Category Archives: depression

Light therapy & SAD: Look on the Bright Side

Could Light Therapy help beat your winter blues?

While many look forward to the crisp and clear autumn and winter months, others find that they struggle through these months feeling tired and low. Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a form of depression that is brought on when levels of natural sunlight are reduced. Symptoms tend to begin as the days get shorter and winter draws in, only lifting completely during the summer months. A milder form of seasonal depression – often called sub-syndromal SAD (S-SAD) or simply ‘the winter blues’ – affects around 1 in 10 adults.

Bright Light Therapy
SAD is a form of depression that is brought on when levels of natural sunlight are reduced

I was interested to read a recent Swedish study that tested a treatment called ‘bright light therapy’ on individuals with SAD and with S-SAD (1). Bright light therapy is a treatment that involves exposure to a special light that mimics natural outdoor light.

The study tested the effects of the light therapy on 49 individuals who had been diagnosed with either SAD or S-SAD.

When the individuals began to experience winter depressive symptoms, some of the group were either given a 10-day course of bright light therapy, or were put onto a 3-week waiting list, after which they were given the 10-day treatment course. The group of people on the waiting list were used as the ‘control’ group for this study.

The study found that bright light therapy was linked to improvements in a number of symptoms. The researchers had conducted an earlier randomised clinical trial which found that bright light therapy did indeed have a positive effect on depressive mood in those with SAD and S-SAD (2). This new study, however, also measured the effects of bright light therapy on other symptoms, such as tiredness, fatigue, sleep problems and health-related quality of life. All of these symptoms had improved after the 10-day course of light therapy. Symptoms were then measured again, a month after the treatment had finished, and it was found that the symptom improvements had lasted.

The study suffers because, although a control group was used, strictly speaking there was no placebo group. If the second group had been exposed to a ‘placebo’ light rather than the therapeutic bright light, then this might have served as a better comparison group. The study is nevertheless very interesting because it indicates that light therapy can help not just depressive mood, but that it can bring about improvement in a number of symptoms including milder symptoms of depression and daytime sleepiness.

Despite the design flaw in the study, light therapy does appear to be a promising treatment for the ‘winter blues’. Systematic reviews have reported that light therapy represents an effective and well-tolerated treatment for SAD (3). A home light box may therefore be a wise investment for those who need a boost during these darker months. Using a light box for between 30 minutes to an hour in the morning is considered to be an effective approach, and the light should be at least 2500 lux to be beneficial. Some individuals also use a Sunrise Alarm Clock as well to help balance their circadian rhythm and ensure they wake naturally in the morning rather than to the sharp, shrill noise of a standard alarm clock. These Wake-Up Lights simulate the “sunrise” so the brain wakes gradually.

Seasonal affective disorder, or the milder ‘winter blues’ can mean months of misery for those affected. With an estimated 1 in 20 adults affected by SAD, and a further 1 in 10 suffering from its milder form S-SAD, it is certainly an approach worth considering.

Written by Nadia Mason

1. Rastad C, et al. Improvement in Fatigue, Sleepiness, and Health-Related Quality of Life with Bright Light Treatment in Persons with Seasonal Affective Disorder and Subsyndromal SAD. Depression Research and Treatment. 2011:543906
2. Rastad C, Ulfberg J, Lindberg P. Light room therapy effective in mild forms of seasonal affective disorder—a randomised controlled study. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2008. 108(3):291–296.
3. Lee T M, Chan C C. Dose-response relationship of phototherapy for seasonal affective disorder: a meta-analysis. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 2000. 99(5): 315-323


Beat the autumnal blues…

The nights are now well and truly drawing in and becoming colder and darker, so it’s common to feel low in mood.

Here are some helpful tips to keep you feeling upbeat:

Vitamin D
This sunshine vitamin has been getting more and more press coverage in recent months and it’s an important vitamin in supporting immunity amongst other things. Getting natural daylight is the best way to generate Vitamin D in your body; however in countries like the UK, the sun’s strength is not high enough between October and March to do this adequately. It’s important to eat foods containing vitamin D such as oily fish (mackerel, sardines etc), eggs, fortified breads and cereals. Supplementation is popular at this time of year with varying options of strengths (500iu – 5000iu) and types (tablets, capsules, sprays, sublingual) available. The UK Government now recommends that Vitamin D supplements should be taken by under 5’s, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, everyone over 65 and anyone who has little sun exposure.

