Omega 3 and mental health
1 in 4 people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year and the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020, mental illness will be second only to Heart Disease as one of the world’s biggest health issue. Anecdotally, I’d say half the people I know suffer or have suffered from some kind of mental health issue – be it eating disorders, anxiety, depression or post natal depression.
One of the questions I get asked a lot is what is Omega 3 good for? One of the first answers I give is that it’s great for your mental health.
With two parents who have suffered from serious mental health conditions and my own personal experiences of depression, post-natal depression and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) I have always had a keen interest in how to manage symptoms and be happy without medication. Several years ago now, while my three children were really very young, I sought treatment through CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for my OCD which was getting a little out of control – driven by anxiety and emotional exhaustion, that’s what having kids does for you!
The supervising psychiatrist strongly urged me to take Fluoextine. I know from my mother’s severe bouts of depression that in lots of cases medication is necessary and extremely helpful. However, I didn’t feel that it was necessary and I also felt that if I took it I would have lost the battle somehow. I think many people feel like this and I admire people who are brave enough to take medication, I just couldn’t contemplate it. It was at this point that I started to look for a very high strength Omega 3 because I’d read that it could be really useful in supporting mental health. I took one from the USA for a long time and tried to get my children to take it too, knowing how beneficial it is for their brain growth and their behaviour but also aware that these things run in families – a kind of depression prevention exercise.
Make sure you get enough Omega 3 in pregnancy, during breastfeeding and ideally for a few years after while your body re-builds its stores of fatty acids.
When I was pregnant I was advised to take an Omega 3 supplement, but I didn’t fully understand why at the time. Looking back I realise that it’s probably THE most important thing to take after folic acid. Babies need DHA (one of the essential fatty acids) for proper brain and eye development, so the mother’s body prioritises her DHA stores for the baby. It’s literally sucked out of our brains and pumped into the baby’s.
There’s growing evidence that post-natal depression is linked to low levels of Omega 3 in the mother’s brain and tissues.
When we breastfeed, the mother's DHA continues to be prioritised for the baby (it's now a requirement for infant formula to contain added DHA). We joke about having ‘baby brain’ and forgetting things, not being able to think straight, losing our train of thought, putting the car keys in the fridge and the milk in the washing machine… this is often attributed to sleep deprivation but I also believe, as do many researchers, that it’s a lack of Omega 3.
Diet and exercise have a huge impact on our state of mind
Backed up by stacks of research, there’s no doubt that what we eat and how much we exercise probably have the most impact on how we feel mentally than any other factors. From my own personal quest for a peaceful and contented mind, these are the things I find most helpful and many others concur:
- Don’t be tempted to drown your sorrows – alcohol is your mind's biggest enemy. Limit alcohol or cut it out completely if you’re not feeling very good.
- Caffeine – a big no, no! Again, those vats of tea and coffee are tempting comforts but they make you feel worse. Raising your cortisol levels, dehydrating you and making you feel edgy.
- Omega 3 – some psychiatrists recommend 9,000mg a day in place of anti-depressants.
- Exercise – the last thing you want to do when you’re depressed, but the absolute BEST. Even if you just take a brisk walk with some pumping tunes on your iPod.
- Mindfulness – quieten that critical inner voice by focusing on the now. Pay close attention to what you’re doing in that moment and you’ll feel instantly calmer and happier.
- Practice gratitude – we all feel rather guilty when we see awful pictures on the news of the terrible lives people have, knowing that our problems are insignificant in comparison. Remind yourself of this regularly and notice how lucky you really are – do this before you go to sleep every night, do a mental run through of all the good things in your life.
So, can Omega 3 really help depression?
I really believe so, I'm sure it has helped me and there's tons of research to support it. Ultimately though, I think it's worth a try - it won't do you any harm, it can only benefit your health in general and it might just do the trick.