Depressive and mood disorders are extremely common. It expected that the majority of adults will experience some form of depression at some point in their life. These disorders are extremely varied in severity and treatment. The causes for these disorders are not entirely known due to the fact that there are so many different factors involved. However, one strong theory suggests that the high rates of depressive disorders in the Western world could be contributed to a diet that is low in omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 and the brain are heavily linked. Up to 20% of the dry weight of the brain consists of fatty acids. So, it’s no surprise that omega-3 is essential for neurological function. As the control center of the body, the brain regulates everything. It sends the signals to tell our bodies what to do and how to function properly. This includes signalling how we are supposed to feel. Our moods are the result of signalling in the brain, often triggered by external factors. Considering how much of our brains are made up of omega-3, it’s not hard to see why omega-3 fatty acids could have an effect on how we feel.
Clinical Depression and Bipolar Disorder are two of the most well know types of depressive disorders. Both of these are often found in combination with anxiety. Although these types differ from each other, omega-3 fish oil has been shown beneficial for controlling them both and helping anxiety.
Omega 3 and Depression
As the most common type of depressive disorder, Clinical Depression affects up to 20% of women and 10% of men at any one time. This disorder has a wide range of severity and duration because there are multiple suspected causes. Genetics, environment, diet and psychological factors can all contribute to the onset of depression. Yet, the most solid theory is that it’s caused by a chemical imbalance within the brain. There is a bit of a debate about which chemicals are involved and exactly how the brain signalling is affected, but it’s mostly agreed that there is an impairment in the signalling. The chemicals that are highly suspected of playing a role in depression are serotonin and dopamine.
Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters. They carry messages back and forth between nerve cells, giving the signals for certain functions. Both of these chemicals signal emotional responses including happiness and a sense of well-being. In depression, there is an interruption in the signaling. The chemicals are unable to reach the cells and send the correct signals at the rate they’re supposed to. Omega-3 fatty acids can have an effect on this process by making the nerve cell membranes easier to penetrate. By “softening” the membrane, it allows serotonin and dopamine get into the cells and relay the message they are carrying. This can help lessen the symptoms of depression because it works to correct the signal impairment.
This omega-3 quality has been shown in scientific studies. With an 8-week trial on adults, the symptoms of depression were reported to decrease when omega-3 fish oil was added to the standard treatment for depression. Childhood depression was also shown to be eased by omega-3 supplementation. A 2006 study involving children between the ages of six and twelve showed that omega-3 supplementation had a significant effect on decreasing depression symptoms. A few of the study participants had such a decrease in symptoms that they met the requirements to be considered in remission from the disorder.
Another form of depression that is common is called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. As the name implies, it’s triggered by a change in seasons. This mostly affects people in northern regions that experience a lack of sunlight during the autumn and winter months. The lack of sunlight can lead to a drop in both serotonin and melatonin levels.
Although not directly linked to depression, melatonin is a hormone that plays a big role in telling the body when to sleep and helps it stay asleep. When the levels of melatonin drop, it can lead to a disruption of sleep patterns and even trigger bouts of insomnia. Sleep and depression are very intertwined. Depression can cause sleeping problems but sleeping problems can also cause depression. People who have frequent insomnia have been seen to have a higher risk of developing depression. A drop in melatonin levels can have effects that will lead to depression and this contributes to the onset of SAD.
While melatonin is needed in the body to prevent insomnia and the depression that may result from it, taking melatonin supplements is not suggested when dealing with depression. There is evidence that melatonin supplementation can worsen depression symptoms. It is better to influence the naturally produced levels of melatonin rather than getting it from an external source. A safe way to deal with lowered melatonin levels is by taking omega-3 supplements instead.
A study by the University of Oxford in 2014 found that DHA regulated sleeping patterns in children. This indicates that DHA promotes the release of melatonin and plays a role in decreasing the chances of insomnia. Omega-3 also helps raises the levels of serotonin, battling the symptoms of SAD on a second front. DHA helps with the melatonin but EPA has been shown to help with the serotonin levels. In combination with vitamin B, a study showed that omega-3 regulated the release of serotonin as well.
By affecting the secretion of neurotransmitters and hormones that are need for sleep and mood regulation, as well as aiding the brain in passing mood signals, omega-3 is a potent aid against a variety of depression symptoms.
Omga 3 and Bipolar Disorder
This disorder is a type of depressive disorder but depression is only one side of the coin. Those with bipolar disorder swing back and forth between extremes. It’s broken down into two basic phases: the manic phase and depressive phase. During the manic phase, the person can feel elated, energetic, or irritated. In the worse cases, this can involve periods of psychosis. On the other end of the spectrum, the depressive phase carries all the symptoms of major clinical depression and may also cause psychosis in severe cases.
Omega-3 deficiency and been linked to bipolar disorder but supplementation with omega-3 has only been shown to help with some symptoms of the disorder. The way in which omega-3 works to help this condition is similar to that of lithium carbonate and valproate, which are two treatments that are considered highly effective for treating bipolar disorder. By affecting the neural pathways and supporting signalling within the brain, it helps stabilize moods. However, omega-3 has mostly been shown to help with symptoms of the depressive phase while appearing to have no little or effect on the symptoms of the manic phase.
The studies that have been conducted showed that omega-3 was able to decrease the depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder in both adults and children. The manic symptoms did not appear to be affected. Due to this, omega-3 was seen to work best in combination with the standard treatment or when simply added into the diet. Bipolar is a complex disorder with a range of symptoms and even though omega-3 fatty acid only affects one phase, it is still a beneficial aid for helping to control the disorder.
Omega 3 and Anxiety
While not a depressive disorder on its own, anxiety often appears alongside depression. It is unknown if anxiety is a trigger for depressive episodes, a symptom of them, or both. Research has indicated that low serotonin levels are linked to anxiety, suggesting that depression and anxiety may simply have one of the same causes. Due the beneficial quality that omega-3 fatty acids have at regulating serotonin levels and function, the mechanisms it employs to lessen the symptoms of depression may apply to anxiety as well.
In a 2011 study, omega-3 fish oil was able to lower anxiety symptoms in over-stressed medical students. It resulted in up to a 20% decrease in anxiety levels. The anti-anxiety effect was shown again in a study conducted with substance abusers. Recovering substance abusers often have high levels of anxiety, which is a situation that occasionally leads to them returning to the substance abuse habits. The results of this study indicated that EPA had a significant effect at lowering the amount of anxiety that the study participants were experiencing.
When is comes to depressive or mood disorders, omega-3 offers many benefits. As the studies have shown, it fights off symptoms in a few different ways. By adding it into a diet, along with adapting a healthy lifestyle, it can make these disorders much easier to control and keep them from hindering quality of life.
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