By: Michael Callahan
Omega-3 fatty acids have numerous health benefits and function in many important areas of our body. They are particularly important for brain and heart health, as well as proper central nervous system functioning. Omega-3’s are not synthesized in the body, and therefore must be eaten. Many people today consume far less omega-3 fatty acids than is recommended, and increasing uptake could yield potential benefits to health; particularly mental health.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been known for their health benefits, particularly in the past for heart health. More recent research has led to claims of some of the potential health benefits omega-3’s can also have on the brain. Treatment of depression and bipolar disorder with omega-3 supplementation has been studied and observed and yields positive results. Omega-3 intake has dropped in the last 50-100 years; depression rates, coincidentally, have risen in the last 50-100 years. This has led to many studies seeking to understand if there is a correlation between omega-3 intake and improvement in treatment of patients with depression and bipolar disorder.
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential nutrients, indicating we must get these nutrients from the food we eat. So, what are Omega-3’s exactly? An Omega-3 Fatty Acid is composed of a hydrocarbon chain (hydrophobic) along with a hydrophilic carboxylic acid tail. Saturated fatty acids contain all single bonds within its hydrocarbon chain; where as unsaturated fatty acids contain double bonds within their hydrocarbon chain. One way fatty acids are named are by indicating the position of the first double bond in the molecule, starting from the omega, or methyl end. Omega-3, for example, indicates a double bond between the 3rd and 4th carbon in the hydrocarbon chain. Linoleic acid (LA), for example, is an omega-6 fatty acid. Scientific nomenclature classifies this molecule as 18:3n-6, meaning it contains 18 carbons within its hydrocarbon chain. The first double bond, indicated by n-6, shows the first double bond from the omega end is between carbons 6 and 7. The number 3 indicates there are 3 double bonds, which will always be located 3 carbons down the chain. Similar to LA, α-linoleic acid (ALA), is an 18 carbon omega-3 fatty acid. While such slight changes in molecular configuration of these fatty acids may seem unimportant, it confers specificity to these fatty acid molecules, influencing their physical and chemical structure and function in the body. Humans do not contain enzymes necessary to insert cis double bonds at the n-6 or n-3 position, indicating ALA and LA are essential fatty acids that most be consumed. Humans are able to synthesize some fats in the body such as saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids from carbon groups in protein and carbohydrate sources.
Significant bodies of research, along with cohort studies and randomized controlled trials have suggested omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated with decreases in coronary heart disease, as well as decreased risk of heart attack, or cardiovascular disease. Other claims include omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of blood clots, protect against abnormal heart rhythms, and reduce triglycerides and arterial plaque. It is also widely supported that Omega-3’s also play an important role in the central nervous system. Studies are becoming much more common today on the impact of diet on our mental health. According to Omega-3 researcher David Mischoulon (MD, PhD, director of research in the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital), EHA AND DHA of omega-3’s are natural antidepressants.
Omega-3 fatty acids play an extremely important role in the body, and may potentially be a viable treatment method for those suffering from depression and other mood disorders. Research has shown that Omega-3’s come in three varieties: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). DHA, often found in salmon, mackerel, tuna and other cold water fish, plays an important role in membrane function of brain cells, as well as work at synapses. These are long-chain fatty acids, making them more fluid-like and flexible. EPA, also typically found in cold fish, plays an important role in maintaining a healthy mood. EPA is able to do this by balancing out metabolic pathways in the brain and reducing inflammatory response in the brain. EPA, for this reason is particularly important in studies observing omega-3 and depression. According to Gretchen Vannice, MS, RD, treatment of depression requires more than DHA. ALA is typically found in nuts and seeds such as flaxseed, chia seed, pumpkin seed, walnuts and salad greens. ALA plays a role in maintaining heart health. Most Americans get enough ALA, but not nearly enough DHA and EPA. The recommended dosage of DHA and EPA daily is 500 mg, which would be equivalent to eating fish twice a week. Most people are not even getting to 100 mg daily. There is also a correlation in people with depression having lower DHA and EPA levels. This indicates the potential importance of Omega-3’s, particularly DHA and EPA, on brain function.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been supported for many health claims ranging from heart health, to central nervous system function, to brain function. It is impossible to ignore the positive results seen in many of these studies. Due to widespread low consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, observables changes following increased omega-3 intake are much easier seen. Future research has potential to reinforce the power of omega-3’s, and their importance for overall brain and heart health.
- Harrar, S. (Jan. 2012). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mood Disorders. Today’s Dietitian. 14: 22.
- Micronutrient information center: essential fatty acids (Apr. 2009). Linus Pauling Institute. Retrieved :<http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/othernuts/omega3fa>.
- Sarris J, Mischoulon D, Schweitzer I. (2011). Omega-3 for bipolar disorder: meta-analyses of use in mania and bipolar depression. Journal of Clinical Psychology.