When you think of mental health, omega-3 fatty acids (AKA one of our fave categories of healthy fats) might not be at the front of your mind. There’s been a ton of research on how omega-3s relate to mood disorders over the last two decades, but as a treatment option, the fatty acids are still flying under the radar. And although we’re getting better at talking about issues like how to recognize an anxiety attack, support a friend with depression, and practice self-care, when it comes to treatment options, there’s still a lot of stigma to break through.
Celebs like Chrissy Teigen and Mandy Moore are pushing the conversation forward, but for many of us, finding the right course of treatment can be a struggle — what works for your famous fave might not be the best fit for you. That’s one of the reasons why the studies around omega-3 and mental health are so exciting: For people living with drug-resistant depression, or who have experienced scary side effects on antidepressants, omega-3s might provide some relief.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens, a psychologist and nutritionist, says that increasing omega-3 intake often makes sense as a first course of action against mood disorders. “Omega-3 fatty acids are safe and often effective,” she says in an interview with Brit + Co. Dr. Beurkens works with child and adolescent patients and points out, “We don’t have research that clearly shows safe or effective dosing of most psychiatric medications in this population.”
Dr. Beurkens says that she’s seen “significant symptom improvement” in young patients from nutritional interventions like increasing omega-3 intake and decreasing omega-6. (When you take in significantly more omega-6 than omega-3, as is often the case in a “typical” North American diet, the former can cancel out the positive effects of the latter.) Dr. Beurkens also notes that higher amounts of EPA or DHA — two of the three types of omega-3 — might help with different symptoms.
Dr. Mike Dow, author of upcoming book Heal Your Drained Brain, agrees. “Omega-3s with high levels of the omega-3 EPA and low levels of the omega-3 DHA have been shown in studies to be as effective as prescription antidepressants in the treatment of major depression,” he says in an interview with Brit + Co. In his previous book, The Brain Fog Fix, Dr. Dow explains that the former helps you “feel better” and the latter allows you to “think better.” (Regarding anxiety and insomnia, Dr. Dow says that EPA helps you “stress less” and DHA allows you to “sleep soundly.”)
In other words, if you’re targeting your mood, you might want to aim for more EPA. “The ratio proven in research is 7:1 or greater, so you’re looking for an omega-3 with about 1,000 mg of EPA and 150 mg of DHA daily,” says Dr. Dow. For anxiety disorders, he says, it’s a little different. “Research shows for anxiety, you likely want to double the daily dose to about 2,000 mg of an EPA and 300 mg of DHA.”
To hit these high omega-3 targets, both Beurkens and Dow recommend a combination of dietary sources and supplements.
“It is always best to get nutrients from food whenever possible,” says Dr. Beurkens, “But in the case of omega-3 fatty acids, this can be a challenge for even people with a healthy diet.” Beurkens says that “fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines” are the best dietary sources of omega-3, since plant-based sources (“walnuts, hemp, and chia”) contain ALA, a type of omega-3 that the body needs to convert to EPA and DHA.
Dr. Dow recommends getting omega-3s through the Mediterranean diet — which might sound like a fad diet approach to nutrition, but has more to do with balancing broad food categories (staples include a lot of fish, olive oil, and red wine) than restrictions. Dow appreciates the research behind the Mediterranean approach: “For the first time, a Mediterranean diet was shown to help TREAT major depression, not just prevent it.”
But before you fill your freezer with salmon, it’s important to remember that every brain responds differently to mental health treatment — one person’s miracle cure might not make a dent in someone else’s mood. It’s no different with omega-3, and the research on this subject remains divided. A 2015 review of 26 studies finds that, despite the positive results that have prompted some mental health professionals to embrace this new treatment option, the scientific community needs to keep looking at the relationship between omega-3 and mental health before coming to any definite conclusions.
Still, for those of us still trying to find the right approach to feeling better, the success stories are encouraging. And besides — who can turn down an excuse to eat more seafood?
Does omega-3 boost your mood? Tell us about it @BritandCo!
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