Can Omega-3s Fight Depression?

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Omega-3s, the fatty acids found in foods like fish oil and nuts, have been linked to improved memory and heart health. But recent research suggests omega-3s may also reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety [1]. Oh my-omega, these fatty acids are good.

Singing the Blues — Why It Matters

Omega-3s can fight coronary heart disease, cancer, and Crohn’s disease with their anti-inflammatory properties. It turns out their superpowers don’t end there— the fatty acids may help treat depressive symptoms the same way. A number of studies suggest a link between inflammation and depression [2] [3] [4]. It isn’t clear that inflammation directly causes depressive symptoms, but inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis are often accompanied by depressive disorders [5]. (As if achy joints aren’t enough of a problem.) And depression doesn’t just bring on the blues— watch out for sneaky cytokine, a protein that promotes inflammation [4] [7].

Here’s where omega-3s step in. Fatty acids get their game on by reducing cytokine levels, a reduction that may help fight depression and anxiety. In one recent study, medical students who took omega-3 supplements produced fewer cytokines and saw their anxiety levels plummet [8]. (Perhaps the Grey’s Anatomy team should consider popping some omega-3s.) A smile in fatty-acid form, omega-3 supplements may also ease symptoms of bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and other mood disorders [9] [10].

Plus, research suggests that high levels of omega-3s in fish could help prevent mood disorders [11]. (Sushi, anyone?) Countries with high fish consumption— such as Taiwan and Japan— have a lower risk of depression than countries like France and Canada. And in another study, New Zealand citizens who ate fish reported better mental health than those who didn’t [11]. Surf’s up!

Something Smells Fishy — The Answer/Debate

But omega-3s might not be all-out superheroes Some studies have found omega-3 trials over-hyped the positives of the fatty acids or showed little evidence of omega-3 supplements' ability to treat depression [1] [14]. Research has also shown certain types of omega-3s are more effective than others at reducing such symptoms [15].

Those who want to load up on omega-3s should be careful about choosing sources of the fatty acids. Fish is a great source of omega-3s, but beware, expectant mothers. While the amount of mercury in a single serving of seafood isn’t big enough to warrant concern, the chemicals in fish could possible hurt a fetus’s developing nervous system. Those who aren’t friends of the sea (sorry, Charlie the Tuna) can feast on fatty acids in tofu, soybeans, walnuts, and canola oil. Pill-popping’s always another option, and dietary supplements like fish oil and flaxseed oil could also aid the anti-inflammatory properties of antidepressants [16].

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Works Cited

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids for the treatment of depression: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bloch, M.H., Hannestad, J. Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT; Yale Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT. Molecular Psychiatry, 2011 Sep 20. doi: 10.1038/mp.2011.100.
  2. The cytokine hypothesis of depression: inflammation, oxidative and nitrosative stress and leaky gut as new targets for adjunctive treatments in depression. Maes, M. Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology and biological psychiatry, 2005 Feb; 29(2):201-17
  3. Cytokines and major depression. Schipers, O.J., Wichers, M.C., Maes, M. Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 2005 Feb; 29(2):201-17
  4. Cytokines sing the blues: inflammation and the pathogenesis of depression. Raison, C.L., Capuron, L., Miller, A.H. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Trends in immunology, 2006 Jan;27(1):24-31.
  5. Cytokines and major depression. Schipers, O.J., Wichers, M.C., Maes, M. Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 2005 Feb; 29(2):201-17.
  6. Cytokines sing the blues: inflammation and the pathogenesis of depression. Raison, C.L., Capuron, L., Miller, A.H. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Trends in immunology, 2006 Jan;27(1):24-31.
  7. The cytokine hypothesis of depression: inflammation, oxidative & nitrosative stress and leaky gut as new targets for adjunctive treatments in depression.Maes, M. Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 2005 Feb;29(2):201-17
  8. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: A randomized controlled trial. Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., Belury, M.A., Andridge, R., et al. Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, Ohio State University College of Medicine, OH; Department of Psychiatry, Ohio State University College of Medicine, OH. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 2011 Nov;25(8):1725-34.
  9. Cytokines and major depression. Schipers, O.J., Wichers, M.C., Maes, M. Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 2005 Feb; 29(2):201-17.
  10. The efficacy of omega-3 supplementation for major depression: a randomized controlled trial. Lesperance, F., Frasure-Smith, N., St-Andre, E., et al. Department of Psychiatry, Centre Hospitalier de l'Universite de Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2011 Aug; 72(8):1054-62.
  11. Fish consumption and self-reported physical and mental health status. Silvers, K.M., Scott, K.M. New Zealand Institute for Crop & Food Research, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Public Health Nutrition, 2002 Jun;5(3):427-31.
  12. Fish consumption and self-reported physical and mental health status. Silvers, K.M., Scott, K.M. New Zealand Institute for Crop & Food Research, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Public Health Nutrition, 2002 Jun;5(3):427-31.
  13. Omega-3 fatty acids for the treatment of depression: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bloch, M.H., Hannestad, J. Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT; Yale Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT. Molecular Psychiatry, 2011 Sep 20. doi: 10.1038/mp.2011.100.
  14. No effect of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (EPA and DHA) supplementation on depressed mood and cognitive function: a randomised controlled trial. Rogers, P.J., Appleton, K.M., Kessler, D., Peters, T.J., Gunnell, D., Hayward, R.C., Heatherley, S.V., Christian, L.M., McNaughton, S.A., Ness, A.R. Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol, UK. The British Journal of Nutrition, 2008 Feb;99(2):421-31.
  15. The efficacy of omega-3 supplementation for major depression: a randomized controlled trial. Lespérance, F., Frasure-Smith, N., St-André, E., et al. Department of Psychiatry, Centre Hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2011 Aug;72(8):1054-62.
  16. The cytokine hypothesis of depression: inflammation, oxidative & nitrosative stress (IO&NS) and leaky gut as new targets for adjunctive treatments in depression. Maes, M. Clinical Research Center for Mental Health, Wilrijk, Belgium. Neuro endocrinology letters, 2008; 29(3) 287-91.

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