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mental health mondays :: what's behind the omega-hype?

what are the odds he lands in the water?
unless you've been living in a hole somewhere [in which case you probably have an interesting take on the world and we should talk], you've likely heard of omega-3 fatty acids. these are the latest naturally-occurring substances that have been accorded "miracle" status in the public mind, stemming from their ability to make your body better in pretty much every way, right down to making the dead cells your body pushes out in the form of hair look healthier.

the benefits of including omega-3s in your diet are well-established, but one of the more contentious claims about them is that they can help those with mental disorders, to the point where some have recommended them as an alternative to traditional medications. so i thought i'd take a stroll through the science and give my opinion [remember, i'm not even close to being a medical professional] on whether or not these little wonders live up to their mental health hype.

i missed the star trek episode where they landed on omega-3. what are these things and how can they help your brain?

omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. someday, i'm going to find a way to use that as an insult, because it sounds just horrible, but what that means is that they are a type of acid your body needs to function properly and [this is the "unsaturated" part, in case you've ever wondered] your body can't produce them on its own. so the first important thing to remember about omega-3s is that you have to get them from somewhere else. if you aren't putting them in your body voluntarily, you aren't getting them, end of story.

the holy trinity of  omegas are dha, epa and ala [well, actually, ala is synthesized by the body into the others, so it's really just a question of epa and dha]. research on the effect of omega-3s on mental health have focused primarily on epa, since it is the component that seems to be acting on the brain.

how omega-3s work on the brain is not actually understood. if you think that sounds a little suspicious, try reading through information on pretty much any drug prescribed for mental disorders and chances are that you'll find a line in there somewhere that reads something like "the mode of action is thought to be..." that's right, folks. they people who design these drugs, test them and manufacture them actually have no idea how they really work. they're just taking their best guess. remember that the next time your doctor gets all huffy at you for making suggestions for your treatment.

in the case of omega-3s, i'd like to use a weird kind of metaphor to explain a relatively straightforward point:

picture yourself on a diving board over a swimming pool. in this case you are a message being sent through your central nervous system and your job is to penetrate into a specific cell, which is the swimming pool. as long as atmospheric conditions are good, that's a pretty easy job. you jump and easily break through the soft cell membrane and into the cell with a big splash. [ok, i have no idea whether or not there's a splash, but it's kind of cool to think there is.]

the problem is, if the weather starts to change- say it gets really cold- then the surface of the water begins to freeze and it becomes more difficult to break through to the cell. the colder it gets, the thicker and harder the outer layer becomes and the greater chance that the message [you] will get all broken up before it can get into the cell.

omega-3s are thought to act like adding salt to the swimming pool- they make it easier for the surface to stay soft and pliable and easy to get through, so all the little messages you have to convey, all the magical little divers in your brain, are able to make it in unscathed.


sounds awesome. is it bullshit?

no. there is a lot of very credible research that shows omega-3s can help with a variety of mental disorders. patients diagnosed with depression who were given an epa supplement in addition to their regular drugs showed greater improvement over periods of several months and required lower dosages of antidepressants to maintain these effects [provided they kept taking the epa supplement]. patients with borderline personality disorder who took a similar supplement in conjunction with their regular medications saw a reduction in both depression and aggression over the course of treatment. this has led to speculation that epa [and, hence, omega-3s] may help with mood stabilisation in bipolar patients, but studies have been conflicting.

perhaps most exciting, epa supplements have been proven effective in relieving depression in schizophrenics, when taken in conjunction with antipsychotic medications. like the depressed patients, schizophrenics who took epa along with their regular meds required less of those regular meds to achieve the best results. and those patients had fewer problems with tardive dyskinesia, a rather nasty long-term side effect of basically every antipsychotic medication that causes your body to randomly and repeatedly start moving for no purpose other than to make you feel more self-conscious than you already do. it's hard enough being schizophrenic. picture how much harder it gets when your tongue starts moving in and out of your mouth of its own volition.

