New study suggests omega 3 fats may be helpful for those suffering with major depression

Nutrition and the links to depression and mood are topics I have written about numerous times and I am highly interested in.  In particular I have been paying attention to the extensive work on long chain omega 3 fatty acids for the treatment of depression.   The long chain omega 3 fat, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) which is found naturally in oily fish such as mackerel, trout, sardines and salmon seems particularly important in mood disorders.

Until now most studies have concentrated omega 3 fats for the treatment of mild and moderate depression.  However a newly published study (1) has found that omega 3 supplements are effective in individuals with major depression who do not have anxiety disorders.  The study (1) was published online in the internationally renowned ‘Journal of Clinical Psychiatry’ and concluded that “there was a clear benefit of omega-3 supplementation among patients with MDE [major depressive episode] without comorbid anxiety disorders”.

The study (1) was the largest ever study to assess the use of long chain omega 3 fatty acids in treating major depression.  The double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trial involved over 400 male and female individuals with major unipolar depression.  For 8 weeks half the participants took three capsules daily of a specific high EPA omega 3 supplement and the other half took three placebo capsules containing sunflower oil flavoured with a small quantity of fish oil.  The initial results found that, although there was a trend toward omega 3 being helpful for treating major depression the results were not significant.  However, further analysis found that omega 3 supplements significantly improved depressive symptoms in individuals diagnosed with depression unaccompanied by an anxiety disorder (such as generalized anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder).  In these patients the results showed that efficacy of omega 3 fats was comparable to conventional antidepressant treatment.  An exciting and highly important finding.

In a press release (2) the lead study author, Dr Lespérance noted “Despite significant progress in neuroscience over the past two decades, depression is difficult to treat,”.  Depression, is now the world’s fourth leading cause of morbidity and death is expected to move up to the number two position by 2020.  The press release also mentions that there are a large number of patients who stop taking their medications in the first few months of treatment and those who refuse such treatment due to fear of stigmatization or side effects.  A large number of patients suffering from major depression use alternative treatments offered outside the healthcare system, Dr Lespérance comments that “Many of these treatments have not been adequately evaluated. That is why it was important to assess the efficacy of Omega-3, one of the most popular alternative approaches,”

The study (1) adds to previous evidence that omega 3 fats, especially EPA, might be useful in depressive disorders.  Many doctors and scientists have not been convinced by the current evidence and I hope that this broader study has made some impact.  It would be really encouraging if medical doctors started to use omega 3 fats as treatments for suitable patients suffering with depression.  As mentioned in a past post some psychiatrists, such as Professor Basant Puri, do use EPA supplements with their patients and have experienced fantastic results.  The press release (2) rightly states that “Additional research directly comparing Omega-3 with conventional antidepressants could more clearly confirm their usefulness for patients suffering from depression

Many people in the UK do not regularly, at least twice weekly, eat oily fish and may, therefore, have low intakes of omega 3 fats in their diets.  These fats are essential for health and cannot be made by the body.  As you can see from my past posts on omega 3 fats they are linked to a number of conditions from heart disease, to mood related issues and immune problems.  Having a good intake of these essential fats is vital for health.  If you do not regularly eat oily fish, such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines you may wish to seriously consider taking a daily fish oil supplement.  For vegetarians and vegans a flaxseed oil supplement could be considered. Also, there are now a couple of companies who make vegetarian and vegan EPA and DHA from algal sources, a very exciting development and well worth investigating if you wish to take an omega 3 supplement.  If you are feeling depressed, or have been diagnosed as suffering from depression please check with a medical doctor prior to taking any form of supplementation.  If you are receiving medication of any kind it is also important to check with your medical doctor prior to taking supplements.

(1) Lespérance F et al.  2010.  The Efficacy of Omega-3 Supplementation for Major Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2010;E-Pub prior to print, June 15, DOI 10.4088/JCP.10m05966blu.

(2)Press release Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (2010, June 21). Treating depression with Omega-3: Encouraging results from largest clinical study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 22, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/06/100621111238.htm

Written by Ani Kowal