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Omega-3s work for depression

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Believe the hype. DHA and EPA from omega-3 supplements do indeed improve depressive symptoms in people with depression. Even a recent study supposedly showing no improvement in depression with omega-3 supplementation actually just confirmed the old adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

If you’ve heard about the recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showing no benefit of omega-3 supplementation on depression and mood, here’s some background you should know. Consider this your grain of salt.

This study examined patients who had suffered a heart attack. These patients were not chosen with regard to a history of clinical depression, yet the study was designed to see if “low-dose” supplementation with EPA/DHA or ALA would affect patients’ mood. Again, these patients were not diagnosed with depression. So why would we expect any supplement or medication to improve depression in people who aren’t depressed?

Secondly, if you want to test the efficacy of an ingredient it would be a good idea to start with a dose widely accepted as efficacious. Acupuncturist, Mary Saunders, L.Ac., owner and founder of Boulder Community Acupuncture, knows that 400mg per day of DHA and EPA is relatively meaningless if you want to see any health benefits from fish oil; 400mg isn’t going to help my skin, much less my mood.

A 2010 study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed success in treating major depression with EPA and DHA from fish oil in doses in excess of 1000mg per day. So we’ve already established efficacy at more than twice the levels used in this study.

Saunders recommends at least 1000mg per day of DHA and EPA just for health maintenance. In order to see therapeutic results—for dermatological issues, mood or general health—she urges that you crank that up to 2000 mg per day.

Even Frank Sacks, MD, Professor of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, recommends getting 500mg per day in order to maintain basic health. So what the heck are we doing wasting our research dollars on 400mg?

But even though the researchers seemed to have punted with this study, a rather happy accident came out of it. The researchers reported that “the small group of patients (36 people) who were prescribed antidepressant medication at baseline [in other words, they were actually depressed] showed a somewhat greater improvement in depressive symptoms when taking EPA-DHA compared with placebo (40 people).”

Funny how that works.

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