Omega 3
Continuing with the importance of fish and omega 3’s, it has been shown that those with diets high in fish and omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to have better moods. As well as other potential benefits such as improved skin quality, cardiovascular health and joint mobility.

Exercise is good for the mood
Exercise is good for helping to improve the mood during Autumn and Winter.

Natural Daylight
Balancing your circadian rhythm is important in balancing your mood and hormone levels. Try and get some natural daylight every day to avoid feeling low in energy and depressed – although it’s not easy if you work a in a 9-5 office environment. Go for a walk on your lunch break or offer to go to the shop for a colleague – any reason to get outside. Growing evidence also suggests sunshine can help protect against cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Having a SAD lightbox on your desk or at home can help beat the blues – opt for a lightbox with a 10,000 lux output from a respected manufacturer like Lumie or the Sad Lightbox Company.

That lunch break walk suggested previously can have a double effect on your mood – gentle exercise can increase endorphins which are those “feel good factors” keeping your looking on the bright side of life. Green Exercise (i.e. not in a gym) has been found to have more significant improvements in mood.

This supplement is well known for its mood-boosting properties. If you feel you still need some support then this may be a good option. Speak to your GP or Health Practitioner first though, as it can interfere with other medications.

Written by Katie Guest


Are you SAD or just Grumpy?

In the summer can you take on the world and work all day, with buckets of energy? But in autumn and winter do you feel lethargic and eat more, especially carbs, and feel irritable or overly anxious? It could be that you are just lacking in light. These are some of the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Worse still, if your office has no windows or has tinted glass then you may be suffering all year round, as you are not getting the light that your body craves.

SAD Lightbox
Using a lightbox can be useful for SAD sufferers, but also those in need of more energy during the winter months.

The answer is simple – put a lightbox on your desk and then get on with your day. As you sit doing your tasks, your eye will automatically pick up the light. Within 7-10 days you will start to feel the benefits of using a lightbox, feeling more alert and having more energy.

So how does it work? The light goes into the eye, through the retinohypothalamic tract and into the brain. That’s the detail – what you need to know is that the light has a double effect. It ‘cuts off’ the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone which makes you sleepy and triggers hibernation in animals. It also increases levels of serotonin, ‘the feel good’ hormone.

So why are we seeing this problem now? When you think about it, it is only a little over a century ago that we got electric light. Before that about 75% of the population worked the land and kept to the rhythms of the seasons, getting up with the light and going to bed when it got dark – they weren’t trying to stretch the day the way we do now. So this is a man-made problem with a man-made solution – the lightbox.

Lightboxes are even VAT exempt, in recognition that SAD is a significant, debilitating condition. So if you feel tired all the time and can’t seem to pinpoint why, try using a lightbox to bring some light into your life.

Written by Carol Barksfield at the SAD Lightbox Co.


An Introduction to Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Winter Blues

About SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D., is now officially recognised as a medical condition thought to affect over 2 million of the British population.

SAD can affect people of any age but most commonly it starts between the ages of 18-30. At one time it was thought that four times as many women as men suffered from SAD, but now increasingly men recognise the symptoms and seek treatment. SAD is also known as the Winter Blues, and about 10% of the population suffer to some degree with 2-3% suffering with clinical depression.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Depression, feelings of gloom and despondency for no apparent reason.
  • Lethargy, lacking in energy, unable to carry out a normal routine.
  • Anxiety, inability to cope.
  • Social problems, irritability not wanting to see people.
  • Sleep problems, finding it hard to stay awake during the day, but having disturbed nights.
  • Loss of libido, not interested in sex or physical contact.
  • Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, leading to weight gain.
  • Recurring symptoms year after year at about the same time of year (Autumn / Winter).

The Cause

SAD has a lot in common with the hibernation cycle of animals and research showed that this was triggered by a response to decreasing light levels. As the days grow shorter and the light becomes less intense, it increases the desire to ‘hibernate’.

