Omega-3 Fatty Acids Relieve Childhood Depression

Healthnotes Newswire (July 27, 2006)—Supplementing with the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil appears to be a safe and effective treatment for childhood depression, according to a new study.

Depression is an increasingly common problem that affects an estimated 2 to 4% of children in the United States. Associated with an increased risk of substance abuse and suicide, childhood depression is usually treated with a class of drugs known as selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). However, more than 20% of children experience side effects such as agitation and sleep disturbances from these drugs, and their use has been associated with an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

In the new study, 20 children between ages 6 and 12 were randomly assigned to receive daily omega-3 fatty acids—400 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 200 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—or a placebo for 16 weeks. The amounts used in this study could be obtained by consuming about 2 grams of fish oil per day. After 16 weeks of treatment, the depression had improved by more than 50% in seven of the ten children receiving omega-3 fatty acids, and resolved completely in four of them, whereas none of the ten children receiving the placebo experienced much improvement.

Previous studies have found that depressed adults, including women with postpartum depression, benefit from fish oil. However, there has been little research using fish oil for depressed children. “This is the first study to demonstrate a beneficial effect of omega-3 fatty acids as a treatment for depression in young children,” said Dr. R. H. Belmaker, one of the researchers involved in the study.

It is not clear how omega-3 fatty acids work to relieve depression. The beneficial effect is probably due mainly to EPA, since a study in which DHA was given by itself did not show any improvement in depression.

Alpha-linolenic acid, the omega-3 fatty acid present in flaxseed oil and certain other vegetable oils, would probably be less effective than fish oil, because it is difficult for the body to convert alpha-linolenic acid to EPA.

People who rarely eat fish are probably more likely to benefit from fish oil supplements than people who regularly eat fish. However, fish oil might be worth a try even for depressed people who frequently eat fish, because their depression could be related to an unusually high requirement for omega-3 fatty acids. “Considering the potential adverse side effects of commonly used antidepressant drugs,” said Dr. Belmaker, “omega-3 fatty acids look like an attractive alternative for children with depression.”

(Am J Psychiatry 2006;163:1098–100)

An expert in nutritional therapies, Chief Medical Editor Alan R. Gaby, MD, is a former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition. He is past-president of the American Holistic Medical Association and gave expert testimony to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine on the cost-effectiveness of nutritional supplements. Dr. Gaby has conducted nutritional seminars for physicians and has collected over 30,000 scientific papers related to the field of nutritional and natural medicine. In addition to editing and contributing to The Natural Pharmacy (Three Rivers Press, 1999), and the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Three Rivers Press, 1999), Dr. Gaby has authored Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima Lifestyles, 1995) and B6: The Natural Healer (Keats, 1987) and coauthored The Patient's Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999).

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