Omega 3s for Depression

Alternative Treatments for Depression

When you experience an illness of some kind, the normal reaction for many of us is to visit a doctor and take medication to make us feel better. What happens when an illness doesn’t have a medication that can completely eradicate it? For many depression sufferers, this is the reality in which they live every day. That does not mean that there is no hope, however! While it is true that a definitive “cure-all” option that reliably and consistently ends all depression symptoms has yet to be discovered, there are various supplemental treatments such as exercise, mindfulness, light therapy and some supplements that can help with depression.

Omega 3 Supplements for Depression

There is a lot of interest in using supplements for the treatment of depression. One of the most well researched supplements with the potential to be used for depression treatment are omega 3 fatty acids. Some individual studies have indicated that consuming elevated levels of omega 3 fatty acids could help to alleviate or reduce the severity of depression and some of its accompanying symptoms. Yet in larger meta analyses that review many studies, omega 3 fatty acids don’t seem to be particularly effective as a single agent treatment for depression.  The research on omega 3 is very messy with different types of fatty acids, at different doses and compared to different active placebos, so it may be difficult to draw any firm conclusions from the existing research and unfortunately the likelihood of very large and well done studies becoming available is low as omega 3 is a supplement and not a medication that can be patented by a pharmaceutical company. 

Omega 3 for Depression - Effective treatment or publication bias?

One paper, published in 2011, assessed the viability of using omega 3 fatty acids as a treatment for depression. The meta-analysis and systematic review took a look at a variety of studies that researched omega 3 fatty acids and their effectiveness as a depression treatment for adults. Thirteen placebo-controlled and randomized trials were reviewed. The analysis found that there was no significant change in depression symptoms related to the use of omega 3 fatty acids.


To be a bit more specific, the analysis found that, when compared to the placebo, there was no statistically significant difference to speak of. In addition, the meta-analysis uncovered a number of issues that should be considered when assessing the reliability of the studies that were included. First of all, there was a significant amount of publication bias and heterogeneity present in the studies. Once these factors were taken into account and the results adjusted accordingly, almost all evidence that supported omega 3 fatty acids as being effective in treating depression adults was removed. Finally, a secondary analysis of the data showed that studies tended to report increased efficacy using omega 3 fatty acids in the following types of trials:

·       Trials of less-rigorous methodological quality.

·       Short trials.

·       Trials using completers instead of analysis focused on intention-to-treat.

The trials that supported omega 3 fatty acids as an effective depression treatment option were not the most valid or thorough, in other words, and the vast majority of evidence was invalidated entirely once publication bias was taken into account.


Another meta-analysis, published a bit earlier in 2009, seems to echo the above results quite closely. The analysis found that while there was initially evidence in the 28 studies included in the review that EPA was at least slightly effective in helping to treat depression, these results were directly related to the type of trials surveyed. That is to say that studies that were shorter in duration, were lacking in methodological quality, and focused on completers rather than intention-to-treat found evidence that omega 3 fatty acids might be beneficial to patient struggling with depression. These results, however, have limited authority due to the rather limited scope and quality of the studies that were assessed.


Bottom Line on Omegas for Depression

Can omega 3 fatty acids help in the treatment adult depression? The verdict is still out on this one. In order to come to a more definitive answer, studies of higher quality would need to be conducted and analyzed. At this point some of the individual studies show benefit especially studies using higher doses and longer duration and higher EPA content, so since this is a low risk treatment it is reasonable to add omega 3s, yet likely omega 3s should be a part of a larger regimen of nutrients, lifestyle and in some cases also medications to fully address the symptoms of anxiety and depression.