Omega-3s and Depression – Treatment Miracle or Fishy Connection?by Brian Dean, MS, RD | October 13, 2010
A new study investigating the effects of fish oil on depression has helped cement omega-3 fats as one of the most effective natural approaches to depression. A new research study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry was one of the first to put fish oil’s potential depression-battling benefits through the rigor of a randomized control trial. If these results are repeated in future studies, it could provide relief to the twenty one million adults who struggle with depression and side effect laden antidepressant medications.
Fish oil is one of the most popular supplements in the world due to its incredible breadth of health benefits –including brain health. However, until recently, fish oil has been largely ignored by the medical community as a legitimate treatment for depression. As François Lespérance, MD, the author of the new study states about the current state of depression treatments,” Many alternative treatments have not been adequately evaluated. That is why it was important to assess the efficacy of omega-3, one of the most popular alternative approaches.”
In this study, a group of people experiencing serious bouts of depression were given a high-potency fish oil supplement or a placebo for eight weeks. They found that the fish oil improved depression about 30% more than the placebo –beating the effectiveness of prescription Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac.
Why have omega 3’s been overlooked in favor of prescription drugs? It appears that it has less to do with a conspiracy cooked up by the pharmaceutical industry than the simple fact that until very recently, there was little science backing the omega 3-depression connection. Most of the research into omega 3 fats and depression were population-wide studies that weren’t able to eliminate the possibility of confounding variables mucking up the results. For example, a Finnish study found a potential, but inconclusive, link between fish intake and depression in a group of 5000 men.
However, the connection was promising enough for scientists to start ramping up high quality intervention trials. While this month’s study was one of the best in terms of quality, it wasn’t the first. A 2003 placebo-controlled trial found that two months of fish oil supplementation improved depressive symptoms.
How do omega-3s lift mood? Scientists think that omega 3s alter the brain’s cell membranes, making them more fluid and permeable (interestingly, it’s the same cell permeability that allows fish to avoid freezing in frigid waters, hence their high omega-3 content). Biochemically, omega-3 fats make brain cells more likely to accept serotonin –a neurotransmitter that’s known to combat depression. In fact, many studies have found that eating lots of omega-3s increase serotonin levels in the brain.
But these results don’t have every psychiatrist prescribing trips to the GNC for their depressed patients. Many remain skeptical that fish oil really works. Even though some studies show incredible promise for omega-3s and depression, others, like a 2004 study published in The Journal of Psychiatry which found no association between omega-3 intake a depression in a group of nearly 30,000 men make many health professionals wonder if omega-3s are the real deal.
Could omega-3s one day replace the Prozacs and Zolofts of the world? It looks like the jury is going to remain out on this issue until more conclusive results from randomized control trials start rolling in.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s wise to avoid fish oil in the meantime. Because fish oil has proven cardiovascular health benefits, most health bodies, like the American Heart Association, recommend eating fish at least twice per week. If you’re feeling depressed, a popping a few fish oil capsules surely isn’t going to hurt you, and if recent research results hold true, it might make a serious dent in your mood.
Lespérance F, Frasure-Smith N, St-André E, Turecki G, Lespérance P, & Wisniewski SR (2010). The efficacy of omega-3 supplementation for major depression: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of clinical psychiatry PMID: 20584525
Hakkarainen R, Partonen T, Haukka J, Virtamo J, Albanes D, & Lönnqvist J (2004). Is low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids associated with depression? The American journal of psychiatry, 161 (3), 567-9 PMID: 14992986
Logan AC (2004). Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: a primer for the mental health professional. Lipids in health and disease, 3 PMID: 15535884
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