Omega-3 fatty acids are found mainly in fish oil and certain seaweeds. Because depression seems to be less common in nations where people eat large amounts of fish, scientists have investigated whether fish oils can prevent and / or treat depression and other mood disorders.
It is believed that two omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), have the greatest potential to benefit people with mood disorders.
How do these fatty oils help our brains?
The benefits of “fish oil” are seen during fetal development in the uterus. During pregnancy, thef fatty acids in “fish oil” are transferred from the mother’s blood to the developing fetus, through the placenta.
Therefore, the consumption transferred to a baby is determined by on the amount of DHA ingested by the mother.
Basically, a developing fetal brain can starve to death by DHA, before it is born. This proves to have an impact on both the vision and intelligence of the child during the development of children in life.
Studies have shown that the intake of omega-3 fatty acids can greatly affect mood, behavior, and personality.
Because the need for DHA does not decrease over time, it is important to include foods rich in fatty oils in your diet to ensure that the following conditions of DHA deficiency do not arise later:
- Memory loss
- Bipolar disorder
- General learning difficulties.
- Bad mood
How could omega-3 improve depression?
Different mechanisms of action have been proposed. For example, omega-3s can travel easily through the membrane of the brain cell and interact with molecules related to mood within the brain.
They also have anti-inflammatory actions that can help relieve depression.
More than 30 clinical trials have tested different preparations of omega-3 in people with depression.
Most studies have used omega-3s as a complementary therapy for people taking prescription antidepressants with limited or no benefit.
Fewer studies have examined omega-3 therapy alone. Clinical trials typically use EPA alone or a combination of EPA plus DHA, in doses of 0.5 to 1 gram per day at 6 to 10 grams per day.
To give some perspective, 1 gram per day would correspond to eating three meals of salmon per week.
Meta-analyses generally suggest that omega-3s are effective, but the findings are not unanimous due to the variability between doses, proportions of EPA to DHA and other study design problems.
The most effective preparations appear to have at least 60% EPA in relation to DHA. Although it is thought that DHA is less effective as an antidepressant, it may have protective effects against suicide.
Recent work at Massachusetts General Hospital and Emory University suggests that depressed people who are overweight and have high inflammatory activity may be particularly good candidates for EPA treatment.
Children and adolescents with depression can also benefit from omega-3 supplements.
At Harvard, there is a large ongoing study examining whether supplementation with omega-3 (alone or in combination with vitamin D) can prevent depression in healthy older adults.
Omega-3 for other mental health conditions
Omega-3s have been studied in several mood disorders, such as postpartum depression, with some promising results.
In bipolar disorder (manic depression), omega-3s may be more effective for the depressive phase than for the manic phase of the disease.
Omega-3s have also been proposed to relieve or prevent other psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and attention deficit disorder.
However, there is still not enough evidence to recommend omega-3s in these conditions.
Do you have to take fish oil for your brain?
Based on the best available research, you may want to consider taking fish oil if you have experienced a slight decline in brain function or if depression has been diagnosed.
There may be other health reasons for taking fish oil supplements, but these two groups of people are likely to see the most benefits as far as the brain and mental health are concerned.
There are no official recommendations regarding the amount of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil you need to take to see the benefits of brain function and mental health. The quantities used in the study varied from study to study.
The US Food and Drug Administration has set a safe upper limit for the consumption of omega-3 fatty acid supplements at 3,000 mg per day. The European Food Safety Authority has slightly increased their recommendation, with no more than 5,000 mg per day.
The daily intake of 1,000-2,000 mg omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil is probably a good starting point well below the recommended upper limit. People with depression should choose fish oil supplements with greater amounts of EPA.
It is very important to read labels carefully when assessing fish oil supplements. A 1,000 mg capsule of fish oil may contain less than 500 mg of effective omega-3 fatty acids, but this will vary from brand to brand.
In general, fish oil supplements are considered safe at dosages previously mentioned.
As always, you should inform your doctor before you start taking fish oil supplements.
Because of their possible effects on blood clotting, this is especially important if you are currently using blood-thinning medicines or undergoing an upcoming surgery.
Side effects and other security considerations.
Omega-3s are generally safe and well tolerated. Stomach upset and “fishy taste” have been the most common complaints, but now they are less frequent thanks to manufacturing methods that reduce impurities.
Previous concerns about omega-3s that increase the risk of bleeding have been largely disproved, but caution is advised in people who take blood thinners or are about to have surgery.
As mentioned, caution should be exercised in people with bipolar disorder to avoid cycling to mania. Because Omega-3s are important for brain development, and pregnancy depletes omega-3s in pregnant women, supplementation should theoretically benefit pregnant women and their children.
The consumption of fish in pregnancy is supported by the FDA, but because we do not have long-term data on the safety or optimal dose of omega-3 in pregnancy, pregnant women should consider omega-3 supplements with prudence.
The final result about omega-3s and mental health
Omega-3 fatty acids are promising natural treatments for mood disorders, but we need more research on how they work, how effective they are and their long-term safety before we can make conclusive recommendations for people who handle health conditions mental or who wish to improve the mood.
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