Omega 3 for Mental Health & Resilience

This post contains an affiliate link for omegaquant, a test for checking your omega 3 levels. If you purchase a test using my code of WJFRPMLSQL, you get 5% off and I get a small commission, at not additional cost to you. I only affiliate myself with brands and products that are in alignment with core values related to health and wellness for you and me (and a lot of times the planetary ecosystems as well). At this time assessing our omega 3 levels is not a conventionally available test when you visit a doctor, and I believe and understand it to be extremely important and beneficial to our health. This information is for information purposes only and you should discuss your medical condition with your doctor.

Among the many benefits of improving your fatty acid balance by consuming healthier fats and more omega 3 fatty acids, is supporting your mental health! This makes sense when you consider the fact that our brain is composed of approximately 60% fat. We are, of course, what we eat.

While consuming an overall anti-inflammatory or Mediterranean style diet is a good thing to be steering towards, you can also benefit from targeting the optimization of your omega 3 intake, specifically. Omega 3 has been shown to be a beneficial adjunct treatment for depression, and several mechanisms for its role in the pathophysiology of mental health disorders have been studied. We will look at these in this post to get inspired to address this root cause of health or disease.

Omega 3 Potential Benefits to Mental Health

A study from Molecular Psychology published in 2021 summed it up in a way that reinforced and connected the dots for me. In short, stress creates inflammation. And mental health, particularly depression, is largely an inflammatory condition. Studies have shown that people with more biological markers of inflammation, like IL-6 (an inflammatory cytokine produced by our immune system in response to stress) have an increased risk of depression. Higher IL-6 has even been shown to precede the onset of depression, suggesting a causal role (at least to some degree).

Of course, it is the stress itself that can start the inflammatory process in the first place, but research suggests we have some control over our body’s reaction to stress via our diet and omega 3 intake. Essentially, omega-3 may reduce the risk of developing depression by lowering stress-induced inflammation. This is the kind physiological resilience that can be created with nutrition! Creating a rich biological reserve of beneficial nutrients sets you up for resilience in life.

Let’s look at some of the studies that have been done showing measurable improvements in depression when omega 3 supplements are added to treatment. But first, keep in mind that while omega-3 fatty acids show promise for mental health, they are not a standalone treatment for serious mental health conditions.

2.5g Omega 3/day Lowers Inflammation Brought On By Stress

Meta analyses (evaluating many studies pooled together to get a clearer picture of the relationships studied) show omega-3 supplementation can lower symptoms of depression. Just 2.5 g/day of omega-3 lowered the overall proinflammatory IL-6 levels during stress by 33%!

Omega 3 Mechanisms of Action at Work

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), have been extensively studied for their potential benefits to mental health. Below are some of the ways omega 3 can have an impact:

  1. Mood Regulation: Omega-3s play a role in maintaining balanced mood and emotional well-being. They can potentially help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety by supporting neurotransmitter function and reducing inflammation in the brain.
    • The ‘long tail’ omega 3’s (EPA and DHA) contribute to improved neurotransmitter binding and signaling at the level of the cell membranes in the brain. Our cell membranes are made up of a lipid bilayer (lipids are fats and come from the fats that we eat). Omega 3 fats create a much more fluid, healthier and more functional cell membrane, optimizing communications coming in and out of cell membranes.
    • This can influence the production and activity of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which play crucial roles in regulating mood, motivation, and pleasure.
  2. Brain Development and Function: DHA in particular is a major component of brain cell membranes, and it is crucial for the proper development and functioning of the brain.
    • Adequate intake of omega-3s during pregnancy and early childhood can have long-lasting positive effects on cognitive function and behavior.
    • DHA has been linked to better language and motor skill development in babies.
    • The structure of the brain can benefit from omega 3 at any age. Again, our brain is 60% fat, and 40% of the fat is DHA! Hellooooooo!
  3. Improved Cognitive Function: Regular consumption of omega-3s has been associated with enhanced cognitive performance, including better memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.
  4. Reduced Risk of Mental Disorders: Some research suggests that a higher intake of omega-3s is associated with a reduced risk of developing certain mental disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
    • This may go back to brain development in utero and early childhood, and depends on mom’s diet.
    • SNPs related to conversion from ALA to EPA and DHA also implicated in this area. A big deal for vegans and vegetarians in particular!
  5. Inflammation Reduction: Chronic inflammation has been linked to various mental health conditions.
    • Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that may help modulate the immune response and protect against inflammation-related brain changes.
  6. Stress Management: Omega-3s may help the body and brain adapt to stress by regulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the body’s stress response.
  7. Support for Treatment: Omega-3 supplementation, in conjunction with other treatments, can potentially enhance the effectiveness of standard therapies for mental health conditions.
  8. Postpartum Depression Prevention: Omega-3 intake has been studied for its potential to reduce the risk of postpartum depression in new mothers.
  9. Aging and Cognitive Decline: Omega-3s might play a role in slowing down age-related cognitive decline and reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

EPA & DHA: Which is the Best Omega 3 for Mental Health?

