Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mental Health

Most Americans don’t appear to be getting nearly enough omega-3s fatty acids, and could likely benefit from getting more omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA.

The average intake of DHA and EPA in the U.S. is an eighth of what people normally get in Japan and a quarter of what many experts now think we need.

  • They are necessary during pregnancy for the development of fetal brains. Women who eat at least four servings of fish a week or take supplements of up to 1.1 grams of DHA daily while pregnant have kids with higher IQ scores through age 4. Their babies have lower rates of allergies, better sleep patterns and better vision.
  • Some studides have observed a relationship between post partum depression and depletion of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Some studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids can alleviate the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, and ADHD.
  • Chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, certain skin disorders, gastrointestinal disorders (Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Crohn’s disease) have been found to be improved in a large number of studies to varying degrees with DHA plus EPA supplementation when added as a complementary intervention to standard pharmaceutical treatment regimens.
  • Some studies have suggested that the risk for alzheimer’s disease and prostate cancer can be reduced with omega three fatty acid supplementation.
  • Some studies have suggested that intake of these good fats can decrease a person’s cravings for some of the more unhealthy fats.
  • Some studies have found lower blood levels of omega-3s in adults with Alzheimer’s and kids with ADHD than in comparable groups without those problems.

Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Omega-3 fatty acids are long chains of carbon atoms that bond to each other in different ways to produce molecules with various functions. We consume 5 forms of Omega-3 fatty acids, but 3 are most important to our health:

1. alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

  • ALA is the only form that is specified in the United States’ official guidelines with a dietary reference intake
    • Men should consume 1.6 grams ALA daily
    • Women should get 1.1 grams ALA daily
  • Most Americans consume plenty of ALA, from flax, canola, soybean, and olive oils, walnuts and other plant-based fats.
    • There are 1.3 grams of ALA in a tablespoon of canola oil and 7.6 grams in a tablespoon of flaxseed oil
  • ALA has no known function for our bodies
    • The human body can convert a small amount of ALA to DHA and EPA, but not nearly enough of what we need.
  • It is far more important to consume DHA and EPA directly — in amounts ranging from 200 milligrams to 4 grams a day, depending on the person.

2. eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

  • EPA and DHA are both essential for heart health
  • Studies of EPA and DHA generally measure their intake together

3. docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

  • DHA is the most important factor int the health of developing eyes and brains.


Sources of Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Salmon, herring, sardines and other oily varieties of fish have large amounts.
  • Seafood, algae and meat have lesser amounts.
  • Flaxseed doesn’t appear to convey the benefits of fish oil,
  • Some algae contain omega-3s that are just as potent as those in fish.
  • Food labels can mislead people into believing they are taking in adequate omega-3 fatty acids. The packaging may suggest that the food is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids even though the form is not readily accessible to the body, or because the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the food is negligible.

The health effects of Omega-3 fatty acids

  • In the 1970s, scientists observed that Inuit people of Greenland ate tons of fatty fish but had extremely low rates of heart disease.
  • In 1999, Italian scientists studied more than 11,000 men who had suffered heart attacks. After 31/2 years, a group that took about a gram a day of EPA and DHA were 20% less likely to die than a group that didn’t take omega-3 supplements.
  • In 2007, Japanese researchers followed more than 18,000 people with high cholesterol for nearly five years and found that those who took 1.8 grams of EPA a day — in addition to cholesterol-lowering medications known as statins — were almost 20% less likely to suffer a major coronary event than people who took statins alone.
  • Studies suggest that for  every extra gram of EPA and DHA a person takes per day, triglyceride levels drop by 8%, within two weeks of doing so.
  • High triglyceride levels are a major risk factor for heart disease in Americans older than 35.
    • Taking 2 to 4 grams of EPA and DHA a day for a couple of weeks could reduce levels in the blood by up to 32% in people with high triglyceride levels.

How Omega-3 fatty acids work

  • How Omega-3 Fatty acids work is not clearly known.
  • They may reduce inflammation somehow; they reduce morning stiffness and joint pain for patients with arthritis, and permit patients to use lower doses of pain medications
  • Some researchers have suggested that Omega-3 fatty acids protect  from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by intercalating within the fatty portion of the cell membrane, stabilizing the cell and preventing cell death.
  • Some researchers have speculated that Omega-3 fatty acids alleviate mood symptoms by acting at the same enzyme in the brain, a protein kinase C, that lithium acts at.