Light intensity is measured in ‘lux’ the Latin word for light. On a summer’s day at our latitude we may have up to 16 hours of daylight at 100,000 lux. In winter an 8 hour dull day will give less than 5,000 lux and indoor lighting rarely exceeds 500 lux.

The Treatment

Lights from trusted brands like the SAD Lightbox Co. have medical certifications and quality assurances.

Historically, treatment for depression involved the use of drugs, however, in recent years research in the USA and UK showed that SAD sufferers responded, often quite dramatically, to Bright Light Treatment. Fully proven lightboxes from trusted brands such as the SAD Lightbox Co. (carrying ISO 13485 / 9001 and Medical CE Mark 0120) have been specifically designed for and are a recognised method of alleviating S.A.D.

Lack of light causes an increase in the production of Melatonin (the hormone that makes us sleepy at night), and a reduction of Serotonin, a lack of which causes depression. The exposure to bright light therapy reverses the process, with the additional benefit of being drug free. You should start to feel the benefit within 4-10 days of using a lightbox.

By providing summertime levels of light during the winter you can successfully alleviate the symptoms of SAD with the result that former sufferers can lead a normal, happier life and beat the Winter Blues.

Studies have also shown that bright light therapy can prove beneficial with Pre-menstrual syndrome, Jet lag, shift work, insomnia and with some cases of MS and ME. The Light Therapy Institute have also been successful in treating children with dyslexia and specific learning difficulties; even children and students without these problems can benefit and work better by using the lightbox as a desk top working light.



Omega 3 and Depression in the Elderly

Chances are you have already heard of omegas, especially if you are health conscious or have read previous posts on this blog. The mighty essential fatty acids omega 3 and 6 are power houses of energy and also have a fantastic range of health benefits which covers the whole body (from head to toe).

Awareness of these omegas (which have to be ingested as the body cannot make them – hence the term “essential” fatty acids) is fast increasing in the nutrition world and they are already celebrated for their anti-inflammatory effects. They also benefit our cardiovascular health, for example they help to reduce risks of high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes, as well as playing a large role in the function of our central nervous system and possessing growth and development properties.

Fish and Flax Seed Oil Capsules
Fish or Flax Seed Oil Supplements may help increase your intake of essential fatty acids, specifically Omega 3.

However, our 21st century diets have created a reduced ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 (meaning we are consuming more foods such as olive oil, peanuts, sunflower seeds, bacon and margarine and less sardines, salmon, flax seeds and walnuts) which has disturbed the omega balance and leaves many of us deficient in omega 3.

A research paper published in the the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging in 2011 (1) has highlighted this decrease in the level of omega 3 in our diets and related it to the decline of our mental health. More specifically, the paper discusses the link between this dietary change and higher levels of depression as omega 3 deficiency can cause abnormal neurotransmitter activity. The hormones serotonin and dopamine are affected by this disturbance and these play a large role in the control and stability of our mind, cognition, mood, personality and overall mental state. Hence Omega 3 deficiency could leave us at risk of cognitive health problems.

The research paper (1) focuses on the elderly, who universally have concerns over independence, social life and functional decline which can all influence the onset of depression in the individual. Conversely, depression can also cause these concerns to become substantially worse and depression is associated with a higher mortality rate in the elderly compared with those that are not depressed. This highlights how important and prevalent this issue is for this age group.

The study supplemented depressed elderly women aged between 65-95 years who were residents of a care home with 2.5g/day of omega 3 or a placebo for 8 weeks. The researchers investigated the effects of supplementation on depressive symptoms measured by Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS). After the 8 weeks of supplementation the authors reported that those who were supplemented with omega 3 had significant reductions in their GDS scores, while the placebo group did not experience such a reduction. It could be that these individuals were deficient in omega 3 and this explains why supplementing their diets caused such an improvement in their depressive states. These findings have fantastic potential for the prevention and improvement of such cognitive disturbances in all age groups including the elderly, and shows that it is never too late to try to improve health.

