Fish Oil for Mental Health Disorders

Does fish oil really offer substantial benefits for mental health disorders? Can incorporating more of it into your diet help maintain or improve your psychological health? If you’ve recently picked up a magazine, been on a news website, or watched a daytime talk show, chances are good you’ve seen someone touting the benefits of this natural supplement. But it can be hard to differentiate between hype and genuinely helpful facts.

A Closer Look at Fish Oil

It’s always wise to educate yourself regarding anything you put into your body. This definitely applies to fish oil. Often sold in capsules, fish oil is derived from oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. It contains the omega-3 fatty acids known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is believed to be a major factor in many health conditions. This is why many health experts now recommend fish oil to help treat or prevent a range of ailments. For example, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming omega-3, either naturally or in a supplement, to reduce the risk of heart disease. Just as inflammation plays a role in heart disease and other illnesses, it may also be the culprit in many psychiatric disorders, including clinical depression. This belief has led many, from those in the health profession to the talk show circuit, to conclude that fish oil may help treat mental health conditions caused by inflammation. But what does the research say?

Fish Oil for Depression

Anyone who lives with clinical depression knows that its effects can be debilitating. From an inability to make decisions and severe fatigue to irritability and overeating, the symptoms make it hard to live the life you want. But for many, prescription drugs, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), commonly used to ease depression can wreak a havoc all their own. SSRIs, a class of drugs that includes Prozac and Zoloft, trigger a range of side effects, including, nausea, tremors, sleepiness, and a decreased sex drive. Because omega-3 supplements feature few of the side effects of anti-depressants, it can be one drug-free option for people who cannot live with the effects or those with medical conditions that prevent them from using conventional drug therapy. For example, case studies indicate that fish oil supplements help reduce clinical depression symptoms in pregnant women [1].

Fish Oil for Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder with very serious, often debilitating, symptoms. In one study, researchers found evidence that omega-3 supplements could be an effective treatment for this disorder. Seventy-six participants who showed early warning signs of psychotic disorder took the supplements and were monitored for one year. At the conclusion, the subjects who had taken omega-3s were less likely to have become fully psychotic than those given a placebo [3]. One reason fish oil may hold promise as a treatment for schizophrenia is that it doesn’t cause the challenging side effects that prevent many people from taking antipsychotic medications. For example, many drugs used to treat schizophrenia cause dizziness, drowsiness, blurred vision, restlessness, sexual problems, and tardive dyskinesia – a troubling movement disorder. They might also interact adversely with other prescriptions. However, if you’re already on an antipsychotic medication, never stop taking it without talking first to your prescriber.

Fish Oil for ADHD

Whether you’re a parent who loves a child with the disorder or an adult with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder trying to live a normal life, you know how challenging the illness can be. You often find yourself on a roller coaster of medications and therapies just to find a treatment option that creates a normal life. So is fish oil for ADHD a good option? Researchers have found that people with ADHD often have low levels of DHA in their blood [4]. No large-scale studies have found it to be an effective treatment. However, smaller studies suggest there is promise. One Australian study found that fish oil supplements containing both EPA and DHA reduced ADHD symptoms, like hyperactivity and impulsivity, in children. In fact, the children in the study did at least as well, and sometimes better, than kids taking the common prescription drug Ritalin. Other research found that children living with the mental disorder who took a fish oil supplement showed significant improvement in reading and spelling skills [5].

Fish Oil for Bipolar Disorder

Omega-3s may also be effective in treating bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder causes a person to experience extreme mood episodes that fluctuate between mania and depression. Some studies suggest that fish oil may decrease the occurrence of these episodes. For example, one small trial found that individuals with bipolar disorder who took fish oil in addition to conventional drug treatment for 4 months reported fewer mood episodes than those who had taken a placebo [6].

Should you try fish oil?

One of the best reasons to consider adding fish oil to your mental health regimen is that it’s considered safe for most people to take-even for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Be aware that some people report side effects, including loose stools, nausea, and heartburn. Also, fish oil supplements have a reputation for giving a person “fish burps” and bad breath. As a result, many manufacturers now market fish oil supplements that don’t have those effects. Not all fish oil is created equal, however. Since fish oil may be obtained from fish contaminated with mercury, it’s critical to take a pharmaceutical-grade supplement. Never discontinue a prescription medication without talking with your doctor first. And always consult your health professional before adding fish oil or any natural supplement to your diet. He or she will tell you if adding omega-3 will interfere or interact with any other drugs you may be taking. Whether you struggle with ADHD, depression, or another mental disorder, you owe it to yourself to examine all available treatment options. Speak to your doctor or therapist to find out if fish oil may be a beneficial addition to your treatment plan.

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