This meta-analysis showed an overall beneficial effect of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on depression symptoms. Compared with placebo, 1 g/day of pure EPA significantly improved symptoms, where pure DHA did not. HOWEVER, remember that DHA is 40% of your brain’s structure, so they BOTH are super important for brain health. Where is appears DHA improves structure of the brain, EPA plays a role in mood symptoms.

Different studies yield varying results concerning EPA or DHA being more beneficial for mental health. It seems from the studies that DHA is more of a brain development fatty acid and one that helps maintain brain structures (important at any age), and EPA impacts mood and behavior, but that is not always the finding and is likely an oversimplification of the science.

I would not get too caught up in EPA vs DHA, as when it comes down to it, they come as a package deal. The foods that have these fatty acids contain some of both, as do the supplements from fish oil.

DHA, in particular, is a major component of neuronal cell membranes. It helps maintain membrane fluidity, which again, is essential for proper cell signaling and communication. Adequate levels of DHA may support the overall health and function of brain cells. For more information about omega 3 fatty acids and the different types and sources, see my blog post about ‘Unlocking the Health Benefits of Omega 3 Fatty Acids: A Comprehensive Guide‘, which explains important distinctions between different types of omega 3s.

As discussed in said post, DHA is most effectively consumed as fatty fish, as the conversion of plant sourced omega 3s, like ALA, to DHA, is very low. And on top of that, it is going to be worse if you happen to have a SNP (a variant in a gene that affects what proteins are made and can therefore lead to less effective enzymes, for example) on FADS1, the gene that makes the enzyme involved in this conversion. This gene SNP has been estimated to affect 6-7% of the population.

How Omega-3 Helps in Brain Injury Recovery

Because of the anti-inflammatory and structural component of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain, they can also be very helpful in recovery from head trauma. Any trauma creates an inflammatory process, helping to draw the right molecules to the area to help in the healing process. Omega-3 helps modulate this inflammatory process to help it resolve more quickly, in addition to providing new substrate for the structural support and long term remodeling of brain cells.

Traumatic Brain Injury, the Glymphatic System, & Omega 3

The glymphatic system, a relatively newly discovered network of channels that clear waste from the brain, is thought to be one area where omega 3s can help alleviate damage after a traumatic brain injury. They help protect the integrity of this system, evidenced by improved clearance of a test substrate following omega 3 supplementation in studies.

As a side note, the glymphatic system drains as we sleep each night. This is one reason that getting a good 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night is good for you. It takes around that long for this system to fully drain the waste of the day from the brain. Interestingly, an increased risk of dementia correlates with inadequate sleep in the long term, suggesting chronic inadequate waste removal impacts brain health. I learned of this reading the neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart’s book “The Source”.

Concussions & Omega 3

In one study 1000-1500 mg omega 3 with EPA and DHA improved recovery time and measures of things like processing speed, attention, memory, psychomotor speed, and reaction time in people with post concussion syndrome.

Aside from supplementing after an event like there’s a concussion or other brain injury, your baseline fatty acid composition is an important aspect in the progression of the acute injury and recovery process. If you have more omega-3 onboard to begin with, you would be starting off from a very different place then one of inadequate or a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids.

Research shows that among athletes, omega 3 deficiency and insufficiency are not uncommon. Given that this is a higher risk population for repeated concussions, it has been suggested that omega-3 supplementation would be of benefit to this population. In addition to early research suggesting benefits post concussion, numerous other benefits of omega-3 supplements in athletes have been studied.

Omega 3 Supplements as an Adjunct Treatment for Depression

Depression treatment includes talk/psychotherapy and antidepressant pharmaceutical drugs. Yet many people do not respond well to these treatments, and continue with symptoms of depression. Given what we know about nutrition’s role in brain health, neurotransmitter production, inflammation and its connection to mental health and depression, and our individual genetics variations that impact nutrient metabolism, it is clear to me that nonresponders to standard treatments have one or more of these other issues at play.

Research is now testing out various complementary treatments, which can sometimes even resolve an issue by themselves in less serious cases. Omega 3 is among those that have been researched.

For example, in an 8-week, double-blind, randomized, controlled trial of 158 people diagnosed with major depressive disorder, a combination of EPA and DHA omega 3s (EPA 1 g/DHA 656 mg), SAMe, zinc, 5-HTP, folinic acid, and co-factors (usually vitamins or minerals) versus placebo for the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. The study explored levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, folate, vitamin B12, zinc, homocysteine (a marker of inflammation), and BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor which plays roles in brain cell health) as possible predictors and correlates of response to these nutraceutical supplements.

