How Omega-3 Prevents Postnatal Depression

postpartum Depression

The long awaited arrival of a baby can be the happiest time in a new mother’s life. It’s a time of bonding and discovering every quirk and lovable traits their child has. The first few months getting to know their baby can be something of absolute joy that pregnant women look forward to for nine whole months.

However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, that joy is hindered by feelings of depression and anxiety.

Postnatal depression is a common disorder among new mothers. The body goes through many changes during pregnancy. One of those changes is increased hormone production, especially the production of estrogen and progesterone. Immediately after giving birth, those hormone levels drop sharply. That alone can lead to mood irregularities and symptoms of depression. Combine that with getting less sleep than normal, along with the other stresses that come with adjusting to taking care of a baby, and the chances of falling into depression greatly increase. The condition usually develops within six months of giving birth and has all the standard symptoms of clinical depression.

Omega-3 has a well-documented history of working well when dealing with multiple types of depression. Yet, the scientific evidence is not entirely favorable for omega-3 being able to alleviate the symptoms of postpartum depression specifically. There have only been a few studies conducted that examined omega-3 as a treatment for postnatal depression. Some of those studies show that omega-3 has no effect on the symptoms at all while a couple did show a slight improvement.

One of the studies conducted over a period of eight weeks and involved two groups of women with postpartum depression: an omega-3 group and a placebo group. Those within the omega-3 group were given a 1.9g supplementation of omega-3 per day. By the end of the study, there was an improvement in the omega-3 group that was not seen in the placebo group. The results of this study were not overly in favor of omega-3 though. While there was an improvement, it was not a significant one and there was still only a slight difference between the placebo group and the omega-3 group.

Omega-3 could help as an addition aid to standard treatment for postpartum depression, but there isn’t much evidence to support omega-3 as a treatment on its own. When it comes to omega-3 supplementation and preventing postnatal depression, it’s a very different story. There is quite a bit of evidence that omega-3 deficiency can be a contributing factor for developing postpartum depression.

Bottle with help message
Bottle with help message

A fetus has high demands for omega-3 because those fatty acids are needed for fetal development. Due to this, the fetus takes omega-3 from the mother and her omega-3 levels slowly deplete throughout the course of the pregnancy. This becomes especially significant if the mother already had lower levels of omega-3 due to not having a diet that supplied her with a good amount of omega-3 or not taking omega-3 supplements. Pregnant women, especially in the last trimester, and woman who have just given birth are more prone to having an omega-3 deficiency. In other words the deficiency can be cumulative, the more children a woman has the more omega 3 depleted she can become (assuming she doesn’t supplement).

This depletion of omega-3 fatty acids appears to play a role in the development of postnatal depression. New mothers with lower levels of omega-3 were observed to have a higher risk of experiencing the disorder. One study found that women with low levels omega-3 in their breast milk and those with low seafood intake had higher rates of postpartum depression. A 2007 study concluded that lower omega-3 levels during pregnancy made women six times more likely to develop the disorder. There are numerous studies examining the relationship between omega-3 deficiency and postpartum depression and the vast majority of them end with the same conclusion.

The current scientific knowledge indicates that omega-3 fish oil is not effective as a treatment for postnatal depression but may help boost improvement of symptoms at least a little when added to a standard treatment. It’s unlikely to completely cure this disorder once it’s developed, but it could give a little help and since it’s entirely safe, there’s nothing to lose by including it in the treatment regiment. Even a little bit of help can make a difference, especially when dealing with a disorder that can be a nightmare. Omega-3 does, however, is very effective at preventing postnatal depression from developing in the first place. This suggests that pregnant women should make it a point to have a decent omega-3 intake from their diet or to take omega-3 supplements throughout their pregnancy to guard against experiencing depression symptoms during what is supposed to be one of the happiest times in their life.

References

Freeman, M., Hibbeln, J., Wisner, K., Davis, J., Mischoulon, D., Peet, M., . . . Stoll, A. (2006). Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Evidence Basis for Treatment and Future Research in Psychiatry. Psychiatry The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67(12), 1954-1967.

Hibbeln, J. (2002). Seafood consumption, the DHA content of mothers’ milk and prevalence rates of postpartum depression: A cross-national, ecological analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 69(1-3), 15-29. doi:10.1016/S0165-0327(01)00374-3

Markhus, M., Skotheim, S., Graff, I., Frøyland, L., Braarud, H., Stormark, K., & Malde, M. (2013). Low Omega-3 Index in Pregnancy Is a Possible Biological Risk Factor for Postpartum Depression. PLoS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067617

Postpartum depression. (2015, August 11). Retrieved November 4, 2015.

Vriese, S., Christophe, A., & Maes, M. (2003). Lowered serum n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) levels predict the occurrence of postpartum depression: Further evidence that lowered n-PUFAs are related to major depression. Life Sciences, 73(25), 3181-3187. doi:10.1016/j.lfs.2003.02.001

Cassi O'Brien