Anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges have grown to epidemic levels worldwide. But they’re more prevalent in the US than in any other country in the world.
Both genetics and environmental factors undoubtedly are involved in this complicated issue, but the modern Western diet is another big factor. Elements of this diet not only can impair how the brain works, but also how it develops physically. Here’s why.
Over 50 percent of the healthy human brain is fat, particularly the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA. Omega-3s such as DHA are so important in brain development that infant formulas are now enriched with them. But the need for these fats doesn’t end in infancy. Normal brain functioning requires a steady supply of omega-3s in adulthood as well.
Unfortunately, our body can’t efficiently make these fats, so we have to get them from food.
But here’s the problem: In the typical Western diet, the rich supply of omega-3s we need for brain health have been displaced by pro-inflammatory omega-6s (found primarily in vegetable-based oils and processed foods). We’re supposed to have no higher than a 5-to-1 ratio of omega-6s to -3s in our diet, but today that ratio is greater than 10-to-1…and in some cases as high as 50-to-1. In simple terms, we as a society eat way too much inflammatory junk food and not nearly enough anti-inflammatory fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines that provide us with the omega-3s we need to function at our peak. As a result, not only our physical health, but our mental health, suffers.
Omega-3s and Anxiety
From a physical standpoint, when omega-3 levels are robust, blood vessels to the brain are open, the neurons are pliable and plump, and electrochemical messages zip along fluidly from one neuron to the next. Just as importantly, omega-3s keep inflammation at bay, protecting against inflammatory brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and reducing risk of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
In fact, research continues to confirm the strong impact omega-3s have on mental health and the prevention and treatment of mood disorders.
In one recent study, researchers established a solid association between omega-3 supplementation and the reduction of anxiety symptoms. This meta-analysis looked at data from 19 studies, for a total of 1,203 patients. The majority of the studies compared omega-3 supplements to placebo. The results indicated that, compared to the controls/placebos, the people taking omega-3s experienced a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms. The researchers noted that higher doses (at least 2,000 mg omega-3s daily) produced the greatest effect.1
It’s highly probable that omega-3 supplementation worked so well in improving symptoms because those patients were giving their brain a nutrient it craved and desperately needed. After all, there’s a proven link between anxiety, depression, and omega-3 deficiencies.
In a study of 59 patients with depression (18 of those also with anxiety disorder, 41 without), “the presence and severity of comorbid anxiety were associated with the lowest EPA and DHA levels.”2
Similarly, the results of a review study involving more than 3,000 people showed that patients with depression had significantly lower levels of omega-3s compared to healthy controls. The authors wrote this could mean that “omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids play a role in the pathogenesis of depression.”3
So positive is the research and convincing the connection, that even the American Psychiatric Association now officially recommends daily omega-3 supplementation as an adjunctive therapy for mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
What to Look for in an Omega-3 Supplement
Fatty fish is the best food source of omega-3 fatty acids, but for truly therapeutic levels, you need to supplement.
If you experience anxiety, depression, or simply want to nourish your brain in the best way possible, take at least 2,000 mg total omega-3 fatty acids daily.
If you currently use an anti-depressant for your anxiety or depression and you wish to try omega-3s along with, or in place of, your prescription meds, do so under the care and supervision of your doctor. You should never stop these drugs cold turkey. Work with your doctor to come up with an appropriate treatment plan that’s smart and safe.
There are several different types of omega-3 supplements on the market, sourced from fish, squid, or krill. Choose a product that is made from small, fresh water fish, as these have the lowest risk of being contaminated by heavy metals.
Another point to keep in mind is the ratio of DHA to EPA. While both DHA and EPA are important and have tremendous benefits, DHA is the form that affects brain health the most. The ideal ratio is two parts DHA to one part EPA. (So, if the product contains 180 mg of EPA, the DHA dosage should be around 360 mg.)
One final note: Omega-3s can thin your blood, so discuss their use with your doctor before surgery or if you are on a blood thinner like Coumadin (warfarin).
- Su KP, et al. Association of use of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids with changes in severity of anxiety symptoms: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Sep 7;1(5):e182327. Last accessed May 16, 2019.
- Liu JJ, et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid status in major depression with comorbid anxiety disorders. J Clin Psychiatry. 2013 Jul,74(7):732-8. Last accessed May 16, 2019.
- Lin P, et al. A meta-analytic review of polyunsaturated fatty acid compositions in patients with depression. Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Jul;68(2):140-7. Last accessed May 16, 2019.