Fish oil adds omega-3 fats missing from the modern diet. Learn why it’s effective for depression and mood disorders and how to choose a quality supplement.
Fish oil is one of the most popular nutritional supplements.
Americans spend $2.6 billion yearly on it. (1)
Mostly it’s taken for heart health, but a lesser-known benefit is for a healthy, happy brain.
Your brain needs plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in fish oil, to function at its best and to create healthy brain cells.
But the typical modern diet is largely missing the omega-3s your brain needs.
Ironically, many so-called “health foods” actually contribute to omega-3 deficiency.
There’s evidence that low levels of omega-3s are an underlying cause for the significant increase in depression and mood disorders over the past 50 years.
It’s hard to get enough omega-3s from diet alone, but fish oil supplements can be the answer.
Here’s how every brain can benefit from fish oil and why it’s especially helpful for anyone with depression, anxiety, or other mood disorder.
How Fish Oil Builds Healthy Brain Cells
Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) are essential for good physical and mental health.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the quality of your brain cells depends on the availability of omega-3s.
Omega-3s are an integral structural component of brain cell membranes and nerve cells.
When omega-3s aren’t available, your brain will use whatever inferior fats are available, creating inferior brain cells.
Healthy brain cells are your first line of defense against depression and other mood disorders.
How “Healthy” Foods Contribute to Omega-3 Deficiency
Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and this is important for your brain.
Brain inflammation contributes to depression, anxiety, brain fog, and ADHD and even serious degenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. (5)
In fact, brain inflammation, rather than an imbalance in brain chemicals, is now suspected to be a root cause of depression. (6)
Omega-6 fats increase inflammation and should not be consumed in excess.
Unfortunately, typical modern diets — even if you buy your food at health food stores — are short in omega-3s and high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Our ancestors ate a diet with roughly equal amounts of omega-3s and omega-6s. (7)
But now the average American eats upwards of 20 times more inflammatory omega-6s than anti-inflammatory omega-3s. (8)
The best dietary source of omega-3s is wild-caught, cold-water oily fish like herring, salmon, mackerel, halibut, and sardines. (9)
(It’s the omega-3s in fish that give it the reputation of being a good brain food.)
Other decent sources of omega-3s are wild game, grass-fed beef, pasture-fed pork and lamb, and free-range chicken and their eggs which all contain significantly more omega-3s than their factory-farmed counterparts. (10)
The main source of inflammatory omega-6s is vegetable oils like canola, safflower, and soy oils.
These oils are not as healthy as we’ve been led to believe and are found in virtually all processed foods.
Some experts believe that the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is most important.
Others believe that the absolute amounts matter most.
But you can easily meet your omega-3 needs with a fish oil supplement.
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The Benefits of Fish Oil for Mental Health
More than 30,000 studies have been published on the health benefits of fish oil. (11)
Fish oil is most often recommended to reduce the risk of heart disease and to decrease the inflammation of arthritis, but the latest research indicates that fish oil may not be as helpful for the heart as previously believed. (12)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
The Brain Benefits of Omega-3 Fats
Next, let’s take a look at what research has discovered about fish oil as a treatment for depression of all kinds as well as other mental health conditions.
Note that some research specifically investigates the effects of fatty fish or fish oil, while some research focuses on fish oil’s individual omega-3 components, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
How Fish Oil Helps Depression and Other Mood Disorders
Low levels of omega-3 have been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
A review of studies concluded that omega-3s have significant antidepressant properties. (21)
One clinical trial found that omega-3 supplements are effective, fast-acting antidepressants.
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DHA Supplements: Why They’re Critical for Your Brain
After only three weeks of supplementation, an impressive 67% of study participants no longer met the criteria for being depressed. (22)
There are a few known mechanisms to explain for how fish oil can act as a natural antidepressant.
Fish oil increases the volume of areas of the brain that control depression and mood. (23)
Fish oil also increases levels of two neurotransmitters linked to depression, serotonin and dopamine. (24)
Depression is usually associated with low levels of serotonin, but low dopamine is an underappreciated factor in depression as well.
Fatty Fish Enhances Antidepressant Medications
It’s a disappointing fact that nearly half of people who try selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants find them of little help.
But you can greatly increase the chances they’ll work by increasing your intake of fish.
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Interestingly, people who eat fatty fish at least once a week are 3 times more likely to respond to antidepressants than non-fish eaters. (25)
It’s believed that SSRI-resistant patients have abnormal fatty acid metabolisms.
