Omega-3 fatty acids help in the development and functioning of the central nervous system. Researchers are establishing the association between depression and omega-3 fatty acids – ALA, EPA, and DHA. Major depressive disorder (MDD) can be life threatening. The incidences of this debilitating illness have increased 20-fold in the last few decades. The role of omega-3 as an agent in the treatment of this condition is showing great promise.
Omega-3 fatty acids contain polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) of both marine and plant origin. Main sources come from fatty fish, flaxseed, canola and walnut oils and hemp. An excessive amount of omega-6 in diet from sources such as safflower, corn, sunflower and cottonseed affect the conversion of ALA to DHA. This results in many inflammatory conditions, aging, stress, depression, and mood swings etc.
It is amazing how one nutrient can play such diverse roles from regulation of moods to handling borderline personality disorders. Promising studies have shown that omega-3 helps with depression, stress and moods. Let us look therefore at the effect of a lack of omega-3 that is linked to several neuropsychiatric disorders.
Omega-3 and the Brain: all psychiatric disorders are linked to the brain and studies have shown that most patients suffering from such diseases were deficient in omega-3. The lowest rate of depression is found in countries like Japan or Greenland were consumption of fish is the highest. 60% of the brain comprises of fat and omega-3 keeps the cell membranes of the brain fluid and healthy. This fluidity is essential for clear communication. When this fluidity is hampered as in the case of omega-3 deficiency, the membranes in the brain will not function properly. The brain will then substitute omega-6 fats to perform the same function. Saturated fats found in omega-6 will harden brain cells with cholesterol. This can result in mood and cognitive disorders.
Omega 3 Benefits for Depression
Dr James S. Gordon a world-renowned psychologist on depression has done extensive study on the effects of diet on this condition that affects millions of people. He suggests many natural ways to combat depression unlike most doctors who will just prescribe an antidepressant. One method is to take food enriched in omega-3 fats. There are many health benefits that omega-3 can provide and one is its anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers have also found a link between high levels of insulin and symptoms of depression and anxiety. The US has highest rates of depression in the world and it is here that omega-3 consumption is the lowest.
An experiment conducted on rats that were stressed and depressed found that such symptoms were alleviated either by being given antidepressants or natural remedies like uridine and omega-3 fatty acid.
Lack of omega-3 result in shrinkage of the brain and this can lead to depression. According to the WHO, depression is set to become the second leading disability all over the world by 2020. The rise in depression is strongly linked to an increase in the consumption of omega-6 fat rich foods. Despite the numerous anti-depressant medications available, few really help patients of depression. EPA – a long-chain omega -3 fatty acid is said to help normalize brain cell functioning and structure and therefore alleviate symptoms of depression. This takes place in three ways:
- Prevents shrinkage of brain cells
- Improves serotonin production – a key brain chemical
- Stabilizes moods in patients suffering from depression just like mood-stabilizing drugs
However, there is no established dosage of omega-3 for patients of depression. The American Psychiatric Association has recommended that mood disorder patients take fish oil supplements. A dosage of 1g-2g per day can improve mood disorders. EPA alone or combined with DHA supplements are the most effective.
Omega 3 for Postpartum Depression
This is a type of clinical depression that affects pregnant women and women after childbirth. Symptoms include changes in eating and sleeping patterns, fatigue, sadness, irritability, crying episodes, reduced libido and anxiety. Many of these women suffer from a deficiency of omega-3 (DHA). The first successful study was demonstrated in the treatment of a pregnant woman suffering from postpartum depression. She refused to take any anti-depressants for fear that it would adversely affect her fetus. Instead, she was given supplements of 2g DHA and 4G EPA. In four weeks, her depression symptoms reduced and in 6 weeks, all suicidal thoughts disappeared.
Omega 3 for Depression in children
A study two groups of children with depression, between the ages of 6-12, found that supplements of omega-3 greatly reduced symptoms and in 16 weeks, 40% of the group did not feel depressed. The placebo group did not get a similar relief.
