Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in fish oil and certain marine algae. Because depression appears less common in nations where people eat large amounts of fish, scientists have investigated whether fish oils may prevent and/or treat depression and other mood disorders. Two omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — are thought to have the most potential to benefit people with mood disorders.
More than 30 clinical trials have tested different omega-3 preparations in people with depression. Most studies have used omega-3s as add-on therapy for people who are taking prescription antidepressants with limited or no benefit. Fewer studies have examined omega-3 therapy alone. Clinical trials typically use EPA alone or a combination of EPA plus DHA, at doses from 0.5 to 1 gram per day to 6 to 10 grams per day. To give some perspective, 1 gram per day would correspond to eating three salmon meals per week.
Meta-analyses (research that combines and analyzes results of multiple studies) generally suggest that the omega-3s are effective, but the findings are not unanimous because of variability between doses, ratios of EPA to DHA, and other study design issues. The most effective preparations appear to have at least 60% EPA relative to DHA. While DHA is thought to be less effective as an antidepressant, it may have protective effects against suicide. Recent work at Massachusetts General Hospital and Emory University suggests that depressed individuals who are overweight and have elevated inflammatory activity may be particularly good candidates for EPA treatment.
Children and adolescents with depression may also benefit from omega-3 supplementation. At Harvard, there is a large study underway examining whether omega-3 supplementation (alone or in combination with vitamin D) can prevent depression in healthy older adults.