holy crap! is there anything these little buggers can't do?

sure, plenty.

although there have been studies on the effect of dha on moderating symptoms of adhd, the feedback is at best inconclusive. that said, if i were a parent, i'd still consider trying out an omega-3 supplement on a child before i started pumping it full of drugs, the chemical names of which normally start with the letters m-e-t-h.

and while the prognosis for patients using omega-3s/ epa in conjunction with synthesized medicines is good, there isn't a lot to suggest that omega-3s are particularly effective at combating serious mental disorders on their own.

one of the biggest problems with taking omega-3s for help with mental disorders, though, is just getting what you need out of them. as i mentioned, the key ingredient in omega-3s that the brain needs is epa. you cannot safely get the amount of epa required to make a significant difference in your mental disorder from diet alone. even many supplements have only small amounts of epa in them, which might make them good for lots of other things, but still ineffective for your purposes. even if a supplement has a healthy amount of epa in it, you have to look at what else it has in it, because chances are you're going to have to take a lot to get to the required threshold of epa.

you can get so-called "pharmaceutical grade" epa, but it's not always easy to come by. chances are that you're going to have to do some homework on finding out exactly what you need and what particular supplement will provide it.

i'm sold! where do i get this magical elixir?

well, it sort of depends on what you need it for. if you're generally healthy but prone to occasional bouts of melancholy, studies show that if you consume one or two meals a week of so-called "oily" fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel or [especially] sardines, that's probably enough to ward off the blues.

if you're more prone to feel down in the dumps, or if you have been diagnosed with a specific mental disorder, you're basically looking at taking a supplement. always talk to your prescribing doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement, or any supplement in conjunction with your medication. if you're getting juiced somewhere else, your doc needs to know. and besides, isn't part of the point that this should allow you to take less or fewer drugs?

because of the popularity of omega-3s, finding a supplement is easy. you have fish oil pills of various sorts in grocery stores, health food stores and pharmacies. unfortunately, most of the people who work in these places have little or no training in recommending supplements, so you'll need to figure out [another good argument for talking to your doctor] how much of the key ingredients you're going to need on your own. thankfully, companies in most countries are required to put key information on their packaging, so it's just a matter of reading the ingredients.

i'm a vegetarian/ vegan. i'm allergic to fish. i'm worried about the mercury content in fish because my neighbour grew gills last week. hell, i just hate stuff that comes out of the ocean and this shit makes me burp sardines all day. do i have any other options?

well sure. foods like flax and walnuts are high in omega-3s as well and you can certainly get flax oil supplements that will do fine under normal circumstances. however, if you're somewhat abnormal, you should know that flax is rich primarily in ala and not epa, so it's probably not going to deliver the punch you need in order to combat a mental disorder unless you take it in massive quantities. and if you take it in massive quantities, you're likely going to find out the hard way that flax is an extremely effective laxative.

if you want the zing that only epa can bring, you're going to want to make like a fish. you see, the fishes that are so rich in omega-3s can't produce those substances in their bodies any more than we can, so they get them the same way we do- by eating them. although they're less common at the moment, supplements made from algae have the same health benefits as fish or fish oil supplements, because they are the same. they just haven't gone into the fish yet.

ok, i'm bored. wrap this up already.

all things considered, there are very few reasons not to take an omega-3 supplement. chances are they'll do something good for you one way or another and, if your mental health issues are controlled enough that you don't think you really need to jump on the med bandwagon, chances are you can get everything you need from practically any supplement on the market or just from changing your diet.

if you want to get serious results for a more serious mental disorder, your first stop is, as always, the office of the person who normally gives you your psychiatric medications. they should know whether or not there are any potential concerns with you taking additional omega-3s and they'll be able to advise you on adjusting any current medications and how to start incorporating your new supplement into your life so that you don't screw your brain up any worse than your genes and your environment already did.

so, yes, you can look to omega-3s as some kind of salvation. you have nothing to lose but your mind and chances are that was gone long ago.


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