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Come on Get Happy—Grab Some Fish

Oct. 29, 2014|858 views
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Two separate but oddly related headlines caught my eye recently. The first read: “Depression Increasing Across the United States.” The second: “Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Prevent Some Forms of Depression.” And there you have it in two brief headlines: Problem, meet solution.

Depression is a serious mental illness. Despite old stigmas, we now know that depression is a condition that arises when messenger chemicals—called neurotransmitters—become imbalanced in the brain. Neurotransmitters are a family of complex proteins that work in conjunction with specific receptors to propagate electrical signals, which are passed from one nerve cell in the brain to another. That’s how cells communicate, and how the brain works.

Like all body cells, nerve cells are wrapped in a double layer of materials—called cell membranes—which must act like castle walls in a medieval town. While the castle depends on commerce with the outside to sustain its activities, it’s highly selective about who crosses the moat and gets inside, and travel outside is also closely monitored. In this analogy, the walls consist of thick slabs of hewn rock, and access to the interior of the castle is controlled through manned gates. The walls are strong, and capable of repelling invaders, because they’re made with the right kinds of stone and mortar.

If the castle represents a nerve cell, and the walls the cell membrane, then messengers sent forth by the king represent neurotransmitters. But what if the walls are NOT made of the proper materials? What if the mortar is supposed to be made of omega-3 fatty acids, yet this material is unavailable? Out of desperation, stonemasons will substitute some other, less suitable material. And the walls will leak. The stones might even crumble. Messengers have a harder time coming and going, because the gate doesn’t work as well anymore, either. The lack of proper building materials makes it harder and harder for this small fiefdom to operate according to plan. Chaos may soon engulf the kingdom. And all for the lack of a simple building material: omega-3 fatty acids.

This analogy illustrates the impact of dietary omega-3 fatty acids on mental health. These are essential nutrients. By definition, your body must have them and cannot make them itself. A hefty proportion of the human brain consists of omega-3 fatty acids. They are a crucial, indispensable structural component of nerve cell membranes. They facilitate the free flow of nutrients, wastes, and neurotransmitters, allowing cells to do their job. When a person fails to eat enough foods with omega-3 fatty acids (namely fish and/or fish oil) he or she may suffer any number of health consequences. Depression is just one.

So what’s a person to do? Eat plenty of wild Alaskan salmon, farm-raised trout, sardines, etc. These foods feature natural marine omega-3 fatty acids. Or take supplements. Vegetable sources include flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds. Marine sources are best, however, because plant sources must be converted by the body into the forms we need, and this conversion process is highly inefficient.     

Jean M. Twenge. Time Period and Birth Cohort Differences in Depressive Symptoms in the U.S., 1982–2013. Social Indicators Research, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s11205-014-0647-1

Kuan-Pin Su, Hsueh-Chou Lai, Hui-Ting Yang, Wen-Pang Su, Cheng-Yuan Peng, Jane Pei-Chen Chang, Hui-Chih Chang, Carmine M. Pariante. Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Prevention of Interferon-Alpha-Induced Depression: Results from a Randomized, Controlled Trial. Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 76 (7): 559 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.01.008


Tags:  health tips, healthy fats, heart health