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Depression and Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that the body cannot produce on its own, and must obtain through food in the environment. There exists strong evidence showing a correlation between intake of fish high in omega-3's (or an omega-3 supplement) and decreased incidence of depression.7

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Effect of Essential Fatty Acids on Depression

A total of 60% of the human brain is made out of fat. Omega-3 fatty acids in the brain regulate serotonin synthesis, release and re-uptake. Since the body cannot make this essential fatty acid alone, it must be consumed through diet.

Read more details about Essential Fatty Acids.

Research Evidence on Essential Fatty Acids

Some studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acid intake and depression are inversely correlated.1 Other studies have shown that omega-3 deficiencies result in decreased stress tolerance, increased vulnerability to toxins, and increased anxiety.2

How to Use Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 can be obtained through plants, such as walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, and soy beans. However, the best source of omega-3s can be found in cold water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines. Omega-3s are also found in meat and eggs.

Omega-3s can also be obtained through manufactured pills containing fish oils. A normal dosage consists of 3 grams of DHA and EPA per day.3 Take on an empty stomach, 30 minutes before eating or at bedtime to reduce unwanted side effects.3

Safety Issues

Fish oil appears to be generally safe. The most common problem is fishy burps. However, there are some safety concerns to consider.

For example, it has been suggested that some fish oil products contain excessive levels of toxic substances such as organochlorines and PCBs. 1 If possible, try to purchase fish oil products certified not to contain significant levels of these contaminants. Note:Various types of fish contain mercury, but this has not been a problem with fish oil supplements, according to reports on

Fish oil has a mild blood-thinning effect; 2 in one case report, it increased the effect of the blood-thinning medication warfarin (Coumadin). 3 Fish oil does not seem to cause bleeding problems when it is taken by itself 4 or with aspirin. 5 Nonetheless, people who are at risk of bleeding complications for any reason should consult a physician before taking fish oil.

Fish oil does not appear to raise blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. 6 Nonetheless, if you have diabetes, you should not take any supplement except on the advice of a physician.

Fish oil may modestly increase weight and lower total cholesterol and HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. 7 It may also raise the level of LDL ("bad") cholesterol; however, this effect may be short-lived. 8 If you decide to use cod liver oil as your fish oil supplement, make sure you do not exceed the safe maximum intake of vitamin A and vitamin D . These vitamins are fat soluble, which means that excess amounts tend to build up in your body, possibly reaching toxic levels. The official maximum daily intake of vitamin A is 3,000 mcg for pregnant women as well as other adults. Look at the bottle label to determine how much vitamin A you are receiving. (It is less likely that you will get enough vitamin D to produce toxic effects.)

Interactions You Should Know About

If you are taking warfarin (Coumadin) or heparin , do not take fish oil except on the advice of a physician.

Other Uses

Cardiovascular disease, immune function, brain health, rheumatoid arthritis

Who Can Use Omega-3s?

Having been shown as safe, Omega 3's could prove effective for anyone suffering from depression. Specific populations such as the elderly, pregnant or lactating women,and people with medical co-morbid conditions might specifically benefit from this alternative therapy.4 One study specifically found omega-3 fatty acids to likely benefit the treatment of depression in children and adolescents, though more research is needed.5

A survey conducted in Australia showed that people who experience mild to moderate depression are more likely to use remedies like herbs, nutritional supplements (including omega-3s) and other alternative therapies than those with sever depression who were more likely to seek conventional professional help.6


  1. Jacobs MN, Santillo D, Johnston PA, Wyatt CL, French MC. Organochlorine residues in fish oil dietary supplements: comparison with industrial grade oils. Chemosphere. 37(9-12):1709-21.
  2. Emsley R, Niehaus DJ, Oosthuizen PP, Koen L, Ascott-Evans B, Chiliza B, van Rensburg SJ, Smit RM. Safety of the omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in psychiatric patients: results from a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Psychiatry Res. 161(3):284-91.
  3. Buckley MS, Goff AD, Knapp WE. Fish oil interaction with warfarin. Ann Pharmacother. 38(1):50-2.
  4. Harris WS. Dietary fish oil and blood lipids. Curr Opin Lipidol. 7(1):3-7.
  5. Leaf A, Jorgensen MB, Jacobs AK, Cote G, Schoenfeld DA, Scheer J, Weiner BH, Slack JD, Kellett MA, Raizner AE. Do fish oils prevent restenosis after coronary angioplasty? Circulation. 90(5):2248-57.
  6. Harris WS. Dietary fish oil and blood lipids. Curr Opin Lipidol. 7(1):3-7.
  7. Emsley R, Niehaus DJ, Oosthuizen PP, Koen L, Ascott-Evans B, Chiliza B, van Rensburg SJ, Smit RM. Safety of the omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in psychiatric patients: results from a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Psychiatry Res. 161(3):284-91.
  8. Cobiac L, Clifton PM, Abbey M, Belling GB, Nestel PJ. Lipid, lipoprotein, and hemostatic effects of fish vs fish-oil n-3 fatty acids in mildly hyperlipidemic males. Am J Clin Nutr. 53(5):1210-6.

1 M, Peet. (1998). Depletion of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels in Red Blood Cell Membranes of Depressive Patients. Biological Psychiatry, (43)5.

2 Mischoulon D & Fava M. Docosahexanoic acid and omega-3 fatty acids in depression. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2000 Dec; 23(4)

3 Shannon, S. (2002). Handbook of Complementary and Alternative Therapies in Mental Health. San Diego: Academic Press.

4 Mischoulon, D. (2007). Update and critique of natural remedies as antidepressant treatments. Psychiatr Clin North Am (31) 51-68

5 Clayton EH, Hanstock, TL, Garg, ML, Hazell PL (2007). Long Chain Omega-3 Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the the Treatment of Psychiatric Illnesses in Children and Adolescents. Acta Neuropsychiatr (19) 92-103.

6 Van Der Watt, G, Laugharne, J. & Janca, A. (2008). Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the Treatement of Anxiety and Depression. Current Opinionhiatry (21) 37-42.

7 Life Extension, "A Drug-Free Cure for Depression": James S. Gordon, Donna Caruso

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