A recent study has confirmed the suspicion that omega-3 essential fatty acids play an important role in both preventing and treating depression.  Omega-3 essential fatty acids cannot be manufactured in the body and so must be consumed in the diet.  Although they are only needed in small amounts, many people are still not consuming enough of these fats.  Omega-3 fats have a wide range of functions within the body including calming down harmful inflammation and ensuring optimal brain function.  The omega-3 fat docosahexaeonic acid (DHA for short) is an essential commponent of brain cell receptor sites.  These receptor sites are what your neurotransmitters lock onto in order to exert their influence on the brain cell.  Even if you are producing enough of the ‘happy’ brain chemical serotonin, or the calming chemical GABA, these neurotransmitters cannot exert their beneficial effects if they cannot effectively lock on to brain cells.

Antidepressants such as sertraline, venlafaxine or escitalopram are only effective in a little over half of patients. A study of sixty patients with major depressive disorder measured their levels of omega-3 fats at the start of the study and at week four and eight.  At the start of the study the patients began treatment with antidepressants.  The study found that those patients with the lowest levels of omega-3 at the start of the study had the most severe depression symptoms.  They also found those with the lowest levels of omega-3 had the poorest response to treatment with antidepressants. Having better omega-3 status resulted in a much better response to antidepressants, and less severe depression in the first place.  Previous studies have also suggested that improving omega-3 essential fatty acid status improves the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids are found in oily fish (e.g. sardines, mackerel and salmon), walnuts, flax seeds and dark leafy green vegetables.  DHA is the omega-3 fat which is particularly important for optimal brain chemistry.  This is found exclusively in oily fish and the algae that these fish eat.  You can convert the type of omega-3 fats found in plants foods into DHA, but this depends on a series of chemical reactions working efficiently in the body.  Furthermore, the more processed vegetable oils you eat (i.e. from fried foods, ready meals, take outs, cakes and biscuits) the less able you are to convert plant sources of omega-3 into DHA.

So for the best possible brain function and to support good mood, avoid processed foods containing vegetable oils and eat plenty of dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds and some oily fish. If you are not a fan of oily fish, you can get DHA from an omega-3 fish oil supplement or from a vegan DHA supplement made from algae.

If you would like to read more about this study click here