Can omega-3 fats from fish prevent and treat depression?

For the most part, conventional medical practice has an image of professionalism and credibility. The medical establishment’s apparent adherence to the concept of scientific validity, coupled with plenty of white coats, stethoscopes and machines that go ‘ping’, help to foster the image that we doctors know what we are doing and are worth entrusting your health to. Yet, pick away at the basic science that appears to hold medicine together and it is not uncommon for things to start to unravel. A recent study, for instance, discovered that six of the most popular antidepressant medications have benefits only marginally greater than placebo. It seems that the real effects from these drugs in which doctors and patients put much faith may be depressingly small.

Antidepressants undoubtedly have a place in medicine, but this new research may cause some to consider alternative approaches too. Happily, nutrition has great potential here. There is a wealth of research to suggest that the fats found in oily fish such as sardines, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring play an important role in ensuring our emotional well-being. The evidence suggests that eating more oily fish is one simple thing we can do to keep the blues at bay.

The brain is a pretty fatty organ. Actually, suck out the water from it and what is left is essentially fat. Fat plays a critical role in the structure and function of the brain, and the amount and type of fat we have up top can have a profound influence on our mood and sense of happiness. The so-called omega-3 fats found in oily fish appear to have a particularly valuable role in this respect. More than a smattering of research supports the notion that the more omega-3 fat we get down our necks, the happier we tend to be.

Several studies have noted that in countries where fish eating is de rigueur such as Japan, China or Taiwan, rates of depression are low. Research has found that omega-3 levels tend to be lower in depressed individuals compared to their more cheery counterparts. Tellingly, one study found that the lower the omega-3 level in the body, the more severe the depression tended to be. And that’s not all: research published this year found that adding a purified fish oil supplement to individuals taking conventional medication for depression enjoyed a 50 per cent reduction in their depressive symptoms within a month. The evidence suggests that for those prone to depression or low mood, eating three or four portions of oily fish each week may help in the long term. An alternative might be to take 2 g of a fish oil supplement each day.

The notion that some individual’s depression may actually be rooted in a problem with fish deficiency might seem a tad far-fetched. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that fish oils are a long time constituent of the human diet and are to be found naturally in brain tissue. In principle at least, brain function may falter if the levels of these healthy fats falls off. The same, however, cannot be said for conventional antidepressants. After all, depression is hardly likely to be caused by a deficiency of some manmade chemical cooked up in a laboratory by the men in white coats. Science shows that when a natural antidepressant effect is called for, its time for oily fish to step up to the plate.

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