Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids a Potential Treatment for Depression?

The buzz about fish and fish oil is that they benefit mental well-being. In 2010 scientists in Finland reported the results of a twelve month study of whether fish consumption can reduce the frequency of major depressive episodes in men.

Researchers at the National Institute of Health and Welfare and the University of Turku in Finland used data reported by 6,757 Finnish fishermen and their families to see if there could be a relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and depressive episodes. The biology of the brain tells us that frequent consumption of omega-3 pills and omega-3 fatty acids may reduce inflammation that interferes with higher-level thought.

Getting plenty of omega-3's may also prevent the breakdown of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that are important to maintaining a healthy mood. But what happens in real life?

Different People Respond to Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Different Ways

Depression is common in Finland. The Finnish researchers found that men who did not report any episodes of depression consumed about twice as much fish and fish oil as the average. Consumption of fish and fish oil seemed especially protective against depression in men who were heavy drinkers.

The relationship between fish, fish oil, and depression in Finnish women was more complex. In Finnish women, the benefits of fish oil for warding off depression were clearest among women who did not smoke and also in women who got the least exercise.

What the Finnish research tells us is that fish and fish oil for depression are usually helpful, but they help some people more than others. The research did find that the most fish products people consumed, the less they were depressed. And other research tells us that fish oil, not other sources of omega-3 fatty acids, is what fights depression.

Why You Need Pure Fish Oil to Fight Depression

Dr. J. G. Martins, writing in the Journal of the American College of Nutritional Science, explains that the component of fish oil that heals the brain in depression is the omega-3 fatty acid EPA, also known as eicosapentaenoic acid. Fish oil also contains another omega-3 fatty acid called DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid.

The human body can convert plant oils into DHA. It can't convert plant oils into EPA. To get EPA, you have to take fish oil or eat fish.

And it's a lot easier to take fish oil capsules or fish oil pills than it is to make sushi or boil, steam, or stew-but never fry-cold-water fish.

You need fresh fish that is not cooked at all or cooked at the lowest possible heat to enjoy the benefits of fish oil from eating the fish. And while fish oil is distilled to remove impurities, there is no way to remove potential toxins from an actual fish.

What You Need to Know About Using Fish Oil to Fight Depression

Don't stop taking an antidepressant so you can start taking fish oil. Scientific research has found that the best results occur when depression is treated with a combination of methods, either a prescription antidepressant and fish oil, or, for mild depression, St. John's wort and fish oil.

Selected References:
  • Appleton KM, Hayward RC, Gunnell D, Peters TJ, Rogers PJ, et al. Effects of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on depressed mood: systematic review of published trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;84:1308-1316.
  • James MJ, Gibson RA, Cleland LG. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory mediator production. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71:343S-348S.

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