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Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids and Depression

Are you or those you love affected by depression? If so, you’re not alone. A 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey revealed that nearly 40 million American adults had recently been diagnosed with clinical depression.

While depression is a complex issue, research suggests that one of the primary causes is too little of the neurotransmitter serotonin. In fact, increasing serotonin is the main function of most anti-depressant drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. However, these drugs come with a price-side effects. One of the most dangerous is an increase in suicide risk. In fact, the FDA recently ruled that antidepressants will be labeled with a "black box" warning about the drugs’ higher potential suicide risk in children.

Dr. Barbara Levine, associate professor of nutrition in clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and director of the DHA Information Center at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell has indicated that due to recent findings of such serious risks associated with antidepressants, we should prioritize the study of natural antidepressants-specifically, omega-3 essential fatty acids, found most abundantly in fish oil.

So, how do omega-3s help combat depression? Apparently, these protective fats influence serotonin activity in the brain. Low plasma DHA levels seem to equate to low concentrations of serotonin, which in turn is strongly associated with depression and suicide.1 The majority of studies on mood disorders support a protective effect of omega-3 intake-particularly EPA and DHA.

In one study, 64% of the manic-depressive patients who took fish oil reported a measurable improvement in their symptoms, as opposed to only 19% taking a placebo.2 In another, on 30 patients with bipolar disorder, the addition of omega-3s resulted in a longer period of remission and a better prognosis for nearly everyone taking them. Health benefits of omega-3s may be especially important in patients with psychiatric disorders, given the high prevalence of smoking, obesity and the metabolic side effects of some psychotropic medications.3

Dr. A. L. Stoll, who conducted one of the omega-3/depression studies, recommends fish oil as the easiest-and possibly safest-way to increase omega-3 levels since fresh fish may carry high mercury/pesticide levels, and farm-raised fish might not contain the needed quantity of omega-3s. Along with EPA/DHA-rich fish oil, flax oil also offers omega-3s but with shorter "fat chains." Unfortunately, not everyone can convert the short chain fatty acids to long chain fatty acids, especially since the enzymes needed for conversion may be blocked by competing omega-6 fatty acids-which far overwhelm omega-3s in the Western diet.

The good news, whether you face mood disorders now, or simply want to avoid them in future, is that fish oil capsules are affordable, safe, scientifically validated, and offer an astonishingly wide range of health benefits.

1 Lancet. 1998 Jul 4;352(9121):71-2
2 Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1999;56:407-412
3 J Clin Psychiatry. 2007 Feb;68(2):

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