Omega-3 fats show promise in the treatment of depression

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Recent years have seen medical journal editors become increasingly critical of certain goings-on in the world of pharmaceutical research. One dubious practice that has received some attention of late is the tendency for drug companies to publish and publicise positive studies on their products, while at the same time ‘burying’ less encouraging data. An example of such bias was highlighted in recent edition of the The Lancet in a study which assessed antidepressant use in children. While published studies support the use of a variety of chemical agents in childhood depression, unpublished data shows that, in the main, risks of treatment such as an enhanced tendency towards suicidal behaviour seem to have been significantly underplayed. Few would deny that The Lancet’s revelation that drug companies may be putting profits before people’s lives makes pretty depressing reading.

To my mind, the sad news on antidepressants highlights not just the sort of subterfuge that can go on in the scientific community, but also the relatively hazardous nature of pharmaceutical-based medicine. While novel chemicals may have some health benefits, their alien-to-nature nature generally gives them the capacity to do significant harm too. Plus, pill-for-an-ill medicine rarely, if ever, treats a condition’s underlying cause. While what lies at the root of childhood depression may be related to personal and social factors, there is at least some evidence that dietary factors may play an important role here too.

Much of the smart money on the link between mood and food has gone on the so-called omega-3 fats found in oily fish such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). While DHA is believed to be important for the normal structure of the brain, EPA appears to plays a very important part in the day-to-day running of this organ. The notion that omega-3 fats may have a crucial mood-regulating effect originally came from studies which found that in countries where fish is commonly consumed, rates of depression tend to be low. More recent research has also found that the lower levels of omega-3 in the body appear to increase the risk of depression, and the lower the level of omega-3, the more severe the depression tends to be.

Such observations may have considerable relevance these days as it seems that precious little omega-3 fats finds its way into the average child’s diet. Most kids, it seems, are not natural oily fish eaters, and also tend to eat a surplus of fats in margarine and other processed foods that ‘compete’ with and blunt the beneficial effects of whatever omega-3 fats may have been consumed. Upping intake of omega-3 fats is widely recognised as broadly beneficial for children, but may have special significance for those prone to low mood.

Tinned salmon (preferably wild) and sardines are relatively child-friendly sources of omega-3 fats. I see these are good alternatives to the more ubiquitous tinned tuna which, contrary to popular opinion, is actually relatively low omega-3 fats. For children who simply won’t eat fish, supplementation is another option. A dose of about 2 grams of fish oil each day is likely to bring mood related benefits in the long term. One study in adults resistant to conventional antidepressants saw a halving in their depressive symptoms within a month of commencing fish oil supplementation. The evidence suggests that fish fats, either from food or supplements, may be a vital ingredient for individuals keen to play happy families.

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