The benefits of Omega 3 for postnatal depression

The benefits of Omega 3 for postnatal depression

In my years in practice, I’ve found the vast majority of women seeking nutritional help after pregnancy do so mainly for weight loss, or to increase their energy levels. Unless they’ve been diagnosed with postnatal depression (PND) and they’re seeking a natural alternative to the drugs prescribed by their doctors, women are not always aware of the power of nutritional intervention in the management of this relatively common mood disorder.

You might have heard, for instance, of the benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids for heart health. However, over the past decade, there have been many studies investigating the potential beneficial effects of Omega 3s for the prevention and management of PND. A combination of hormonal changes, fatigue and the psychological adjustment to motherhood play a role in PND, but many studies are now showing an association between low levels of Omega 3s and a higher incidence of maternal depression. 

Research indicates that Omega 3 fatty acids may have antidepressant effects due to their role in the function of serotonin

 Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) derived from food sources like fish, especially oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herrings. PUFAs, especially Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are necessary for the normal neurological and structural development of the fetus. During pregnancy, mothers transfer DHA to their fetus; without sufficient dietary intake, they can become depleted and at higher risk of suffering depressive symptoms after the birth.

How can Omega 3 help prevent and manage symptoms of postnatal depression?

Research indicates that Omega 3 fatty acids may have antidepressant effects due to their role in the function of serotonin, the ‘feel good hormone’. Dietary intake of Omega 3s might not be sufficient to provide effective results, and in fact, some studies show that the best outcomes are achieved with fairly high levels of supplementation – close to 2g of Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)- and that supplementation is more effective when started earlier in pregnancy.

A pile of fresh fish

I believe that good quality Omega 3s should be part of all pre and postnatal supplement protocols, despite the fact that women are advised to eat oily fish during pregnancy. There is evidence that tissue levels of fatty acids tend to be low in pregnancy, and it’s unlikely that dietary intake alone can meet this increased demand. However, women already on antidepressants should not replace their medical treatment with Omega 3 fatty acids supplementation alone.  A recent study has found that Omega 3s, especially EPA, may boost the action of some antidepressants.  Omega 3 supplementation could therefore be used in conjunction with antidepressant therapy. 

More research is needed in this area, but there’s no doubt that Omega 3s could provide a safe, natural and easy alternative for mothers and their infants.

Please note, you should not take omega-3s if you are on blood thinners medication. Please check with your doctor or registered nutritional therapist before embarking on any supplement program.

Zara Stella is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, Health Coach and Zest for Life Practitioner.

For references to studies referred to in this article, please contact