Battling the Blues: Ongoing Research Shows That Omega-3 Fatty Acids Help Treat Depression: An Interview with Andrew Stoll, M.D

By Perry, Patrick | The Saturday Evening Post, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Battling the Blues: Ongoing Research Shows That Omega-3 Fatty Acids Help Treat Depression: An Interview with Andrew Stoll, M.D


Perry, Patrick, The Saturday Evening Post


Several years ago, Dr. Andrew Stoll, director of the Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at Harvard Medical School-McLean Hospital, conducted a landmark study on the role of omega-3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder and came up with some surprising results. The researcher discovered that when patients with bipolar disorder consumed omega-3 from fish oil, they experienced a marked reduction in episodes of mania and depression. Extensive research continues to demonstrate that omega-3 fatty acids form the foundation of a solid, healthy diet, while also reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and arthritis, among other conditions.

Depletion of the essential omega-3 fatty acids in the typical American diet is linked to chronic disease and the huge increase in the rates of depression. Researchers now speculate that the increase in depression correlates well with the progressive depletion of omega-3s in our diet throughout the 20th century. The shift from rural community life to fast-paced urban sprawl also ushered in an era of fast foods, low fiber, and foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, and excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-6 fatty acids are converted by the body into a number of strongly inflammatory hormones, collectively known as eicosanoids. Prostaglandins are the most well-known class of eicosanoids. If omega-6-derived eicosanoids are produced in excess over time, the risk of developing heart disease, other inflammatory medical conditions, and, apparently, depression and bipolar disorder skyrockets.

The omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is converted into eicosanoids as well, competing directly with omega-6 fatty acids for access to the enzymes that convert these fatty acids into eicosanoids. Whichever acid wins the competition for these eicosanoid-producing enzymes depends solely on the ratio of omega-6 versus omega-3 consumption in the diet. This is crucial, because the omega-3-derived eicosanoids are largely anti-inflammatory hormones and have the role of keeping the omega-6-derived eicosanoids in check. Now, omega-6 fatty acids aren't bad, unless there is an excess over time.

Therefore, essential fats such as the omega-3s EPA and docosahexanaenoic acid (DHA) are necessary for optimal health.

Historically, scientists believe that our ancestors consumed close to a one-to-one dietary ratio of omega-3, found primarily in certain fish, to omega-6, commonly found in vegetable and seed oils. Today, researchers estimate that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid consumption is somewhere between 20:1 and 50:1 in the United States, with an abundance of omega-6 over omega-3 fatty acids, which pushes us in a pro-inflammatory direction, more susceptible to heart disease, arthritis, and to illnesses related to inflammation, and perhaps depression and bipolar disorder.

To update readers about Dr. Stoll's ongoing research into the role of omega-3 fatty acids in depression, the Post spoke with the Harvard researcher and author.

Post: Do omega-3 fatty acids continue to demonstrate mood-stabilizing benefits?

Dr. Stoll: No one has replicated the findings of our original study as yet. The real story now is that there are now numerous positive studies on the benefits of omega-3 in unipolar depression, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, and Huntington's disease. It seems that many disorders respond to omega-3s. Three of the four studies in depression used EPA, or EPA plus DHA, and they worked. The fourth study used pure DHA--important for developing babies, pregnant women, and nursing mothers--and it failed. People hold onto stores of DHA for a long time, so you don't need to replenish levels as often as with EPA, which is turned over constantly, by conversion into eicosanoid hormones.

Post: Does EPA have anti-inflammatory properties?

Dr. Stoll: Exactly. The anti-inflammatory action of omega-3s has been definitively shown to help prevent heart attacks, in part by reducing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). …

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