Among the findings were that ‘concentrations of EPA and DHA in red cell membranes increased in response to treatment and were significantly correlated with a decrease in depressive symptoms during treatment.’ Higher baseline levels of omega-6 fatty acid also correlated significantly with depression reduction in the active treatment group. No other biomarkers were associated with a lessening of depressive symptoms.

The really exciting and interesting thing about this study is that it suggests that by testing your fatty acids, you can see if you might benefit from supplementation with omega 3s!

To take it further, in a study of 165 patients diagnosed with mild or moderate depression, a combination of 500 mg of omega-3 fatty acid supplement along with an antidepressant resulted in significantly higher improvement in depressive symptoms than the supplement or the antidepressant alone. Considering what we’ve been reading about here in this article, it makes sense that omega 3 would lessen inflammation, improve brain cell membrane function so the medication can work better, and therefore result in more of an improvement in symptoms of depression.

Insufficiency and Deficiency Not Uncommon, Particularly with Mental Health Issues

Research has linked low levels of omega-3 fatty acids with psychiatric problems. This gives us reason to believe that omega-3 supplementation and dietary interventions can have an impact on our mental health! The problem is testing omega-3’s is not part of routine clinical practice. Integrative and functional nutrition testing can assess your fatty acid profile, it’s just not some thing that you’re general medicine doctor or local hospital is going to do.

Seeing a functional medicine doctor is ideal as a way to complement traditional medical services, but that is not typically covered by insurance and can be quite costly. This makes assessing your omega-3 status inaccessible for many people.

I have found a test that is affordable and you can easily do at home to get a full profile of your fatty acid status, including the good, the bad, and the balance of fatty acids. I write about it in this post.

If after testing you see that your omega-3 levels are low, research suggests you could benefit from supplementing.

Of course, supplementing with out working on your diet is less likely to have an impact, and more likely a waste of money. This is because it’s everything that goes in our mouth, not just supplements, that will give rise to our overall fatty acid composition. Because, you are what you eat.

Dietary Sources of Omega 3

If you’re looking to increase your intake of EPA and DHA, it’s recommended to focus on sources like fatty fish, fish oil supplements, and algae-based supplements that are specifically designed to provide these omega-3 fatty acids.

Your fatty acid intake and overall omega 3 status depends on what goes in your mouth, be it supplements or foods in your diet. You can take supplements of omega 3s, but if your diet does not change, it will outweigh the grams of fish oil you took very quickly. Therefore, diet is foundational to make a shift here, and supplements can help further move the needle in the right direction.

Here’s a table outlining the approximate EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) content in common types of fish, along with the portion size. Values are given per 3-ounce cooked portion:

Fish TypeEPA Content (mg)DHA Content (mg)Portion Size (3 oz)
Salmon (wild-caught)Varies1,000-1,5003 ounces
Salmon (farmed)Varies500-1,0003 ounces
Mackerel (king)300-500900-1,1003 ounces
Mackerel (Atlantic)200-400400-7003 ounces
SardinesVaries800-1,0003 ounces
AnchoviesVaries500-7003 ounces
HerringVaries600-9003 ounces
Rainbow Trout200-400300-5003 ounces
Yellowfin Tuna100-200150-3003 ounces
Albacore TunaVaries300-5003 ounces
HalibutVaries150-2003 ounces
CodVaries200-3003 ounces

Please note that these values are approximate and can vary depending on factors such as the fish’s size, diet, and habitat. Also, the omega-3 content might be influenced by how the fish is prepared and cooked. It’s worth noting that some types of fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, are considered particularly rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. When choosing fish to boost your omega-3 intake, it’s generally recommended to opt for wild-caught varieties, as they tend to have higher omega-3 levels compared to farm-raised fish.

Don’t Eat Fish?

If you don’t eat fish and are looking for an omega 3 source, you can do the plant ones, they just are not going to convert well to the EPA and DHA we know have the real impact. Plus, there are concerns that if you have those genetic variations that impact this conversion, you are further compromised and likely to become deficient.

Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that is often consumed as a dietary supplement due to its potential nutritional benefits. While spirulina does contain some omega-3 fatty acids, it is the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Generally, spirulina is not considered a significant source of omega-3s compared to fatty fish or even other ALA sources like walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. On average, dried spirulina might contain about 0.5 to 1.5 grams of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) per 100 grams (and that is a LARGE serving for something like spirulina).

While some sources might claim that spirulina contains EPA and DHA, these claims are often based on the fact that certain types of algae can produce small amounts of EPA and DHA under specific conditions. However, the levels of EPA and DHA in spirulina are generally quite low compared to what can be obtained from marine sources like fish oil or algae-based supplements specifically cultivated for higher EPA and DHA content.