If you don’t eat more than 2 portions of oily fish per week (such as sardines and salmon) or include plenty of flax and pumpkin seeds in your diet then you may like to consider trying a fish oil or flax seed supplement to increase your omega 3 intake. You should always consult your Health Advisor or GP before starting any new supplement regimen.

Written by Lauren Foster

(1) RONDANELLI, M., GIACOSA, A., OPIZZI, A., PELUCCHI, C., LA VECCHIA, C., MONTORFANO, G., NEGRONI, M., BERRA, B., POLITI, P. & RIZZO, A.M. (2011). Long chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in the treatment of elderly depression.The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 15, 1, 37-44.


Zinc – an effective treatment for depression?

A recent review indicates that zinc may be an effective addition to treatment for depression (1).

Virdian Balanced Zinc Complex
A recent review indicates that zinc may be an effective addition to treatment for depression.

Zinc is a co-factor in many enzymes that are involved in brain function. In fact there have been a number of human clinical studies in recent years which have indicated that zinc may be useful in the management of mood disorders. People with depression are often low in this mineral, and improvements may be seen with supplementation. Furthermore, diets low in zinc can lead to impaired cognitive function and behavioural disturbances (2).

Depression is linked with alterations in chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, in the brain. It is thought that zinc actually helps to regulate the transmission of the neurotransmitter glutamate, indicating that it may be helpful in addressing mood disorders (3).

The review found that “in studies that examined the effects of zinc supplementation as an adjunct to antidepressants drug treatment, zinc significantly lowered depressive symptom scores of depressed patients.”

Caution should be used when taking zinc supplements for long periods, as this can affect levels of other minerals such as copper. Many of the studies showed positive results using doses of just 25 mg per day for 6 weeks. Taking zinc as part of a high quality multivitamin and mineral supplement can help to strike a balance.

The researchers maintain that further well-designed research is required. It is also too early to say whether zinc is effective as a standalone treatment for depression. Zinc is an inexpensive supplement, and is considered safe when taken at low doses. For these reasons, zinc may represent a promising addition to the management of depression.

Written by Nadia Mason


1. Lai J, Moxey A, Nowak G, Vashum K, Bailey K, McEvoy M. The efficacy of zinc supplementation in depression: Systematic review of randomised controlled trials. J Affect Disord. 2011 Jul 26. [Epub ahead of print].

2. Takeda A: Movement of zinc and its functional significance in the brain. Brain Res Brain Res Rev, 2000, 34,137–148.

3. Szewczy B, et al. Antidepressant activity of zinc and magnesium in view of the current hypotheses of antidepressant action. Pharmacological Reports. 2008, 60, 588–59



Beat the winter blues: diet and SAD

Previously I have written about the benefits of light therapy in treating seasonal affective disorder. Light therapy is a popular choice with those looking for a drug-free approach to dealing with SAD or the ‘winter blues’. An equally important consideration is how diet affects mood and symptoms in those with SAD – and in particular the importance of the macronutrients carbohydrate, protein and fat in the management of this condition.

Hormones and SAD

SAD is characterised by symptoms such as low mood, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain and fatigue (1, 2). These symptoms are linked to hormones that control our mood and energy levels.

Our body’s natural anti-depressant hormone, serotonin, is stimulated by light. The more light we have during the daytime, the more serotonin we produce. In the darker months of autumn and winter, serotonin levels can drop, resulting in feelings such as low mood, lack of energy and food cravings.

Likewise, darkness stimulates the hormone melatonin, which lowers body temperature and causes tiredness and feelings of fatigue.

How can diet help?

Those with SAD are thought to crave sugary and starchy foods because these types of carbohydrate temporarily boost levels of the body’s natural anti-depressant serotonin. These types of foods also boost energy levels and raise body temperature, countering the effects of melatonin.

Brown Rice
Whole grains such as brown rice and oats and proteins such as nuts help to keep blood sugar levels stable. (5)

Eating this type of diet can only be a temporary ‘fix’ however. In fact, a carbohydrate-rich diet based around sugary and starchy foods, leads to unstable blood sugar levels. This in turn can create a variety of symptoms that we might link to the ‘winter blues’ – moodiness, fatigue, foggy thinking and food cravings.