Omega 3 Benefits for Mood Disorders
Benefits in Bipolar Disorder : This comes under the category if mood disorders and is also called manic-depressive disorder. It is characterized by abnormally high levels of energy, mood swings and cognition that are interspersed with depressive episodes (a wild swing between mania and depression).
Studies conduced by Andrew Stoll, an eminent Harvard psychiatrist, found that omega-3 was very effective in treating such patients. One theory suggests that symptoms of bipolar disorder occur due to excessive omega-6 in diet that can destroy brain metabolism. Omega-3 has the opposite effect and prevents arachidonic acid from interfering with brain cells. It also reduces inflammation of the brain caused by omega-6.
Benefits in Schizophrenia : This mood disorder can cause severe mental illness characterized by lack of drive, hallucinations and abnormal emotions. It is said to occur due to an inflammation of the brain or a low-grade infection that affects the fetus in the womb. Usage of omega-3 supplements help to reduce this inflammation and have a positive effect along with antipsychotic medications given to such patients.
Borderline Personality Disorder : Unstable moods characterize these disorders. Patients given 1g of EPA for 8 weeks showed significant improvement in depressive and aggressive symptoms.
Omega 3 Benefits in Stress
Stress is something that everyone experiences many times in their life. However, continual stressful situations can ruin our health and even affect our memory and learning capacity. When we are stressed, brain cells actually shut down and this leads to disruption in communication, causes brain to age quicker, slows down the process of creating new neurons and weakens the blood-brain barrier that is very important for protecting the brain from attack by dangerous toxins. Living with constant stress can translate in some to aggression and hostility and affects several aspects of our brain functioning which we will see now.
Memory and Learning capacities are diminished when we are stressed. Stress triggers the cortisol hormone that prevents the brain from thinking and remembering past memories. Communication neurons get affected and we are unable o think. Cortisol damages the hippocampus the critical part of the brain needed for learning and memory. Too much damage causes Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive disabilities.
Stress damages the brain: Interleukin-IB is a damaging inflammatory compound and the production of these increases with stress. This causes ‘brain-itis’, symptoms of which include anxiety, perpetual state of stress, onset of Alzheimer’s and greater memory and learning problems.
Omega-3 and Stress
So how does omega-3 help with those under stress? It first reduces inflammatory symptoms of the brain often brought on by excess of omega-6 in diet. This is done by hindering the production of COX enzyme that causes inflammation. This in turn prevents response to inflammation and pain, which stress hormones cause. COX inhibitors like omega-3 are beneficial in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. The second benefit is in helping stressed-out students during exams and such. A supplement of fish oil can reduce symptoms of stress in these students.
Thirdly, omega-3 also lowers cortisol levels and therefore improves memory and learning. Hostility and aggression are both components of type-A personality disorders and this leads to heart diseases. Hence researchers have shown interest in studying this link and the ways omega-3 can reduce inflammatory conditions that cause stress. Stress hormones released during stressful situations into the blood stream magnify aggressive behavior.
A study of various groups – school children, sociopaths, medical students, university students, prisoners and senior citizens – found that DHA supplements definitely help improve aggressive and hostile behavior. One group of Japanese university students was given either a placebo or a DHA supplement during stressful times. Those on the placebo exhibited 58% greater symptoms of hostility induced by stressful situations. The DHA group on the other hand demonstrated no such increase. So, we can conclude that omega-3 surely helps reduce symptoms of aggression and hostility caused by stress and this in turn reduces the risk of heart diseases.
Although the research into all these areas is work in progress, there is enough clinical, laboratory and epidemiological proof to suggest that omega-3 has a critical role to play in cases of depression, stress and mood swings. The main advantage is that omega-3 supplements have very few side effects. They are inexpensive and therefore are an attractive option as an aid to standard health care. While more extensive research is needed, there is enough proof that omega-3 has a positive effect in the treatment of major depressive disorder and especially to counter the effects of a high intake of omega-6 oils found in industrialized societies.