Fish oils contain two types of omega-3 fatty acids: DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid). Both DHA and EPA play important roles in brain function. There’s a great deal of research linking low levels of both to mental and emotional disorders, including depression.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids. Our bodies cannot naturally produce them, so we must seek them out in our diet. They’re both also classified as polyunsaturated fats even though they differ slightly in chemical structure. Approximately 20% of the dry weight of the human brain is made up of polyunsaturated fats, as is one in every three fatty acids in the central nervous system. Given the large presence of these fatty acids in our brain, it is not unreasonable for a deficiency to have neuropsychological consequences.
The AA/EPA ratio is a blood test that measures the amounts of omega-3 compared to the amounts of omega-6 in the blood. This test is used as a benchmark for determining silent inflammation in the body. The AA refers to arachidonic acid, which is an omega-6 that causes a pro-inflammatory hormonal response. EPA, found in omega-3’s, have the opposite response and cause an anti-inflammatory hormonal response. Often inflammation is associated with the obvious redness, swelling and pain one might incur from a sports injury. This is an example of classical inflammation. Silent inflammation is similar except there is no perceived pain associated. Since there is no physical pain, there is usually no action taken to manage the inflammation and it is left to linger for years or even decades.
Once diagnosed with depression, the most common drugs prescribed are lithium and valproate. Both of these drugs block the release of arachidonic acid in the brain. A safer, more natural alternative is to increase omega-3 intake to reduce inflammation and balance the AA/EPA ratio. Omega-3’s have also been shown to have a thinning effect on the blood, which may have an impact on depression as well. The blood flow of a typical brain is uniform. Patients with depression have blood flow filled with pockets of little or no blood flow. By thinning the blood and increasing the flow, critical nutrients such as oxygen and glucose can be better distributed.
Studies show that countries with higher consumption rates of fresh fish also have significantly lower depression rates.
The New Zealand diet has the lowest consumption rate of fish among industrialized countries, but has almost 50 times the rate of depression as Japan — a nation renowned for it’s fish consumption. Fish simply isn’t a regular part of the modern American diet. However, refined vegetable oils do make up a majority of our diets. Because of this, most Americans have alarmingly high levels of omega-6.
The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 1:1
Before industrialized foods, we consumed an estimated 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Today the ratio is closer to 20:1 or even 50:1! This imbalance leaves the body inflamed and susceptible to chronic disorders that affect the brain, heart and immune system.
The obvious answer to increasing omega-3 intake appears to be eating more fish. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In the wild, fish get their high omega-3 content from the algae and plankton they eat. Our waters are so contaminated that fish also ingest pollutants that are high in toxins like mercury and pesticides. Farm-raised fish are typically raised in tanks where they do not have access to the omega-3 enriching algae and plankton. Their feed is usually laden with antibiotics, artificial dyes and other filler to keep the cost down. Eating either of these in large quantities can introduce a whole new host of health concerns. If you do choose to add more fish to your diet, stick to wild caught salmon, sardines, mackerel or herring. They’re lower on the food chain and contain fewer toxins.
Choosing a fish oil supplement comes with it’s own concerns. Don’t be afraid to research the manufacturer. Read forums and comments from the Better Business Bureau to learn more about their reputation. Look for one that’s been in business for a number of years and has a reputation for quality. Read the product label and make sure it contains DHA and EPA. Ideally, it should also contain vitamin E to prevent oxidation during storage. It also replaces the vitamin E that regular intake of fish oils tend to deplete.
Diet for Combatting Depression
1. Remove all refined sugar from your diet. This includes sodas, candy, ice cream, and even hidden sources like cereal bars and white bread.
2. Read all ingredient labels and avoid anything that contains an artificial sweetener such as aspartame. Healthier, more natural sweeteners include stevia or raw honey in small amounts.
3. Remove alcohol. While all alcohol is not necessarily bad like red wine, many drinks contain added sugars and artificial ingredients. Try cutting alcohol out of your diet for a few months. Do the same with any caffeinated drinks, or limit yourself to 1-2 cups of green tea (which has a much lower amount of caffeine) only in the morning.
4. You may be looking for ways to prevent heart disease, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s and a host of other diseases. You may just want to increase your overall health and energy level. Perhaps one of the most important things you can do for all of these is increase your intake of the omega-3 fats found in cod liver oil, and reduce your intake of omega-6 fats.
Fish Oil Supplements
If you choose to take a fish oil supplement for your depression, it’s best to work with your doctor to figure out an appropriate dosage. The standard recommendation is 1 gram of DHA and EPA (combined) daily. Pay special attention to the product label. Many people mistakenly take the incorrect dosage by confusing one gram of fish oil with one gram of active ingredient (DHA and EPA). Depending on the brand, you may have to take between 2-4 pills. To learn more about the fish oil I personally use, click here.
Sources: American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry December 2006; 14(12): 1032-1040, Time Magazine, Lipidworld, Medical Hypotheses 2009; 72: 434-443