Long recognized for their heart-health benefits, omega-3 fatty acids are emerging as an effective therapy for mood disorders. However, giving the green light to consume omega-3s for mental health benefits isn’t so simple. It takes the right combination of fats, in addition to other therapies a person may be using, to get results, research shows. And many people with mood disorders should speak with their doctors first to avoid making mistakes like stopping other depression treatments.
While your body can synthesize other types of fat from dietary components such as carbohydrates and proteins, it can’t make its own omega-3s. We have to get them from food or fish oil supplements. Omega-3s come in three varieties:
• Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Found in fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and herring, DHA concentrates in the brain’s gray matter and the retinas in the eyes.
• Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): Also found in cold-water fish, EPA seems to have a unique role in maintaining a healthy mood. Many studies show that DHA alone doesn’t work for depression. You need a little more EPA than DHA to get results.
• Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): Found in flaxseed, canola oil, pumpkin seeds, purslane, and walnuts, and in small amounts in Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens, ALA doesn’t directly influence mood management although it may help with heart health. The human body converts a small percentage into EPA and DHA.
While most Americans get plenty of ALA, we’re sadly low in the consumption of DHA and EPA. The American Heart Association recommends people eat fish twice a week, which, on average, would give you the recommended dose of 500 mg of DHA and EPA daily. But most adults and kids get closer to 100 mg or less. As a result, blood levels of these fats are low—and even lower in people with depression.
Research from laboratory and population studies and clinical trials that tested omega-3 supplements in people with various types of depression suggests that raising EPA and DHA levels can make a difference. Those who study the effects of omega-3s on depression have found the following:
• EPA plus DHA can improve primary depression. When M. Elizabeth Sublette, MD, PhD, of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and her team of researchers reviewed 15 trials involving 916 participants, they concluded that supplements with at least 60% EPA improved depression symptoms. Their meta-analysis was published online in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. A Canadian study published in the August 2011 issue of the same journal found that a similar 60/40 ratio of EPA/DHA eased depression somewhat in people with depression who didn’t have anxiety disorders.
• Low omega-3 levels are associated with suicide and self-harm. In response to increasing rates of suicide in the military, researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently found that low blood levels of omega-3s were widespread and raised suicide risk by as much as 62%. The study was published online in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
Using Omega-3s Safely and Wisely
• Safest dose: For general good health, adults and kids should get omega-3s by eating two or more servings of fatty cold-water fish per week. That’s the recommendation of the American Heart Association and the Omega-3 Fatty Acids Subcommittee organized in 2006 by the American Psychiatric Association. That works out to about 500 mg per day, which you also can get from fish oil capsules or other products. People with mood disorders may benefit from 1,000 mg of EPA plus DHA daily from fish oil supplements, according to the subcommittee, but they should consult a doctor first.
• Don’t stop taking antidepressants, lithium, or any other medications or treatments. They shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a replacement for standard antidepressants or for psychotherapy, if these are being used.
One should always get their doctor’s approval before starting any dose of omega-3s if they’re pregnant, nursing, taking blood thinners, or have a bleeding disorder. Omega-3s can reduce blood clotting; if an individual is already taking a blood thinner for this purpose, the combination could be dangerous.
While omega 3 fatty acids are good for the brain, keep in mind (no pun intended) that other types of fats may be detrimental to brain function. Eating high amounts of saturated fat can raise the levels of bad cholesterol in your blood, which can stick to your arteries, and, even worse, result in plaque in your brain that can deteriorate your memory. The process that occurs causes decreased oxygen and blood flow to the brain. Inflammation and lack of oxygen (resulting from that donut or sugary soda) result in accelerated memory loss.
It’s also interesting to note that the eight southern states in America that make up the “Stroke Belt” also have higher incidences of obesity and a greater chance of dementia. Of course, many factors are at play when it comes to developing dementia, but lifestyle factors like a high saturated fat diet, coupled with little physical activity, are certainly big contributors to memory problems and heart attacks.
A recent study of healthy adults and adults with mild cognitive impairment tested out the effects of two diets. One was the “high diet,” which was high in saturated fat (at least 25 percent of the diet) and simple carbohydrates (glycemic index greater than 70). The other was a “low diet,” which was low in saturated fat (less than 7 percent of the diet) with a fewer simple carbs (glycemic index less than 55).
Not surprisingly, the low diet improved or made the levels of three important markers of health better for you:
- Firstly, this diet was associated with less bad cholesterol.
- Secondly, the low diet was linked with lower insulin levels.
- Lastly, it lowered CSF F2-isoprostane concentrations, which is a fancy way of saying it lessened the biomarkers of free radical injury, a signal of oxidative damage to, or damaging inflammation in, your central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).
What does this all mean for the bigger picture? After just one month of the low saturated fat/low simple carbs diet, “visual memory” improved for healthy adults and adults with cognitive impairment. This was a small study of 49 subjects, but the implications have big promise for your enjoyment of life and brain power.