Your stance there is pretty shaky. One word: Oxygen. We need that to live and die within five or ten minutes without it, but we have to get it from plants that don’t use it. If that was honestly how things worked we wouldn’t have to eat now, would we?

  • rich swanson

    rich swanson

    November 12th, 2011 at 11:28 PM

    I never eat fish or much that has omega 3 oils in it, and I’m not depressed, suicidal, suffering from every -itis in the book. Nor am I suffering from any heart problems that I know of. I think omega-3s are overhyped placebos that only have minimal benefits at best.

  • Angelica Beasley

    Angelica Beasley

    November 12th, 2011 at 11:49 PM

    @rich swanson: I have to disagree with you on that assessment. Unlike many placebos and snake oil type products you see on the TV, omega 3 oil is in good standing with the FDA.

    You know how I judge a product to be a scam? When it says “Not approved by the FDA” in tiny print on the bottle or their website and they don’t say another word about it. As far as I’m concerned if it’s not FDA-approved, it’s fake.

  • june dawson

    june dawson

    November 12th, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    I took omega-3 before as I’d heard it helped you with concentration. The older I get, the more I find my concentration lapses. I wanted to do something about that and I wasn’t about to use anything that wasn’t approved by the FDA either. If they haven’t given it their blessing, I’m sure as heck not going to put it into my body!

    I did feel my concentration got better after a number of months on it. I would recommend omega-3 with the caveat that it’s not an overnight fix, so don’t expect instantaneous results.

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    November 13th, 2011 at 7:04 AM

    Hi Ivory, I hear where you are coming from, but in actuality, there are a number of essential nutrients that our bodies require from external sources. Among these are carbohydrates, fats and proteins, calcium and vitamin D, for example. We also need to replenish water every day in order to function properly. Which is why proper nutrition is so important (and why we continue to need to drink or eat at all, even after all of this time).

  • Tammy Farley

    Tammy Farley

    November 13th, 2011 at 6:47 PM

    I don’t think it will ever be a sole treatment for any psychological problems. Your diet, unless you have the worst chef ever, isn’t going to depress you. Depression is caused more by your life than by your intake of fish oil. I’m sitting very much on the fence on that.

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    November 13th, 2011 at 8:03 PM

    @Lorne: That’s a good question. The trial was a small pilot involving children diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Results from 20 children completing at least the one-month follow up were included in the analyses. Among the children in the omega-3 group, 7 out of 10 had a 50% or greater reduction in their symptoms, whereas none of the children in the placebo group experienced this magnitude of improvement, and the results were statistically significant. Although the study is small and preliminary, I am hopeful it will prompt other researchers to look into this further. Here is the reference for the paper in case you are interested: Nemets, H. (2006). Omega-3 Treatment of Childhood Depression: A Controlled, Double-Blind Pilot Study. American Journal of Psychiatry.

  • Julianna

    Julianna

    November 14th, 2011 at 5:07 PM

    So is this just the “next big thing” or is this the real deal? We get so many things thrown at us to keep us healthy- eat this not that, try this but not that, that sometimes I have to admit that it is hard to prioritize and keep it all straight. I try to normally eat healthy and exercise but there seems to always be something else that I should be doing. How do we really know that the choices that are making are ultimately going to be the right ones for our health and longevity?

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    November 16th, 2011 at 9:59 AM

    @Juliana: That’s a reasonable question to ask given how bombarded we are with health information these days. Basically, research done on populations that consume large amounts of omega-3s via fish have lower rates of diseases associated with chronic inflammation, as well as lower rates of depression. So, eating well can improve our overall quality life. And making changes that may help you to avoid a serious illness like cardiovascular disease, as an example, could lead to a longer life. The challenge when looking at the research is that we are talking about trends across large numbers of people. So we can predict, in a given population, how a lifestyle change could be beneficial. What we cannot do, unfortunately, is say exactly how the same change will affect any particular individual. That being said, I recommend that people strive to do a number of things to reduce stress and enhance health, and pay attention to how they feel over time vs. when they don’t take care of themselves. Keeping a journal may help you to get a better sense of what the benefits are for you over time.

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