The solution is to eat a diet based around ‘low glycemic index’ carbohydrates that help to keep blood sugar levels stable. Whole grains such as brown rice and oats, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables are the wisest choices of carbohydrate.

Including a source of lean protein (such as chicken, turkey, eggs, beans or lentils) with each main meal is also a good idea. This helps the body in two ways. Firstly, including protein with each meal helps to control blood sugar levels, fighting off energy dips and cravings. Secondly, protein provides a source of the amino acid tryptophan, which the body can convert to serotonin. Including foods high in tryptophan – such as chicken, tuna, tofu, eggs, nuts, seeds and milk – in your daily diet can help to support your body in making serotonin.

Finally, healthy fats have been extensively studied in relation to depression and mood. Omega-3 fats also have a role in the production and utilisation of serotonin. Inflammatory chemicals in the body can cause serotonin deficiency in the brain. Omega-3 oils can reduce levels of these inflammatory chemicals, therefore helping to boost the brain’s serotonin levels.

The importance of omega-3 in dealing with SAD might explain the low incidence of SAD in Icelanders who have a diet high in oily fish (3). Ensuring a good level of omega-3 in your diet is essential. Including oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, herring or salmon in your diet can help to boost levels of omega-3, as can eating flaxseed oil, walnuts and omega-3 eggs.

Formal research in this area is limited, with many studies simply looking at the impact of a single meal on symptoms of SAD. This is an inadequate assessment of the role of diet. One study that looked at the longer term impact of diet on SAD showed promising results (4). I have certainly found in clinical practice that patients need to be consistent in their dietary choices in order to see an improvement in symptoms over time.

A well-managed diet, along with light therapy (such as a sunrise alarm clock or SAD light box), appears to be a safe approach to managing SAD. Of course carbohydrates, protein and fats are not the only nutrients of importance to those with the winter blues. Part 3 will examine the evidence behind other nutrients and dietary supplements in the support of SAD.


Written by Nadia Mason


1. Sher L. Genetic studies of seasonal affective disorder and seasonality. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 2001, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 105-110.

2. Magnusson A, Boivin D. Seasonal affective disorder: an overview. Chronobiology Int. 2003. 20(2):189-207.

3. Cott J, Hibbeln JR. Lack of seasonal mood change in Icelanders. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2001.

4. Wells, A, et al. (1998) Alterations in mood after changing to a low-fat diet. British Journal of Nutrition 79(1):23-30.

5. Image courtesy of Marcuso.





Could Saffron be useful for the treatment of depression?

Nutrition and natural remedies for the treatment and prevention of mood disorders and depression is something I am very interested in and have written a lot about.  Nutrition really can impact the brain and it would be wonderful to see nutritional and natural remedies being used more widely by the medical community.  Depression is one of the top five most prevalent diseases worldwide and by 2020 it is expected to be the second leading cause of disability globally.  Finding research-backed, non-pharmaceutical ways of helping to alleviate symptoms of depression is something I believe to be important since many medications have numerous side effects and there is a growing number of individuals who wish to try other treatments.

Previously I have written a fair amount about the long chain omega 3 fatty acids the herb St John’s wort St John’s Wort in the treatment of depression, as well as other potentially helpful nutrients such as vitamin D.  Recently I have become aware of evidence which suggests that the spice saffron might be helpful in the treatment of depression.

A review study published this year (1) found that “Saffron stigma (part of the plant that receives pollen) was found to be significantly more effective than placebo and equally as efficacious as fluoxetine and imipramine[depression medications]. Saffron petal was significantly more effective than placebo and was found to be equally efficacious compared to fluoxetine and saffron stigma”.

Saffron has been used as a medicine for over 3600 years (1) and in 1862 an English herbalist called Christopher Catton was quoted as remarking “Saffron hath power to quicken the spirits, and the virtue thereof pierceth by and by to the heart, provoking laughter and merriness”.  In the review paper (1) the authors write that “the effects of saffron stigma and petal in mild-to-moderate depression compare favourably to results observed in St John’s wort trials”.  Further, larger and longer trials looking into the effectiveness of saffron in the treatment of depression are certainly warranted and needed. 

