Omega-3 essential fatty acids play an important role in many areas of health, but they are vital for brain health and function. In fact, over 50 percent of the human brain is made of fat, particularly the omega-3 fatty acid DHA. Because it is so important to brain and eye function, DHA accumulates in these tissues. When these tissues are deficient in DHA, bad things happen. Our bodies have a limited capacity to make these fats, so we must get them from food (mainly fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines) or omega-3 supplements.
When you get plenty of omega-3s in your diet, your brain works at peak efficiency. Blood vessels to the brain are nice and open, neurons are pliable and easily connect with each other, and brain signals zip along fluidly from one neuron to the next. But the benefits don’t end at brain development and function.
Overwhelming research shows that omega-3s also keep inflammation at bay, therefore protecting against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. And recently, a meta-analysis (a review of several already-published studies) highlighted just how significant omega-3s can be in treating and managing depression.
An Epidemic of Depression
According to the World Health Organization, depression is rapidly growing and, by the year 2020, will be the second biggest cause of disability in the world, after coronary heart disease. Interestingly, the US leads the world in the proportion of its population with clinical depression. These are incredibly scary statistics.
Why is depression becoming so widespread? One reason can be traced to the modern western diet, which is largely deficient in omega-3s. You see, the emerging science indicates that the western diet produces an omega-3 deficiency in a large percentage of the population, and this drives several chronic diseases, including depression. One review study that involved more than 3,000 people showed that those who suffered from depression also have very low blood levels of omega-3s, “thus implying that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids play a role in the pathogenesis of depression.”1
Similarly, a growing body of research shows that supplementing with omega-3s can help prevent psychiatric conditions like depression from developing—and reduce symptoms in those already suffering.
In a meta-analysis published this past March, a team of researchers reviewed 13 studies involving 1,233 participants who had major depressive disorder. Their goal was to determine the effect of omega-3 supplementation on depression symptoms. They also wanted to find out what dose and ratio of the two primary fatty acids—DHA and EPA—had the greatest influence on symptoms.
The results showed that the depressed patients who supplemented with omega-3s—and especially in those who took higher doses of EPA—experienced a significant reduction in symptoms. Additionally, omega-3s bolstered the effects of prescription antidepressants in people who took them.2 I love studies like this because they support my basic belief that traditional and complementary medicine can and should work beautifully together.
While DHA and EPA are both important in their own right, they impact the body differently. DHA is a building block in the brain, so it is vital for proper growth, development, and function. EPA, on the other hand, is the more potent anti-inflammatory. Numerous studies show both to be important in reducing depression.
In this recent study, the researchers encouraged further research into omega-3/antidepressant combination therapy, which could “improve antidepressant response,” making for a more effective, well-rounded treatment.
Another study released in April confirms that omega-3s are a valuable tool in managing depression. The researchers performed a meta-analysis on 35 trials including 6,665 participants receiving omega-3s and 4,373 receiving placebo. They found that the patients with diagnosed depression who took omega-3 formulations experienced greater clinical benefit compared to placebo.3
The value of omega-3 fatty acids has been proven time and again for everything from heart disease prevention to brain protection. For this reason, I take omega-3s myself every single day, with confidence that I’m doing my heart, brain, and entire body a world of good.
If you suffer from depression, whether you’re on an antidepressant or not, the science suggests that you should consider adding fatty fish to your diet at least three or four times a week, as well as an omega-3 supplement. I’m a fighter, and I believe we should constantly fight back against the modern western diet that is hurting our health—including our mental health. You can find supplements with higher levels of EPA, but I personally believe in the importance of balanced DHA and EPA, so I take a formulation that contains both.
- Lin PY, et al. Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Jul 15;68(2):140-7.
- Mocking RJ, et al. Transl Psychiatry. 2016 Mar 15;6:e756.
- Hallahan B, et al. Br J Psychiatry. 2016 Apr 21. [Epub ahead of print]