Fishing for Health
By Salynn Boyles
Reviewed By Michael Smith
It might sound a little fishy, but there is growing evidence that caviar can help chase away the blues. Early research suggests that people suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems can benefit from diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids -- found in abundance in certain types of fish.
In one study, people with bipolar disorder -- previously known as manic depression -- had significantly fewer depressive episodes when their diets were supplemented with omega-3. And earlier research comparing 10 countries found that depression was much lower in areas where fish is a dietary staple.
Omega-3 -- abundant in cold-water fish (such as salmon and mackerel), some nuts, and flaxseed -- has already been shown to protect against heart disease. The evidence is so strong that the American Heart Association now recommends eating salmon or tuna at least twice a week. Studies also indicate that the fatty acid may benefit people with rheumatoid arthritis, stomach or intestinal diseases, and even certain cancers.
"We know that omega-3 is good for your body, and there is certainly enough evidence to suggest there is at least something there to improve mood," says Andrew Stoll, MD, who directs the psychopharmacology research lab at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "Almost every patient in my practice has tried [fish oil] supplements, and most are still on them."
In a 1999 study, Stoll and colleagues gave 30 patients with bipolar disorder either 10 grams of omega-3-rich fish oil capsules a day (the equivalent of 30 cans of tuna), or placebo capsules containing olive oil. All of the participants had experienced bipolar episodes within the previous year, and all but eight were on medication during the study. People with bipolar disorder have episodes of depression alternating with times of mania -- when their bodies are so revved up and hyper that they can't even sleep.
After four months, half of the patients given placebo capsules had relapsed into depression, compared to just two of the 15 patients taking fish oil supplements. Stoll is now conducting a four-year study involving 120 patients in an effort to confirm the results. And he says several other studies examining fish oil and depression should be published soon.
"Our earliest study used very high doses, but it looks like 1 to 2 grams per day of EPA, which is the active ingredient in fish oil, is all you need," Stoll tells WebMD. "But all fish oil supplements are not equal, so you have to read the labels to find out how much EPA [one type of fish oil] you are getting."
Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies are the fish with the highest amounts of omega-3, Stoll says.
A serving of salmon contains about a gram of omega-3. Certain brands of eggs are also rich in omega-3, and flaxseed and walnuts are also good dietary sources.
While some heart studies suggest that food sources are more protective than supplements, most people in this country get very little omega-3 in their daily diets. In that case, Stoll favors supplements and recommends that people take vitamin E and C as well. He has written a book on the health benefits of fish oil titled The Omega-3 Connection.
"Omega-3 is not intended to replace other medications for depression," Stoll says. "But the evidence is mounting that it can play a role in treatment. And there is no downside to eating an omega-3-rich diet."
Originally published Sept. 23, 2002.
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