Omega-3 fats come from a family of fatty acids known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (or PUFAs). Did you know that 20% of the dry weight of your brain is made up of PUFAs? Or that 1 out of every 3 fatty acids in the the central nervous system are PUFAs? In the nervous system, PUFAs can be metabolized by the brain and give rise to various compounds that influence brain cell activity. 1
Given these facts, it comes as no surprise that omega-3 fatty acids have been reported to play a major role in improve thinking, memory, and mood. 2,3
Interestingly, depression rates have gone up as the general intake of omega-3 has gone down. Is it just a coincidence? Many researchers don't think so.
How Healthy Fats Work as Antidepressants
How can omega-3 influence mood disorders ranging anywhere from mild depression to bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia? Different explanations have been proposed by scientists for why omega-3 can especially benefit those who are not genetically predisposed to mood disorders.
1) Omega-3 is a more fluid fat that, when available, becomes part of the outer membranes of our cells. For example, DHA (or docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fat found in cold-water fatty fish such as halibut, mackerel, salmon, sardines, tuna, and herring.
It concentrates in the brain's gray matter and becomes part of the membrane of brain cells. This leaves the membrane more flexible than cholesterol, which hardens cell membranes.
2) Others attribute omega-3's benefits for mood and thinking to its anti-inflammatory effects. For example, EPA (or eicosapentaenoic acid) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is also found in cold-water fish but it works differently than DHA. It helps reduce inflammation in the brain. Also, it efficiently converts to DHA in the body, if needed.
Consider one study published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. The study subjects were dealing with stubborn, persistent depression that was ongoing despite taking an adequate dose of a standard antidepressant. Scientists gave the group a daily dose of EPA. After just 3 months, more than 2/3 of the group reported a 50% reduction in their symptoms, w hich included depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, low libido, suicidal feelings, and inability to work. 4
It's for this reason that professionals recommend an omega-3 supplement with a higher ratio of EPA to DHA, specifically at least 60% EPA. This is in harmony with results published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, which found that supplements containing EPA ≥ 60%, in a dose range of 200 to 2200 mg EPA in excess of DHA, were effective against primary depression. 5 EnergyFirst's OmegaEnergy Fish Oil has this very ratio of EPA to DHA, with 360 mg of EPA to 240 mg of DHA.
3) Still other scientists explain these benefits as a result of the decreased risk of cardiovascular disease experienced with improved intake of omega-3.
Does this mean resolving mental health issues is as simple as popping a few omega-3 supplements a day? Not necessarily. While omega-3's have shown potential benefits in research for various conditions (including mild and major depression, bipolar disorder but not bipolar mania, suicide and self-harm rates, menopausal depression, gestational and postpartum depression, and schizophrenia), it's safe and wise to first and foremost discuss your treatment plan with a physician before making any changes to current depression/mood disorder treatment plans.
1. J Nutr Health Aging. 2004; 8(3):163-74.
2. Fontani, G., Corradeschi, F., Felici, A., Alfatti, F., Bugarini, R., Fiaschi, A. I., Cerretani,
D., Montorfano, G., Rizzo, A. M. & Berra, B. (2005a) Blood profiles, body fat and mood
state in healthy subjects on different diets supplemented with Omega-3 polyunsaturated
fatty acids. Eur J Clin Invest 35: 499-507.
3. Fontani, G., Corradeschi, F., Felici, A., Alfatti, F., Migliorini, S. & Lodi, L. (2005b)
Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid
supplementation in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Invest 35: 691-699.
Altern Med Rev. 2007 Sep;12(3):207-27.
4. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002;59(10):913-919. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.59.10.913
5. J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 December ; 72(12): 1577–1584. doi:10.4088/JCP.10m06634.