Something Fishy for Anxiety
Lots of Hype
A lot of interest is currently directed towards omega-3 fatty acid fish oil as an aid in stabilizing mood, calming anxieties, and combating depression. But does it work?
The main thing to know is that more than half of the brain's dry weight can be attributed to fat. Some of this fat is key to building cell membranes which play a key role in keeping the brain functioning. Omega-3 fatty acids work much like these fats that are found in the brain. They also help build blocks of cell membranes, and preserve their elasticity. In addition, these fats regulate neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals. All these factors have an impact on mood and on our immune systems.
Andrew L. Stoll, MD, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School has studied the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on Major Depression. It seems that fish oil may indeed help regulate moods, but the evidence is just not strong enough for people to do away with antidepressants and mood stabilizers. However, the evidence is there to suggest that adding omega-3 fish oil to the regular medication regimen can do some good.
Stoll began his research in 1993 when he began seeking out a new treatment for bipolar disorder (manic depression). The Harvard-based McLean Hospital psychiatrist noticed that medical treatment for mood swings and depression didn't work as well as they should in some people and thought there might be a dietary component. Stoll, along with German scientists, did an extensive computer search to find a compound that acted in a manner similar to anticonvulsants and lithium. After a review of hundreds of papers on the subject, the researchers came up with a surprising match: fish oil. Just like traditional Western medication, fish oil had the ability to strengthen the walls of nerve cells.
The theory is that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, contain some of the nutrients which cannot be synthesized but are essential for human survival. This group of nutrients includes 8 of the 20 amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and certain polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3. Just as too little vitamin C can cause scurvy, too little omega-3 can have a deleterious effect on the brain. A 1999 study published in Psychiatry Research found that those suffering from major depression tended to have low levels of omega-3s.
Stoll and his colleagues found that large doses of fish oil made a difference for patients with bipolar disorder who were found to be unresponsive to drug therapy. In this double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 14 out of the thirty unresponsive patients added a daily 10 gm. of fish oil to their regimen, either with medication, or without, while the other 16 took an olive oil placebo. Four months later, 12 out of 14 patients had fewer depressive symptoms, with only two having suffered a manic episode during this period. Only 3 of the 16 patients on the olive oil reported feeling better and 9 had suffered severe attacks of mania or depression.
Does it Work?
One participant's illness manifested in the form of violent rages and criminal activity and he was eager to try the fish oil. Stoll commented, "The fish oil was a charm…His mood swings and rages stopped abruptly and he felt well for the first time in his life."
So, while the jury's still out on whether or not omega-3 is helpful for depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety, it does seem prudent to add some to your regular medication regimen.