Even when fish oil can’t take the place of antidepressant medication, it’s proven to be a useful adjunct to prescription medications or other treatments. (26)
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Low DHA and Suicide
An alarming increase in military suicides has researchers looking for answers.
Surprisingly, low DHA has been found to be a stronger predictor of suicide than battle-related stress.
Veterans with low levels of DHA were 62% more likely to commit suicide than those with the highest levels. (27)
Fish and Seasonal Affective Disorder
Areas of the world where a lot of fish is eaten, like Japan and Iceland (147 and 225 pounds per year respectively), have low rates of SAD.
This is particularly impressive when you consider Iceland’s northern latitude and lack of daylight during the winter.
Before Dr. Barry Sears penned the smash hit diet book The Zone, he wrote The Omega Rx Zone.
In it, he revealed that Eskimos have virtually no depression — despite living in darkness half of the year — due to their generous daily intake of omega-3s (7 grams).
Fish Oil for Postpartum Depression
Women who develop postpartum depression tend to be deficient in omega-3s.
Moms-to-be can take fish oil as a natural alternative to prescription drugs during pregnancy and while breastfeeding to prevent postpartum depression.
Fish Oil for Anxiety
People with anxiety have lower blood levels of omega-3s. (31)
One study found that adults who took DHA and EPA experienced a reduction in symptoms of anxiety, depression, fatigue, and mental confusion. (32)
Medical students are notoriously stressed out.
When medical students were given omega-3 supplements, they experienced a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms. (33)
Fish Oil for Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is frustrating to treat and the usual medication, lithium, does not work for everyone.
Bipolar disorder has been linked to DHA deficiency and fish oil looks like a promising complementary treatment. (35)
Fish Oil Dosages for Depression
There is no clearly defined Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for fish oil.
In one clinical trial, healthy adults who took 800 mg of DHA plus 1600 mg of EPA experienced fewer symptoms of depression and related negative moods. (39)
It’s not always clear what to look for when buying fish oil.
Here’s a typical fish oil supplement label.
First, you’ll see that there is 2200 mg of total fish oil and 2000 mg of total omega-3 fatty acids.
And, of that, 1400 mg is EPA and 480 mg is DHA.
A National Institutes of Health workshop that included omega-3 experts from around the world determined that you should get a minimum of 220 mg each of DHA and EPA and this supplement exceeds that amount. (40)
Note that fish oil’s antidepressant effects will not be immediate.
Other Tips for Taking Fish Oil
Skip supplements that also contain omega-6s — you almost certainly already get plenty of these in your diet.
Look on the label for a guarantee that the supplement is free of toxins and contaminants.
Since fish oil readily oxidizes, find one that contains vitamin E or some other antioxidant to prevent spoilage.
There’s some debate as to whether cod liver oil is better than standard fish oil.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
The Link Between Vitamin D and Depression
We suggest taking a pass on cod liver oil since it is high in vitamin A.
If you take enough cod liver oil to obtain therapeutic benefits for depression, you’ll be consuming dangerous levels of vitamin A.
Too much vitamin A causes weakened bones and interferes with your body’s ability to use vitamin D. (43)
And obviously, if you have a known allergy to fish, you should avoid taking a fish oil supplement.
Talk to your doctor before taking fish oil if you take drugs that increase the risk of bleeding like aspirin or blood thinners (such as warfarin). (44)
How to Maximize the Benefits of Fish Oil for Depression
One final tip for getting the maximum benefits from fish oil.
Take your fish oil and eat a healthy diet.
It’s unreasonable to expect fish oil alone to treat your depression, especially if you continue to eat a diet high in inflammatory omega-6s.
Omega-6s in excess can negate the beneficial effects of omega-3s.
Research shows that taking fish oil and following a Mediterranean diet is significantly more effective at alleviating depression than doing either alone. (45)
The Mediterranean diet, one of the most popular and widely researched eating plans, emphasizes unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, poultry, eggs, olive oil, fermented dairy, plus a little red wine.
Fish Oil for Depression: The Bottom Line
Fish oil is one of the most popular and widely studied nutritional supplements.
The omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fish oil are essential for a healthy brain and your first line of defense against depression and other mood disorders.
Studies show that fish oil can improve depression of all kinds and enhance the effects of antidepressant medications when they’re needed.
When taking fish oil for depression, find a high-quality supplement and take the proper dosage to assure maximum therapeutic value.