Omega-3 and Depression: a Winning Pair


Omega-3 and Depression: a Winning Pair

omega-3 and depression omega-3-and-depression

Depression is hard. Omega-3s might make it easier.

When someone breaks a bone there’s a generally known protocol to encourage healing. 1. Go to the hospital, 2. Get an X-ray, 3. Suffer through life with a cast for a few weeks (and make all your friends sign it), and 4. Get lots of rest! But what about when someone is recovering from a condition that’s not quite as tangible?


Depression Isn’t Simple


When someone is going through depression the path to healing is more complex. There are no bones to mend or casts to wear, in fact there are often no physical cues at all. As a therapist, when clients present to me with depression treatment isn’t as simple as prescribing an antidepressant and some “positive thinking.”


While a broken bone is a sign of a broken bone feeling depressed can be a sign of disconnection, trauma, neurochemical imbalance, grief, hormonal imbalances, and more. As a result there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.This can be incredibly frustrating and painful for the depressed individual and their loved ones. To add to the helplessness depression saps motivation, energy, and concentration –  this is why it’s not helpful to tell someone who’s depressed to “go work out” or “do something social.”


So, instead, it’s crucial to  explore a number of areas that may contribute to depression. Based on what we uncover I work with my clients to make small, realistic changes that are likely to result in feeling better overall. Occasionally  we uncover something physiological, like thyroid disease or a nutrient deficiency, but other times it’s something more nuanced: a breakup, a challenging familial relationship, or an unfulfilling career.


Improving quality of life with depressed clients involves assessing a number of areas to determine what factors are contributing to their depression.These areas include social factors such as relationships and cultural pressures; physiological issues such as genetic predisposition or disease; lifestyle influences such as diet, career, spirituality, addiction, or stress; and historical factors such as childhood trauma or loss. Another important area to consider is the way in which the client views themselves and what they believe is their purpose in life. 


The silver lining to depression being the leading cause of disability in the US for ages 15 to 44 is that it prioritizes awareness and research.  As patients and practitioners alike we’re learning more about causes and effective treatment every day. For example, studies have proven certain lifestyle changes and practices are both preventative and remedial when it comes to depression. These include social connection, exercise, stress reduction techniques, self-compassion-informed contemplative practice, and diet.


The value of Omega-3s as a preventative against depression


One specific area of nutrition I stress with my patients is that of omega 3 fatty acids. The benefits of omega-3s are all encompassing and include promoting healthy heart, eye, skin, and cognitive function.


Although no definitive conclusions can yet be made there’s strong evidence to suggest that omega 3’s are associated with lower instance of depression and a heightened state of mental health. For those interested in specifics studies, this one, this one, and this one present compelling implications for omega 3 proving beneficial for depression. In a nutshell, researchers believe that the mood-boosting effect of these essential fatty acids has to do with the structural changes that take place in the brain combined with the  anti-inflammatory effects of omega 3’s. Other studies have shown systemic inflammation is correlated with depression.


Unfortunately, most of us are deficient in omega-3s. This is because the modern Western diet tends to be high in omega-6 fatty acids which disrupts our optimal omega 3:6 ratio. (The ideal ratio is actually around 1:1, but currently sits at about 16:1). Intentionally including omega-3 rich foods and supplements, therefore, is recommended. 


Foods high in omega 3’s include fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna, anchovies), algae, chia seeds, and walnuts. It is important to note, however, that terrestrial sources of omega-3, such as chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseed, contain only ALA. In order to reap the above-listed benefits of omega 3 it is important to ingest EPA and DHA omega-3 as this is the form primarily used in your body. (ALA is actually the precursor to DHA but is only converted at a rate of 3.8% or lower.) Unless you’re eating two to three portions of fatty fish a week, however, you would benefit by supplementing your diet with a product high in EPA and DHA such as Ora Organic’s sustainable, vegan Omega-3 supplement.


If you or someone you care about is struggling with depression take this article as a kernel of hope: there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Consider connecting with a therapist to help with the detective work and to remove some of the burden off of your own shoulders. Then try making a small yet powerful change by supplementing your diet with omega 3 fatty acids.