Mental Health

Omega-3s and Mental Health:
The Role of EPA and DHA in Mental Health

Why are EPA and DHA Important?

  • EPA and DHA omega-3s support brain health
  • The American Psychiatric Association recommends omega-3
  • Taking fish oil supplements can help improve mood and mental health

Nutrition is central to healthy brain function and mental health.

For nearly 2 decades, scientists have been studying the role of omega-3s in mental health.

Researchers have discovered that EPA and DHA  are directly involved in:

  • Supporting better moods
  • Calming nerves
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Managing stress

Most Americans have low levels of omega-3s and since our bodies can’t make these special fats, the solution is to get them through our diet; specifically, to eat more EPA and DHA omega-3.

EPA and DHA omega-3s support brain health.

EPA and DHA omega-3 are healthy fats and are particularly important for the brain. DHA is a priority nutrient for the brain because it is both part of the structure of brain cells and it is involved with the activities of brain cells, such as nerve transmission and communication. In fact, nearly 40% of the fat in the grey matter of the brain is DHA. EPA is also involved in brain and nerve cell activity [1]. EPA and DHA omega-3 are so important for mental health that the American Psychiatric Association has published dietary recommendations [See table].

Intake Recommendations for EPA and DHA from the American Psychiatric Association [ 2 ]
For all Americans Eat fatty fish, at least twice a week*
For mood and mental health support 1,000 mg per day**
For targeted mental health support 1,000 – 9,000 mg per day (Consuming more 3,000 mg/day should be monitored by your doctor)

* Fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, are rich in EPA and DHA omega-3s. Two servings of fatty fish per week equates to between 250-500 mg EPA and DHA per day. Experts recommend that adults and children consume two or more servings of fatty fish per week or consume the equivalent in supplements [3].
**Note: 1000mg = 1 gram
§The US National Academy of Medicine has not yet established a Dietary Recommended intake for EPA and DHA omega-3, but several national health organisations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Psychiatric Association have mad recommendations.

Taking fish oil supplements can improve mood and mental health.

The state of our mental health affects more than friends and relatives; it influences performance, productivity, and attendance at work; it also impacts self-care and involvement in social and community events. In addition, cultural expectations make seeking help difficult [4-9].  Fortunately, nutrition researchers have revealed good news.

Here is what research reports about omega-3 and depressed moods:

  • People who have lower moods have lower amounts of EPA and DHA in their body
  • Taking fish oil supplements has been shown to help improve mood
  • Taking fish oil supplements that contain both EPA and DHA, with relatively more EPA than DHA, is the most helpful
  • Being consistent and having patience is important: it takes 2-3 months to feel meaningful differences
  • People who are under doctor’s care should talk with their doctor about adding fish oil supplements to their regimen

Facts about omega-3 and mental health:

  • People who live in countries where they eat more fish have better mental health
  • U.S. children and young adults have measurably low levels of omega-3s
  • The behavior of young adults prisoners improved significantly when they were given vitamin/mineral and omega-3 supplements [10]
  • Test-anxiety was reduced by 20% in healthy medical students when they took fish oil supplements [11]

In summary, EPA and DHA are special nutrients that we must consume through diet and/or supplements. Healthy omega-3 levels are important for everyone and they are critical for those with mental health challenges. Taking fish oil is a simple and effective step in supporting mental health.

By Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN ©  All rights reserved

About the author: Gretchen Vannice is a registered dietician nutritionist and independent consultant who specialises in omega-3 fatty acids and natural foods. She is a strategist, trainer, speaker, and author. Gretchen is lead author of Healthy Dietary Fats for Adults, published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and author of Live Long and Thrive with Omega-3s. A consumer’s guide to fish, fish oil, nuts, and seeds. She can be reached at www.omega3handbook.com.

Disclaimer:  Written by an independent nutritional expert, this information is provided for educational purposes only.  It is not intended as medical advice.  Always consult your healthcare provider for medical advice.

References:

[1] Yurko-Mauro K, McCarthy D, et al. Alzheimer’s & Dementia 2010;6(6):456-464.
[2] Freeman MP, Hibbeln JR, et al. J Clin Psych 2006;67(12):1954-1967.
[3] Uauy R, Dangour A. Ann Nutr Metabolism 2009;55:76-96.
[4] World Health Organization. Depression Fact sheet N 369. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/. October 2012.
[5] Young C, Martin A. Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 2003; 25(3):184-187.
[6] Martins, JG. J Am Coll Nutrition 2009, 28(5):525-542.
[7] Kraguljac NV, Montori VM, et al. Psycholpharmacol 2009;42(3):39-54.
[8] Appleton KM, Rogers PJ, Ness AR. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91:757-770.
[9] Hibbeln JR. The Lancet 1998;351;1213.
[10] Gesch CB, Hammond SM, et al. Br J Psychiatry, 2002;181:22-28.
[11] Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, et al. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 2011; 25(8):1725-1734.