Omega 3s and Postpartum Depression

Pregnancy can be an exciting time full of new discoveries. It’s not always as easy as some might make it seem, and pregnant women often require careful medical attention and care in order to ensure that the pregnancy goes as smoothly as possible. While maintaining the physical health of the mother is crucial for the wellbeing of both the mother and the growing baby, maintaining expecting mom’s mental health is equally important, both during and after pregnancy.

Pregnancy and Depression

Addressing depression in pregnant women and shortly after giving birth can be a complex, as pregnancy affects hormonal and emotional balance. A psychiatrist, psychologist or psychotherapist working with a pregnant woman must carefully consider treatment options in order to ensure that the treatment is appropriate for both mother and child. Since ideally depression would be avoided in the first place, it is important to pay attention to what can be done during and even before pregnancy to optimize health and reduce the risk of postpartum depression and depression during pregnancy. Optimizing nutrition and lifestyle and taking nutritional supplements may be a way to lower the risk of depression in pregnancy and postpartum. Omega 3 fatty acids, most commonly taken as fish oil may be one supplement that  pregnant women, as well as women who have just given birth, could add to their daily routines to combat the symptoms of depression while avoiding exposure to traditional medications.

Perinatal Depression and Omega 3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids

A meta-analysis and review published in 2017 explored twelve research studies on perinatal depression and omega 3 fatty acids and assessed their findings. Researchers found that women with perinatal depression significantly lower levels of omega 3 fatty acids, lower levels of DHA and a higher ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 than women who did not experience perinatal depression. This study raises the question of how to avoid these low levels of omega 3 fatty acids? While we do not have research at this point showing that taking omega 3 supplements can prevent perinatal depression, it may be reasonable to increase omega 3 fatty acids in the diet and take omega 3 supplements to minimize the risk of depletion during pregnancy and postpartum and the increased risk of depression. The use of omega 3 fatty acid supplements in the treatment of depression in pregnant women could be beneficial through normalizing the omega 3 levels.

A second study, published in 2015, examines the impact of omega 3 fatty acid and fish oil supplementation on mother and child during pregnancy and postpartum. Before we get into the results, it should be noted that this study specifically analyzed whether or not omega 3 was an effective supplement to take during pregnancy as it relates to a variety of issues, including:

  • Preterm birth

  • Intrauterine growth restriction

  • Pre-eclampsia

  • Post-partum depression

  • Gestational diabetes

  • Infant brain and eye development

  • Perinatal mortality

As you can see, the above list is not exclusive to the use of omega 3 fatty acids in the treatment of post-partum depression. This is important only in that it might indicate that a narrower focus with more focused analysis/research could yield different results. With all of that said, this particular review found that evidence linking omega 3 supplements to effective treatment or prevention of the above issues was limited and did not ultimately support routine use of the supplements.

What exactly does all of this mean? Well, it is known that women who become depressed during pregnancy and post-partum have lower levels of omega 3 fatty acids in their systems. And while this is a correlation rather than a definitive cause of the depression, it might be valuable information to keep in mind when addressing depression in pregnant women and postpartum depression. As the second study shows us, however, the evidence supporting the use of omega 3 fatty acid supplementation is simply not quite there yet. These results don’t necessarily mean that the supplement wouldn’t be effective, but could rather be the outcome of insufficient study number and quality, an insufficient dose of omega 3 used during the studies, and inconsistent research practices. Research on omega 3 supplements is quite varied and studies use different forms of the omega 3 supplements, including both fish and vegetarian sources.  In addition the dose range and type of oil used for placebo are also quite varied. 

In order to fully understand whether omega 3 fatty acids and fish oil are useful in the treatment of depression in pregnant women as well as post-partum depression, more quality and careful research is necessary. Since omega 3 fatty acids and fish oil have a low risk of side effects and a low risk of negatively impacting expectant mothers, and there is some evidence suggesting that low levels of omega 3s are linked to depression, use of omega 3s and fish oil supplements before conception, during pregnancy and postpartum may be encouraged.