We are all trying to take better care of our hearts these days, which includes eating our weekly dose of fatty fish and/or taking our omega 3 pills. But, if you think increasing your omega 3 fatty acids intake is just going to help you keep a healthy heart, think again!

Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Mental Health

Current research indicates the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids extends beyond heart-health and may actually improve certain mood disorders such as: major depression, postpartum depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

While mood disorders may be a sensitive subject for some, for residents of the New Orleans area in the years following Hurricane Katrina depression and mood disorders were a major topic for discussion due to an increase in prevalence. Nationally, nearly 10 percent of Americans are battling some type of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, even today, almost seven years after Hurricane Katrina, our local numbers may be even higher than the national average. For people living with these disorders, daily life can be a struggle; so finding any way to help improve symptoms should be a discussion worth having.

How can omega 3 fatty acids help, in particular? The body uses omega 3 fatty acids in multiple ways, but in relation to mental and neurological health, they are especially important in maintaining a healthy, well-functioning central nervous system and brain, which has far reaching effects in the body. Some of these effects can be felt with improved eye health, reduction in triglyceride levels, protection against abnormal heart rhythms, reduction in risk for blood clots, decreasing artery plaque growth, and promotion of healthy brain development during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Are all omega 3 fatty acids equally beneficial for mental health? An article published in the January 2012 issue of Today's Dietitian magazine explored this very subject and found the answer to be: no, not all omega 3 fatty acids are equally beneficial for those with mood disorders or at risk for mood disorders.

Types of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids come in three main forms and are essential to the human body, meaning our bodies cannot make them, we have to consume them. The three main forms include: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

Both DHA and EPA have long been shown to improve heart health and are found in cold water fatty fish such as: salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and herring. This research is the basis for the recommendation from the American Heart Association to eat at least two servings of fatty fish each week. Both DHA and EPA become part of the brain, however, to improve mood studies have shown you need a little more EPA than DHA to be effective. The reason for this is unknown and is being studied.

ALA is found in flaxseed, canola oil, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and in small amounts in brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and salad greens. This type of omega 3 is heart healthy but does not directly impact mood.

Why is this so important? Americans do not get enough DHA or EPA in their diets, while ALA is usually adequate. Research shows low levels of DHA and EPA may increase the incidence of mood disorders. Some research is looking into omega 3 fatty acids as possible treatment for some mood disorders, but doing so should not be done without a doctor's supervision.

How Much Is Enough?

For those at risk for mental illness and heart disease, it is recommended to consume 500 mg daily of DHA and EPA together. If you have an existing mood disorder or existing heart disease, 1,000 mg of DHA and EPA is recommended. If you are a fish eater, consuming 2 or more servings of fatty fish per week will give you, on average, 500 mg of DHA and EPA daily.

If you are not a huge fan of fatty fish, have a fish allergy, or are concerned about environmental pollutants such as mercury in fish, omega 3 pills may be the correct choice for you. With multiple brands of omega 3 pills out on the market, it is difficult to determine which one to buy. Here is a list of steps to take when purchasing omega 3 pills:

  1. Look up the DHA and EPA on the Supplement Facts Label. The amount of each, individually, should be listed on the label in milligrams (mg). If there is nothing but an asterisk next to DHA and EPA, then you will not be able to determine how much is in the pill, so move on to the next one.
  2. Between the DHA and EPA, look for your respected dosage: 500 mg or 1,000 mg.
  3. Check the serving size to see how many pills equals one serving.
  4. Look to see how many pills you would need to take to get your needed dosage. For example, if you need 500 mg of DHA and EPA, and 1 pill gives you 100mg of DHA and 200 mg of EPA, you would only need to take 2 pills daily.
  5. Also listed on the label will be "total omega 3's." Check to see how much total omega 3 you would be getting if you took the number of pills you need to get enough DHA and EPA. If the amount of total omega 3 exceeds 3,000 mg, you may be putting yourself at risk for hemorrhagic stroke and increased incidence of bleeding.

Omega 3 Safety

Since omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, they have blood-thinning effects. If you are currently on anticoagulation therapy such as warfarin, Coumadin, aspirin, and other anti-inflammatory supplements, you should discuss omega 3 fatty acid supplementation with your doctor before starting to take it. If you are currently on medication to treat a diagnosed mood disorder and want to see if omega 3 fatty acids can help you, do not stop taking your prescribed medication without a detailed discussion and action plan from your doctor.

Both mental health and heart health are essential for improving your quality of life, so making strides to improve both will always lead you in the right direction. In addition to omega 3 fatty acids, consuming the recommended 5 to 9 servings each day of fruits and vegetables and engaging in regular physical activity can also benefit both mental and heart health. To find out more about how you can improve your diet, visit a registered dietitian for advice.

Rebecca M. Lee, RD, LDN, is the registered and licensed dietitian/nutritionist at East Jefferson General Hospital's Wellness Center. Lee specializes in adult weight management, chronic disease prevention and sports nutrition. To schedule an appointment with Lee, call: (504) 849-6801, (504) 849-6868 or e-mail: rmlee@ejgh.com.