In order to really understand the effects of Omega-3 on the brain we must first define and differentiate between anxiety and depression. The Mayo Clinic defines depression as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest”. Some people confuse depression with general sadness, which is a major mistake. Everyone gets sad every once in a while, but depression is a clinical disorder, which places people into low mental state from which they cannot simply “snap out of”. Each individual’s depressed state may stem from its own origins, but treatment is usually the same for any case. Medical professionals recommend a series of psychotherapy sessions where individuals learn to cope with the symptoms and try to find ways to change their life and thought processes to be able to cognitively and actively break depressing thought cycles. Depending on the severity of depression doctors may suggest and prescribe medication to help with combating the symptoms of depression. The most commonly prescribed anti-depressant is the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, or SSRI for short. The SSRI keeps the serotonin in the synapses of the brain cell from being reabsorbed by the previous brain cell, which originally sent the chemical signal along. As a result the brain cells receive more serotonin, which makes us feel better and can lift the mood of a person struggling with depression. This is a highly affective treatment, but studies have found that there are natural ways to help boost people out of a depressed state.
We all worry about something, whether it is about bills, relationships, or whether that sound our car is making may be a sign of a coming breakdown. Yet Anxiety Disorders are something completely different. The Mayo Clinic defines anxiety disorders as a feeling of “intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations”. These are either phobias, repeating episodes of worrying which appear for no apparent reason, or the pinnacle of an anxiety disorder, the panic attack, where individuals can have a sense of fear or dread that reach peaking proportions within minutes. Just as with depression, anxiety disorders are disorders of the brain and people cannot simply “calm down and relax”. Just as with depression, medical professionals recommend psychotherapy sessions in order to learn to break anxiety cycles and to eventually break the association created in the brain between certain stimuli and the anxiety response. Psychiatrists find that SSRI treatment is just as effective with anxiety as it is with depression, but with anxiety doctors may suggest a symptomatic anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax to help curb a panic attack once it has escalated to a high level of anxiety. Just as with depression, researchers have found that changes in lifestyle and diet can help with combating anxiety disorders.
Recently doctors around the world have been conducting research on how Omega-3 fatty acid affects the brain. Studies at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland found in their studies that patients who received higher doses of Omega-3 would soon rate themselves lower on the scale for feelings of hopelessness, depression, thoughts of suicide, and general stress that those who received a placebo. Yet that is not all. Countless studies done in medical colleges throughout the world have found that patients who consume more Omega-3 supplements have declared an increase in overall quality of life and a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms. Scientists have found that the DHA in fish oil can help increase corticotropin-releasing hormones in the brain, which are vital to maintaining and regulating emotional response. It is also vital in controlling activity in the hypothalamus, which is the region of the brain that regulates our “fight or flight” response. Doctor Brian M. Ross of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine of Lakehead University states that in his studies have found that Omega-3 helps regulate how the brain metabolizes certain neurotransmitters, which can help regulate our mood. The clear importance of Omega-3 on the brain comes from the Psychopharmacological Research Laboratory of McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School where Doctor Douglas London states that the brain uses Omega-3 as a vital building block for its own construction because 60% of the brain is composed of fat cells, and the best fats for the job are Omega-3 fatty acids. Dr. London says that the brain can use other fats to compose itself, but it would be like using “inferior materials”.
What is amazing is that Omega-3 can help brain function in many others ways than just controlling depression and anxiety symptoms. In 2007, the American Psychosomatic Society presented evidence that lack of DHA and Omega-3 presents with patients having a lack of emotional control and they may become more impulsive and aggressive. Furthermore, studies have found that an increased supplement of Omega-3 in the diets of Alzheimer’s patients can have a effect in slowing down cognitive decline, and at times even improving cognitive function in patients. Omega-3 may even have an effect on the developing brain. Studies have shown that children whose mothers had a high omega-3 diet while pregnant were more likely to have a higher IQ than average, and the reverse was true as well. It was found that if the mother had a Omega-3 deficient diet during pregnancy, that their children had a higher chance of having a lower IQ than average. This brings us back to the work of Doctor London and shows us that the fats used during the development of the fetus’ brain can have a major effect on overall brain function after birth.
Depression and anxiety are very serious mental disorders that many people deal with on a daily basis. Thankfully research in the past few decades has greatly changed the way people with these disorders are treated, and significantly improved their quality of life. Even though research has shown that Omega-3 and DHA can help in treating the symptoms of these disorders, it should not be considered to be more than a supplement to psychotherapy and/or prescribed medication. These nutrients can greatly aid in improving quality of life, but it is not a cure or a definitive treatment. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety and have not consulted a medical professional, then we strongly suggest you do. If you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, then we ask you reach out to friends and family, and remember that the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 and is 100% free. Someone is there to help. You can reach the crisis line at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone. As for those who are already in treatment, we suggest you talk to your doctor about what other nutrients can help control your symptoms. You never know if a simple vitamin can help make each day a victory. But as for Omega-3, it is becoming clearer every day that it has more benefits than just controlling your cholesterol.
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