Fatty Acid Effective Against Depression
Addition of a fatty acid supplement to a conventional antidepressant regimen significantly improves mood, according to a clinical trial published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.1
Twenty people already taking medication for depression were recruited for this study. Half of this group was assigned to take 2 grams per day of a fatty acid isolated from fish oil (eicosapentaenoic acid; usually referred to as EPA on container labels), while the other half took a placebo. At the beginning of the study, and after each of the four weeks of supplementation, each person answered a questionnaire to rate symptoms of depression.
After four weeks, participants taking the fatty acid supplement reported a 50% reduction in symptoms of depression. No changes were seen in the placebo group. No side effects were reported.
The majority of the fish oil supplements available contain a number of different fatty acids, including EPA. Cod-liver oil contains roughly 500 mg of EPA per teaspoon, and capsules of concentrated fish oil contain approximately 180 mg of EPA per gram of oil. Purified EPA is also available, but is relatively expensive. However, it is not now known whether cod-liver oil or concentrated fish oil, each of which contains a mixture of fatty acids, would have the same antidepressant effect as pure EPA.
It has been previously observed that patients with lower levels of the essential fatty acids (like EPA) have lower levels of the chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) serotonin.2 Serotonin is the neurotransmitter increased by the most common family of antidepressant medications. Fish oil supplements have previously been shown to improve treatment outcomes in bipolar disorder,3 a condition similar to depression.
Depression is a common condition, with some sources estimating that almost one in ten adults will suffer from symptoms each year.4
The authors were unable to determine whether the fatty acid supplement increased the efficacy of the antidepressants, or whether it had a therapeutic effect of its own. They suggest following up this research with studies using EPA alone as a first-line treatment for depression to see if it has an independent treatment effect.
Regardless of whether EPA works independent of, or as an adjunct to, antidepressant medicines, it appears to be a logical choice for patients with depression.
1. Nemets B, Stahl Z, Belmaker RH. Addition of omega-3 fatty acid to maintenance medication treatment for recurrent unipolar depressive disorder. Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:477–9.
2. Hibbeln JR, Umhau JC, Linnoila M, et al. A replication study of violent and nonviolent subjects: cerebrospinal fluid metabolites of serotonin and dopamine are predicted by plasma essential fatty acids. Biol Psychiatry 1998;44:243–9.
3. Stoll AL, Severus WE, Freeman MP, et al. Omega 3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1999;56:407–12.
4. Regier DA, Narrow WE, Rae DS, et al. The de facto US mental and addictive disorders service system. Epidemiologic Catchment Area prospective 1-year prevalence rates of disorders and services. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1993;50:85–94.
Matt Brignall, ND, is in practice at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center and at the Evergreen Integrative Medicine Clinic in Kirkland, WA. He specializes in integrative treatment of cancer. He is a contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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