It is important to visit your medical doctor if you have any concerns about your health and mood.  If you wish to try a saffron supplement it is important to discuss this with your doctor.   Saffron stigma is one of the world’s most expensive spices, however the new studies which seem to show the effectiveness of saffron petal may result in a reduced cost of some supplements.

A laboratory study published last year (2) found that there were bioactive compounds within saffron that could well be responsible for the anti-depressant properties observed.  The authors of the study suggest that their results add support to the validity of using saffron for the treatment of depression and also say that further studies would be useful to gain further insight into how certain compounds within saffron might be acting to alleviate depression.

(1) Dwyer AV et al.  2011.  Herbal medicines, other than St. John’s Wort, in the treatment of depression: a systematic review. Altern Med Rev.  16(1):40-9.

(2) Wang Y et al.  2010.  Antidepressant properties of bioactive fractions from the extract of Crocus sativus L.  J Nat Med.  64(1):24-30.

Written by Ani Richardson


Researchers find that eating trans-fats may increase the risk of depression

Studies have found that long chain omega 3 fatty acids, from oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines, may be useful in the prevention and treatment of depression and low mood.  Now research has found (1) that eating trans-fats may increase the risk of suffering depression, and that olive oil  may protect against depression.

Trans fatty acids are created through manufacture when liquid vegetable oils are hardened, to a solid or semi-solid state, via a process known as hydrogenation.  (Hydrogenation is when naturally occurring cis-unsaturated double bonds are converted into trans unsaturated double bonds).  The process of hydrogenation also destroys the essential short chain omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid from oils (for more information about the health benefits of omega 3 fats please read through my numerous posts on the subject).  Trans fatty acids have been linked to various adverse health effects. 

The study ran from 1999-2010 and involved 12,059 Spanish university graduates with an average age of  37.5 years.  All of the participants were initially free of depression.  At the beginning of the study a detailed and extensive food frequency questionnaire was used to estimate the intake of fatty acids.  During the six year follow-up period any cases of depression, as diagnosed by a physician, were reported.  In this time over 650 new cases of depression were identified.  Results found that trans fatty acids were associated with an increased risk of depression – the more trans fats consumed the higher the risk of depression.  On the other hand the more monounsaturated fat e.g. olive oil consumed the lower the risk, this was also true for polyunsaturated fats e.g. fish oil.  The authors of the study conclude: “A detrimental relationship was found between TFA [trans fatty acid] intake and depression risk, whereas weak inverse associations were found for MUFA [monosunsaturated fatty acid], PUFA [polyunsaturated fatty acids] and olive oil. These findings suggest that cardiovascular disease and depression may share some common nutritional determinants related to subtypes of fat intake”.

Specifically the results found that participants with an elevated consumption of trans-fats (2)presented up to a 48% increase in the risk of depression when they were compared to participants who did not consume these fats,”.   Associate professor Almudena Sánchez-Villegas one of the study authors also said (2)the more trans-fats that were consumed, the greater the harmful effect they produced in the volunteers,”

It is estimated that around 150 million persons worldwide suffer from depression.  In a press release Almudena Sánchez Villegas boldly hypothesises that this may be due (2)to radical changes in the sources of fats consumed in Western diets, where we have substituted certain types of beneficial fats — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated in nuts, vegetable oils and fish — for the saturated and trans-fats found in meats, butter and other products such as mass-produced pastries and fast food.

It is important to note that this published research (1) took place in a population with a low average intake of trans-fats, given that it made up only 0.4% of the total energy ingested by the volunteers. “Despite this, we observed an increase in the risk of suffering depression of nearly 50%. On this basis,” concluded another study author (2)we derive the importance of taking this effect into account in countries like the U.S., where the percentage of energy derived from these foots is around 2.5%.”

