Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are typically found in plants (e.g., leafy vegetables, flaxseed, walnuts and other nuts), oils (e.g., vegetable oil and fish oil) and marine life (e.g., herring, salmon, halibut, sardines and mackerel). Taking fish oil supplements, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, has become an increasingly popular trend among Americans, who take these supplements mostly for the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for reducing the risk of heart disease, and promoting cardiovascular health and cognitive function.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for reducing inflammation, forming new brain cells and communication between cells in the brain, said Rick Nauert, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals. Despite the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in our physical and mental health, approximately 70 percent of Americans do not get sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in their diets, which can lead to mental health problems such as fatigue, brain fog, memory problems, mood swings, and anxiety or depressive disorders.
In recent years, omega-3 fatty acids have been studied as a complementary health approach for treating patients with major depression and bipolar disorder. Several studies indicate that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for reducing the depressive symptoms seen in patients with these disorders. In comparison to those who take prescription medications alone, the addition of omega-3 fatty acids as an adjunct to traditional medicine contributes to a greater reduction in depressive symptoms in patients who have depression or bipolar disorder.
Omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders
Studies suggest that people with depression and bipolar disorder exhibit deficient levels of omega-3 fatty acids and a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Even in people who do not have mental illness, lack of omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to changes in mood, mood swings and other mental health problems. People with healthy dietary habits (e.g., consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, poultry, fish and low-fat cheese) are less likely to develop depression, according to a 2013 epidemiological study conducted by Anu Ruusunen, Ph.D., a clinical nutritionist at the University of Eastern Finland.
Similarly, people who have bipolar disorder may exhibit lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. For example, Erika F.H. Saunders, M.D., an associate professor and chair of psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine, and her colleagues compared the levels of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids in 27 people with bipolar disorder and 31 healthy control subjects. The results indicated that people with bipolar disorder exhibited lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids compared to healthy controls.
Despite the mood-stabilizing benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, relatively few studies have investigated the effectiveness of omega-3 fatty acids in treating patients with bipolar disorder. In a 1999 pilot study utilizing omega-3 fatty acids as an adjunctive treatment in bipolar disorder, Andrew L. Stoll, M.D., and his colleagues found that the addition of omega-3 fatty acids greatly improved the prognosis and reduced symptoms among patients with bipolar disorder compared to the controls. Adding omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the changes of relapse in patients with bipolar disorder.
Combined with conventional treatments
The mood-stabilizing effect of omega-3 fatty acids may also be helpful in the treatment of depressive disorders and may have a boosting effect on conventional antidepressant and antipsychotic medications. Dietary and lifestyle factors have been recognized as increasingly important for our mental health. Although most studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial in addition to conventional treatments for those who have depressive and bipolar disorders, there is not sufficient evidence for the use of omega-3 fatty acids in place of conventional treatments.
The Sovereign Health Group is a leading provider of addiction treatment, offering evidence-based, individualized behavioral health treatment services to patients who have substance abuse and mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder. At Sovereign Health of California, we believe in treating patients holistically so they can overcome their addiction and take back control of their lives. To find out more about the behavioral health treatment programs offered at Sovereign Health of California, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.
About the author
Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.