Fish Oil and Depression: Beyond the Headlines

A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish does not appear to reduce the risk for depression.   It’s the latest disappointment in a slew of recent studies finding that fish oil failed to help prevent or slow Alzheimers, atherosclerosis, atrial fibrulation, or kidney disease.

In a way, however, the part of this latest study that didn’t make the news is far more interesting than the headlines would suggest. Although a higher intake of fish oils did not ward off  depression, a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet did.  Now that’s newsworthy.

In fact, it supports an argument I’ve been putting forth for some time: In order to get the benefits of omega-3 fats, we’d be better off cutting back on vegetable oils and other sources of omega-6 than popping fish oil capsules like bunch of deranged seals.

For a more detailed explanation of why this is the case (and how to go about it), please read or listen to my podcast: Fish Oils and Omega-3s.

15 thoughts on “Fish Oil and Depression: Beyond the Headlines

  1. “Although a higher intake of fish oils did not ward off depression, a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet did. ”

    More specifically: a higher ratio of ALA, but not long-chain n-3 fatty acids, to LA in the diet.

    1. Yes, exactly right! It wasn’t the longer chain EPA and DHA that were found to be protective but a higher ratio of regular ol’ ALA to LA–which underscores the point I make in the podcast (linked above) that people who have lower LA intake get more benefit from vegetarian sources of omega-3 like flax and hemp!

  2. I am planning on sharing this article with my chiropractor friend. He has been trying to talk me into taking fish oils, but I haven’t been able to do it because of how they make you stink! He smells like something rotten when he sweats. I just couldn’t get myself to try it.

    I think they key that you point out about LOWERING your intake of the bad oils. That would benefit most people much more than taking a daily shot of stinky fish oil.

  3. @ Hypnobirthing – not sure what kind of fish oil he is taking, but I suggest you try Barlean’s Signature Fish Oil – 1 tsp – tastes great. I’ve taken Lovaza as well – no issues with either in regards to fish oil taste.

    And in regards to this study, just how much fish oil were they taking? Probably not enough to ward off depression. Usually, you need to be taking 6 + grams of EPA+DHA to ward off something like depression. Taking this much also improves that ratio, although I do agree that reducing Omega 6 is a key to this. Try the paleo diet – this will knock your Omega 6 intake down in a heartbeat. Have been on it for over 4 months now – blood sugars have returned to normal and rheumatoid arthritis is significantly better.


    1. Mark, it’s possible that a higher dose of fish oils might have been more effective in warding off depressing but wouldn’t reducing omega-6 be preferable (and cheaper) than taking handfuls of supplements to reach a “therapeutic dose”?

  4. Quite interesting. Thanks ND for delving into the details and sharing with us. High intake of omega-6 is the reason I’m a little leery of the conventional wisdom about the health benefits of eating so many nuts (especially walnuts which do have ALA, but are also loaded with omega-6, and have a pretty unattractive ratio of the two).

  5. Jim,
    Walnuts are like 4:1 , (Omega 6:3). Pecans are more like 20:1,even worse. Macadamia nuts are more like 1:1, but don’t have all the beneficial Omega 3 as do walnuts. A handful of walnuts on a salad is probably good for you and snacking on some macadamia nuts probably gives you some good fats without the overload of Omega 6

  6. Hi Mark,
    I guess my point about the walnuts is that most modern Americans eat a diet that’s already far too high in omega-6, and it’s possible that there’s some limit as to how much of this omega-6 can be “neutralized” by ALA. So if the goal is to lower the TOTAL consumption of omega-6, that may be hard to accomplish by adding walnuts which, per ounce, have about twice the omega-6 as any nearly any other nut out there (other than pine nuts which run a close second).

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