Fishing for a Better Mood

James S. Tonkin - Mood swings and psychological distress are all too familiar to many women going through peri-menopause, the time during which menstruation gradually ceases. Fluctuating hormone levels combined with work stress, the demands of a busy family life, and other day-to-day pressures can dampen anyone’s mood. A new study suggests that relief may come from something as simple as a daily dose of fish oil.

Easing distress with healthy fat

Researchers studied 120 women, aged 40 to 55, who were classified as having psychological distress based on standardized questionnaires. Women who were post-menopausal for more than five years or who had other mental health issues including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, risk of suicide, or severe, major depression were excluded from the study. Women who were taking anti-depressants, St. John’s wort, hormone replacement therapy, or fish oil were excluded from the study as well. The women were randomly assigned to a daily dose of 1.2 grams of omega-3 fat from fish oil supplements or a placebo, which contained only sunflower oil.

After eight weeks, women in the fish oil group had significant improvements in their psychological distress levels compared with women in the placebo group. However, this improvement was apparent only after the researchers analyzed the results excluding women classified as having major depressive episode (MDE) at the study’s beginning.

In summary, fish oil supplements providing 1.2 grams of omega-3 fat per day significantly improved psychological distress in middle-aged women, but only if those women were not experiencing major depression.

What kind and how much?

The two major types of omega-3 fat found in fish oil are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). In this study, nearly all of the omega-3 fat, 1.05 grams of the total 1.2 fat grams, was in the form of EPA. Only 0.15 grams came from DHA.

Though it is not known whether getting fish oil through diet would have the same effects, foods rich in these fatty acids have an extensive list of well known benefits. Other key points to consider:

• EPA and DHA are found in mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, sablefish (black cod), anchovies, albacore tuna, and wild game. Cod liver oil contains large amounts of EPA and DHA.

• The omega-3 fat dose in the study was 1.2 grams. This is equivalent to 1,200 mg. Typical fish oil supplements provide 200 to 500 mg of omega-3 fat per capsule. This means you will need 3 to 6 pills per day to reach the same total omega-3 fat intake.

• When evaluating a supplement, consider the amount of EPA in each capsule. To match the study dose, you need 1,050 mg of EPA. If your fish oil supplement provides around 200 mg of EPA per capsule, you will need 5 to 6 capsules per day to reach 1,050 mg.

• Fish oil supplements are safe for most people, but can have blood thinning effects. If you are taking anti-coagulant medication such as warfarin (Coumadin) or heparin, talk to your doctor before trying fish oil supplements.

Finally, if you have symptoms of major depression, such as changes in appetite and body weight, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, thoughts of suicide, or other distressing symptoms, don’t simply self-medicate with fish oil. Talk to your doctor right away.

(Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89:641–51)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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