Algal oil contains around 200-300 mg of combined EPA and DHA. Some products may offer higher concentrations, so it’s important to check the label for precise information. This is the best thing I know of for a 100% ‘plant based’ diet in terms of getting a better concentration of EPA and DHA. To complicate things further, google ‘is algae a plant’, but this may drive vegan rationale crazy for some.

If you are vegan or vegetarian, testing your omega 3 levels could be one of the more important and telling nutrition labs you could do to really know if the diet is working for you.

How Do I Know If I’m Getting Enough Omega 3?

Like many other nutrients such as iron, vitamin D, or B12, I recommend testing your fatty acids to really be able to know, for certain, if you need to work more on your diet, consider taking supplements, or adjust your supplement regimen. In this post, I discuss a great test that is affordable, accessable, and you can do at home! This test gives you great insight not only to your omega 3 status, but a full panel of fatty acids that impact your health. For 5% off, use my code WJFRPMLSQL. I receive a commision with this code at no additional cost to you. I only partner with offers that I see as in alignment and beneficial for our health.

Omega 3 Deficiency Symptoms

In more extreme cases, you may notice some of the following symptoms if you are deficient in omega 3s:

  1. Dry Skin:
    • Insufficient omega-3s may contribute to dry and flaky skin. Omega-3s play a role in maintaining skin health and preventing moisture loss.
  2. Brittle Nails:
    • Omega-3 deficiency can affect the health of nails, leading to brittleness and increased susceptibility to breakage.
  3. Joint Pain and Stiffness:
    • Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, and their deficiency may contribute to increased inflammation, potentially leading to joint pain and stiffness.
  4. Poor Concentration and Cognitive Function:
    • Omega-3s are crucial for proper brain function, and a deficiency may manifest as difficulties in concentration, memory, and cognitive performance.
  5. Fatigue:
    • Lack of omega-3s might contribute to fatigue and a general feeling of low energy. These fatty acids are involved in energy production at the cellular level.
  6. Mood Swings or Depression:
    • Omega-3s play a role in neurotransmitter function, and their deficiency has been linked to mood disorders. Symptoms may include mood swings, irritability, or even depression.
  7. Heart Health Issues:
    • Omega-3s are known for their cardiovascular benefits. Deficiency may contribute to an increased risk of heart-related issues, such as elevated triglyceride levels and high blood pressure.
  8. Inflammation and Pain:
    • Chronic inflammation may increase in the absence of sufficient omega-3s, potentially leading to various health issues, including pain and discomfort.
  9. Vision Problems:
    • DHA, a type of omega-3, is a major component of the retina. Deficiency may contribute to vision problems, especially in terms of retinal function.

These signs can be indicative of various health conditions, and omega-3 deficiency is just one potential factor. If you suspect an omega-3 deficiency or are experiencing these symptoms, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation and appropriate guidance. Increasing dietary intake of omega-3-rich foods or considering supplements may be recommended as part of the management plan.

For more help in this area, consider the nutrition services offered through Root Deep Nutrition. Contact rd@rootdeepnutrition.com for more information.

How Much Does Omega 3 Cost?

On one level, your omega 3 intake is part of your grocery budget. The food choices you make have a direct impact on your fatty acid intake, of course. Consuming fatty fish is the most potent food source, in addition to 100% grass fed beef, eggs produced from chickens fed a omega 3 rich diet, and the minimization of foods that are high in omega 6, to help optimize the balance of omega 3s and 6s.

Fortunately the grocery store options have improved a lot since I started in this field back in the early 2000’s. You can find grass fed beef in many stores, wild salmon, and omega 3 eggs. However, if you live in an area that does not carry these foods, or, if you would just like to have more convenience, try one of the food box subscriptions that will ship to your door!

Often the prices on these meat box subscriptions beat those found in stores, your subscription helps support the kinds of farms that produce these types of animal products, and you can’t beat the convenience. Check out this post for more information about some of the companies that offer these subscriptions.

Fuel Your Mental Health With Omega 3s

In conclusion, omega 3s are one of the big ones when it comes to mental health. If you don’t eat any fish, are a vegetarian, eat trans fats or fried foods regularly, use soy or corn oils, or have had a head injury, depression, or any of the signs of deficiency, take this information to heart. Look at your diet, test your levels, and come up with a plan with a registered dietitian to start steering towards better brain health! It’s good for your overall health, too!

Depression and mental health are not a result of any one thing, but a culmination of our health, circumstances, approach to our problems and challenges to name a few factors. However, supporting any one aspect of our mental health, be it physical, mental, or emotional healing, can help us feel our best and make progress.

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Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.

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