With all the foods, vitamins, supplements and pills available in the world, it’s hard to keep track of what helps your mental health the best. It’s important to get a variety of nutrients, and omega-3, a type of fatty acid, is especially known for its mental health benefits.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s website, humans need omega-3 fatty acids to survive, but since the body doesn’t make them they have to be found in food or supplements.
“Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, other seafood including algae and krill, some plants, and nut oils,” according to the website.
Omega-3 is important for brain function and can help prevent certain health conditions like cancer and heart disease, according to the website.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioral function,” the website states. When there are deficits in this fatty acid, then some mental health and general health issues can occur, like depression, fatigue and heart issues.
Trudy Scott, the president of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, a nutritionist and author, said in an email that there are different studies supporting omega-3’s link to mental health, including depression and anxiety specifically.
“Given the link between anxiety and depression, it’s likely that seafood consumption could also help reduce the incidence of anxiety,” Scott said. “Other sources of omega-3s are walnuts, grass-fed red meat, leafy green vegetables, and flaxseeds.”
A study in Finland in 2001 demonstrated that the more fish people eat, the less depressed they are.
“Several studies have reported depletions of omega-3 fats among depressed patients, and a cross-national comparison has revealed a significant inverse correlation between annual prevalence of major depression and fish consumption,” according to a study summary on the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s website.
“The likelihood of having depressive symptoms was significantly higher among infrequent fish consumers than among frequent consumers.”
A study in July 2011 found that the more fish oil people devour, the less anxiety and inflammation they experience, according to a Science Daily article.
“Those receiving the omega-3 showed a 20 percent reduction in anxiety compared to the placebo group,” according to the article.
Scott said that it would be best to eat fish and only take supplements if you think you have a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids.
“Some [studies] have shown mood improvements [for people taking supplements], while others have shown no real benefits,” Scott said. “This is [the] reason I don’t suggest omega-3 supplements for everyone.” She said you can go to different labs to get fatty acid tests.
An article on the University of Maryland Medical Center’s website also states that results are mixed on how much omega-3 fatty acids can really help certain mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, and cognitive disorders like dementia (and specifically Alzheimer’s disease).
“Scientists believe the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is protective against Alzheimer's disease and dementia,” according to the website. But for mental disorders, it is generally either slightly beneficial or there is no noticeable benefit from ingesting more omega-3 fatty acids.
Natasha Tracy, a writer and creator of the blog “Bipolar Burble” who also lives with bipolar disorder, said in an email that it’s important to remember that omega-3 fatty acids supplements shouldn’t be taken alone but along with other medication when treating mental disorders.
“Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help in depression, bipolar depression and bipolar disorder in general,” Tracy said. “While not all studies show a clear benefit, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that omega-3 supplements do work.”
One website she found summarizes different research studies of how Omega-3 fatty acids affect certain mental disorders:
University of Maryland Medical Center. Omega-3 fatty acids. Web. Nov. 16, 2011. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm
Scott, Trudy. Email interview. Nov. 16, 2011.
Tanskanen A, Hibbeln JR, Tuomilehto J, Uutela A, Haukkala A, Viinamäki H, Lehtonen J and Vartiainen E. Fish consumption and depressive symptoms in the general population in Finland. Web. Nov. 16, 2011. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11274502
Science Daily. Omega-3 Reduces Anxiety and Inflammation in Healthy Students, Study Suggests. Web. Nov. 16, 2011. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110713121313.htm
Tracy, Natasha. About Natasha Tracy. Web. Nov. 16, 2011. http://natashatracy.com/about-natasha-tracy/
Tracy, Natasha. Email interview. Nov. 15, 2011.
Reviewed November 17, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith