Every time I change health insurance, which surprisingly has been many times over the past five years, I have had to change my primary care physician. What doesn’t change is that each doctor has recommended taking Omega-3s as a supplement. I run out to the drugstore, buy the largest bottle I can find of fish oil pills, and start popping the suggested number of milligrams two times a day. Then, after a week or so, perhaps after a late night out with friends or before rushing out the door late for yoga class, I forget to take the pills once, twice, three times. Slowly, the huge bottle of Omega-3 pills gets moved to the back of the medicine closet.
Interestingly, I’m super strict with my dental regimen (and my coffee routine). Perhaps that’s because before now I never really understood the benefits of the supplement. Each doctor would suggest Omega-3s and say the usual line about how the fatty acids are good for my immune system and heart. (The American Heart Association recommends one gram per day of EPA+DHA for people with heart disease and/or everyone else who is not eating two servings of fish, specifically fatty fish like salmon, trout and albacore tuna, a week. See below for a delicious salmon recipe if you’d like to increase your fish intake.) Yeah, and so is getting eight hours of sleep.
But, then, my latest doctor tells me that Omega-3s may also help with depression. I’ve had a bout or two with depression. My ears perk up.
I am afraid of looking stupid so I don’t ask questions. I have a hard time processing anything scientific. My eyes start to glaze over when medical terms are used. My only associations with the word “Omega” are either on sorority sweatshirts or my R&R visit to the spiritual retreat of the same name located in Rhinebeck, NY. I go home to do some independent research. Here, in layman’s terms, is what I find:
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats that we need for basic body function, such as building the protein and fat-based cell membrane in our brain. There are two main sources of omega-3 fatty acids. The first source is plants, especially seeds (flax and chia) and some tree nuts, which containt ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). The second source is fish and shellfish, which contain a combination of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Bone marrow and brains also contain this type of omega-3 (sweetbreads, anyone?)
The Omega-3s work in tandem with the Omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in cereals, whole-grain breads, certain oils, and some nuts. Omega-6s, although recently given a bad rap, aren’t bad for you in small quantities. But high levels in the body can cause inflammation and worsen diseases such as arthritis and asthma. The key to good health is to maintain a correct ratio of Omega-3s to Omega-6s. Before our modern day of processed food and unhealthy eating, this ratio was usually 1:1. but now it is more likely to be 1 to 10 or 20, with Omega-6s overpowering the body.
This Omega-3 deficiency, according to researchers, has a direct effect on mental health disorders such as ADHD, bi-polar disorder, and depression. The relationship between Omega-3s and depression is a main point of Dr. Andrew Stoll’s groundbreaking 2001 book The Omega-3 Connection. Since that book’s publication, other doctors and nutritionists have added many other books on this wonder supplement and Omega-3 infused diet plans.
The verdict is still out on the link of Omega-3s and depression, but several recent studies support the theory. In 2009, researchers at Beer Sheva Mental Health Center in Israel found that after taking Omega-3s, many patients’ depression was reduced, with no significant side effects. In 2011, twenty women who had major depressive disorder related to menopause were given two one-gram capsules of a omega-3 a day for eight weeks. The results were impressive – their depression scores were reduced by half, and there was an unexpected bonus: fewer hot flashes. Well, I’m not quite at that dreaded age of menopause, but when my time comes, pass me those pills.
With limited side effects and studies praising its positive results, it seems silly not to take Omega-3 supplements. I’ve diligently taken my prescribed milligrams of Omega-3s for two months. If it’s made a difference, I can’t yet tell. But I have nothing to lose. (Now if it did help lose pounds, that would really be a magic pill.) Omega-3s are also being investigated for Alzheimer’s prevention, ADHD regulation, and reversal of age-related loss of brain function. One study found Omega-3s can help reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia. A 2007 study, published in the journal Neuroscience Letters, even went so far as to say that the intake of Omega-3s increased the volume of the brain’s gray matter, specifically in the areas associated with happiness. Perhaps the marketing tag line on the Omega-3s supplement bottles should be changed from “heart healthy” to “Happy Pill.”
Adding Happiness to Your Diet
One way to increase Omega-3s in your diet is by taking daily supplements of fish oil or algae. A more natural alternative is to include Omega-3 rich foods in your everyday diet. Want a quick fix: Sprinkle some chopped walnuts, flaxseeds or chia seeds on a bowl of plain yogurt or munch on a bowl of salt-sprinkled edamame. Here’s a quick and tasty recipe perfect for a mid-week dinner when you want something healthy but don’t have a lot of time or energy. The salmon and the edamame are full of Omega-3s, the quinoa and chickpeas are packed with protein, and the turmeric contains curcumin, which has been tested for its antidepressant qualities.
Broiled Salmon on Turmeric Quinoa Salad
4 salmon fillets (about 1 pound) (wild has more Omega-3s than farmed raised)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon of olive oil
Preheat oven to broil, medium temperature. Rinse and pat dry the salmon fillets and place on the broiler pan. Mix the lemon with the canola oil and brush on the fillets. Broil, on medium, for ten minutes. Increase temperature to high and cook for two additional minutes. The fillets should be crispy but not charred.
Turmeric Quinoa Salad
1 cup of quinoa, rinsed
1-3/4 cup of vegetable broth
1 tablespoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 cup yellow raisins
3/4 cups of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 cups of frozen, shelled edamame, cooked in microwave for three minutes
1 yellow pepper, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 lemons, juiced
2 tablespoons of honey
1/2 cup of olive oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
Bring broth to a boil in medium saucepan; add turmeric, cinnamon, and quinoa. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 15 minutes. The broth should be absorbed. Remove from heat, and fluff with a fork. Let cool to room temperature and pour into a big mixing bowl.
Add to the quinoa, the yellow raisins, chickpeas, cooked edamame, and chopped red peppers and toss. Whisk together the lemon juice, honey olive oil, salt and pepper and toss with the quinoa mixture.
Serve the quinoa with the salmon on top, and add a handful of arugula, if you wish, on the side. Enjoy and be happy!
This article does not constitute medical advice. Please discuss all supplements with your doctor. To consult a holistic psychiatrist at Psych Choices of the Delaware Valley, see our Make An Appointment page.