Please read my previous post for more information about the hypothesized dangers of eating a diet containing trans fats.  Evidence is increasing to support a relationship between improved nutrition and better mental health.  Please read my previous blog posts on depression and mood

(1)Sánchez-Villegas A et al.  2011.  Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Depression: The SUN Project. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (1): e16268 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016268

 (2)Press Release.  Public Library of Science (2011, January 26). Eating poorly can make you blue: Trans-fats increase risk of depression, while olive oil helps avoid risk. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 27, 2011, from­ /releases/2011/01/110126171451.htm

Written by Ani Kowal


DHA supplementation may protect the ageing brain

 Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is a long chain omega 3 fatty acid naturally found in oily fish such as mackerel, trout, sardines and salmon.  The brain contains a high proportion of DHA and, as you will see from my past blog posts, omega 3 fats have been linked to brain benefits including protection from depression and dementia and better mental function, or cognition.  It is known that DHA plays an important role in neural function and that decreases in blood plasma levels of DHA are associated with cognitive decline in  healthy elderly adults and in those with Alzheimer’s disease.  Until now there has been very little investigation into the potential benefits of DHA supplementation in age-related cognitive decline.

A recently study (1) published in the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association has found that taking DHA supplements in older age may improve memory and learning (improve cognition) in those individuals with mild cognitive impairments.  The study was a well designed randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study which looked to evaluate the effects of DHA supplementation on cognitive function in healthy older adults with mild age-related cognitive decline.  The study included over 450 individuals aged 55 or over, they received either 900mg of DHA daily or a placebo supplement for 24weeks.  Various tests were used to evaluate cognitive function. 


The researchers found that after 24weeks those individuals given the DHA had better cognitive function test scores compared to those taking the placebo and DHA supplementation was also associated with improved immediate and delayed Verbal Recognition Memory scores.  In the supplemented group the blood plasma DHA levels doubled and were correlated with improved test scores. DHA was well tolerated with no reported treatment-related serious adverse events.  The authors of the study conclude that “Twenty-four week supplementation with 900 mg/d DHA improved learning and memory function in ARCD [age-related cognitive decline] and is a beneficial supplement that supports cognitive health with aging

In a press release (2) Duffy MacKay, N.D., vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs, for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) said “The results of this study are very encouraging for those consumers concerned about maintaining memory. We know that lower DHA levels are associated with cognitive decline in healthy elderly and Alzheimer’s patients, and higher DHA levels help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” “Memory loss, dementia and the development of Alzheimer’s disease are prominent health concerns for older individuals. The more we learn about the valuable role DHA plays in supporting brain function, the more options aging Americans have towards managing cognitive decline.”

The findings of this study show how important early intervention with omega 3 supplements is.  This study (1) found that DHA supplementation was beneficial to the population being tested who were suffering with mild age-related cognitive decline but who were free of Alzheimer’s disease.  Another recent study (3) published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was conducted with individuals who were diagnosed with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease.  In this study DHA supplementation did not provide a statistically significant benefit to cognitive function.  The authors of the JAMA study write “In summary, these results indicate that DHA supplementation is not useful for the population of individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer disease,” but also add that “it remains possible that an intervention with DHA might be more effective if initiated earlier in the course of the disease in patients who do not have overt dementia.” 

In the study mentioned earlier (1) it was found that DHA was useful as an early intervention in order to PREVENT cognitive decline.  In a press release Dr MacKay said “This study reinforces the principle that consumers will reap the most benefit from their DHA supplements — and many supplements — when they are taken over time and before a health concern is imminent,” “When included as a part of a proactive health regimen that includes a well-balanced diet, regular physical activity and routine visits with a healthcare professional, dietary supplements offer an important tool to help support many systems in the body, including memory and cognitive function.

If you feel you would like to take omega 3 fish oil supplements then it is always best to check with your medical doctor first but they may well be worth considering, especially if you do not eat at least two portions of oily fish weekly.  Omega 3 fatty acids are important for the health of the brain, heart and circulatory system and have many other health benefits in addition.

(1)Yurko-Mauro K et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s and Dementia.  6 (6): 456 DOI: 10.1016/j.jalz.2010.01.013

(2)Press release.  Council for Responsible Nutrition (2010, November 8). DHA improves memory and cognitive function in older adults, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/11/101108151346.htm

(3) Quinn JF, et al. Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation and Cognitive Decline in Alzheimer Disease: A Randomized Trial. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.  304 (17):1903

Written by Ani Kowal