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Fish Oil and Depression

2 June 2020

How Does Fish Oil Help With Depression?

There are at least three ways omega-3 fatty acids may help with cognitive disorders. The first and most basic has to do with the anti-inflammatory effect omega-3s have on neural cells, which has a direct affect on depression.

A second mechanism involves cell permeability. The cell membranes themselves are partly made up of omega-3s, so adding more omega-3s to the mix, courtesy of fish, other high omega-3 foods, or fish oil supplements, makes the cell membrane squishier, i.e. more permeable.

This increased permeability allows serotonin – the "feel good" chemical that carries messages from one brain cell to another – to more easily pass through the membranes.

The third mechanism is a little more complicated, but it involves indirect membrane modification through the modification of signaling proteins.

What Kinds of Doses Are We Talking About?

The doses of fish oils used in clinical studies range from 0.5 grams a day all the way up to 10 grams a day, but the high end of that range is an outlier, used in a study of bipolar patients for whom the researchers figured they had to pull out the really big fish-oil guns.

One randomized study tried to determine whether 1 gram a day, 2, or 4 worked the best and they settled on 4. Another compared those same amounts and found that 1 gram a day worked best.

Most, however, agreed that 1 to 2 grams a day works best in combating depression.

Are There Any Side Effects I Need to Worry About?

Nearly all of the prescription drugs used to treat depression and other cognitive disorders have significant side effects, from minor things like nausea, dry mouth, constipation, and fatigue to more serious things like loss of sexual desire, erectile dysfunction, and, seemingly paradoxically, increased thoughts of suicide.

Fish oils, however, have no known serious side effects, although caution should be used in people taking blood thinners or about to undergo surgery, as omega-3 fatty acids are natural anti-coagulants.

Can I Just Start Eating Lots of Fish?

Here's where the fish waters get murky. The trouble is, fish vary enormously in their fatty acid content, with coldwater fish (salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, etc.) being the fatty acid champs.

So sure, if you ate three or four servings (3.5 ounces per serving) of one or more of those species of fatty fish a week, it might go a long way in treating depression and you probably wouldn't need to take fish oil supplements.

But, like most things, it's not that easy.

For one, you sometimes don't know if the fish you're eating is wild or farm raised, and there can be stark differences in the two, nutrition and health-wise. It's generally believed that wild fish, salmon for instance, have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than farm raised.

However, fish farmers have, of late, been telling consumers that their fish are higher in omega-3 fatty acids. It's possible, but it comes down to the individual farmers. Most feed fish high-protein pellets when they're young, but switch to the more expensive fish and fish-oil enhanced pellets later in the fish's lifespan.

When they make the switch is highly individual, thus preventing anyone from knowing with any certainty what exactly the fish are ingesting, omega-3 fatty acid-wise.

One study found huge variations in the amount of fatty acids in two farm-raised varieties of salmon as the omega-3 content ranged from 717 mg to 1533 mg per 3.5 ounce serving. That's a difference of over 100%!

If someone forced me to make a recommendation by threatening to hit me in the head with a frozen mackerel, I'd recommend splitting the difference by eating farm-raised at restaurants (especially since that's all most of them serve, anyhow) and wild at home.

But even that approach is somewhat dicey. As I said, it's hard to know how many omega-3s you'd be getting in a meal, and eating fish 3 or 4 times a week might be challenging for all but the most devout pescatarian. Taking a fish oil supplement may be a lot easier and definitely a lot more consistent, dosage wise.

Excerpt from TC Louma's These Fats Treat Depression

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