Fish oil has quickly become one of America’s top selling supplements. In recent years, fish oil has come to receive mainstream acclaim for its ability to improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and promote weight loss. Although most people take fish oil to improve their physical health, there is clear evidence in support of the idea that omega-3 fatty acids within fish oils (specifically EPA and DHA) can significantly improve brain function.
With any supplement, including fish oil, you’re going to read ridiculous over-hyped claims that make it seem like a “magic bullet” and utopian “cure all.” While fish oil is no magic bullet, it is a supplement that deserves recognition for its ability to improve both physical and mental health. If you want to optimize your cognitive function, boost your mood, or possibly prevent the onset of a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, you may want to consider taking fish oil.
Dietary Ratios of Omega-3 to Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Most standard American diets consist of large quantities of omega-6 fatty acids, with little or no omega-3 fatty acids. The problem with this is that when the scale is tipped and omega-6 fatty acids become your only source of fatty acids, your body results with an inflammatory response. In order to reduce the inflammation, you’ll need to find a way to obtain more omega-3 fatty acids.
Overconsumption of omega-3 fatty acids in ratio to omega-6 fatty acids (which is less common) can also occur. This is less problematic, but can result in unwanted effects such as blood thinning. In the standard American diet, estimations reveal that most people consume a ratio between 1:10 (omega-3 to omega-6) and 1:30 (omega-3 to omega-6). Ideally, most experts recommend shooting for a ratio between 1:1 and 1:4.
The way you can improve your ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is by supplementing fish oil and/or minimizing your intake of omega-6’s. If you are serious about optimizing this particular aspect of your health, the ratio should be at the very least 1:4 (omega-3 to omega-6).
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24757497
General Health Benefits of Fish Oil
While this website is focused primarily on the mental health benefits of fish oil, you may still be interested in learning some of the general health benefits. Various benefits include: reductions in inflammation, improved body composition, reduced insulin sensitivity, and triglyceride reductions.
- Body composition: There is some evidence to suggest that fish oil helps improve body composition and help you lose weight.
- Cardiovascular disease risk: There is clear evidence that taking fish oil reduces risk of cardiovascular disease. This is one of the primary reasons why fish oil supplementation has become widespread.
- Inflammation markers: Fish oil works extremely well as an anti-inflammatory agent, significantly reducing inflammation throughout the body.
- Insulin sensitivity: There have been some studies conducted that show fish oil is capable of improving insulin sensitivity.
- Triglyceride reductions: High levels of triglycerides are associated with heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and increased risk of a stroke. Taking fish oil has been documented as an effective way to reduce them.
- Vision improvement: Some studies demonstrated that fish oil may improve visual acuity, prevent macular degeneration, and eye development.
Fish Oil Benefits the Brain: List of Uses
There are a variety of cognitive and psychological benefits that can be obtained via supplementation of fish oil. It should be mentioned that you can only expect to reap the benefits if you are taking a quality fish oil and the proper dosage.
ADHD: Many people consider ADHD to be a developmental disorder that may have been influenced by a poor diet. Deficiencies in nutrients such as polyunsaturated fatty acids may lead to impaired brain development, ultimately causing attentional deficits. In a study with 132 Australian children, supplementation of PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids) significantly reduced ADHD symptoms over the course of 30 weeks.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17435458
Anxiety disorders: Some research suggests that increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids may result in less stress and anxiety. This is due to the fact that omega-3 PUFAs tend to be reduced among individuals with high levels of anxiety. Supplementation is capable of inhibiting activation of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical) axis in the brain, which should logically help reduce anxiety. A study conducted on alcoholics revealed that increased omage-3 intake reduced secretion of cortisol, a hormone strongly associated with anxiety.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19906519
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23390041
Bipolar disorder: In a 2012 meta-analysis, studies were examined that utilized omega-3 fatty acids as an adjunct strategy for treating bipolar disorder. The studies analyzed both the depressive and manic phases of the disorder. Results suggested that supplementation as an adjunct to a pharmaceutical mood stabilizer provided significant additional benefit for depressive symptoms, but failed to provide benefit for manic symptoms.
In a 2008 review of evidence, supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids with EPA and DHA were examined for their ability to reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder. A total of 7 studies met criteria to be included in the review, and of the 7 studies, 4 found that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation was significant in its ability to reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21903025
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18809123
Borderline personality disorder: In small-scale studies among individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD), supplementation of 1 gram of EPA per day over the course of an 8-week period was found to be effective in reducing both aggression and depressive symptoms. Researchers from this study suggest that EPA may be an effective option for moderate cases of BPD.
Cognitive function: Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in infant brains have been linked to cognitive impairment and slower visual processing. This means that the child is ultimately at a greater risk for developing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood disorders, and other psychiatric conditions. When the levels of DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil) are increased, this may improve brain development in children. DHA-rich fish oil has also been found effective for reducing cognitive impairment.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22932777
Depression: Many studies suggest that low levels of omega-3 PUFAs may directly contribute to depression. Studies have found that among individuals with depression, there are low levels of omega-3 fatty acids within red blood cells. Other studies have gone as far as to demonstrate links between the level of EPA (an omega-3 fatty acid) and suicidality in men. While there is conflicting evidence as to whether taking fish oil for depression is therapeutically beneficial, considerable research suggests that it is – especially for individuals with low omega-3 PUFA levels.
You may also be interested in learning that eating fish boosts effectiveness of antidepressants. There has also been research that found fish oil supplementation tends to be an effective antidepressant augmentation strategy, significantly improving a person’s depression more than using a standalone antidepressant. Some experts have gone as far as to suggest that fish oil should be utilized as a first-line treatment option.
Learning: In a randomized, placebo-controlled study with 409 children (aged 3 to 13), supplementation of DHA-based fish oil was found superior to a placebo on non-verbal cognitive development over the course of 40 weeks, with the effect being most noticeable among 7 to 13 year olds.
In separate review of studies investigating DHA supplementation and school performance, over half reported that DHA-based fish oils improved at least one measure of cognitive function or behavior. There is some reason to believe that fish oil may be important to promote healthy brain function and enhance learning abilities of children.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23756346
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23877090
Memory: A year-long study featured 36 elderly adults of “low socioeconomic status” with various forms of mild cognitive impairment. Of the 36 participants, 18 were given fish oil supplements (primarily DHA-concentrated) and the remaining 18 were given placebo capsules. Researchers noted changes in memory function (as well as psychomotor acuity, attention, and visual skills) after 12-months. Results demonstrated that the 18 adults given the fish oil experienced significant improvement in short-term memory, working memory, immediate verbal memory, as well as the capability of “delayed recall.”
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22932777
Neurodegenerative diseases: There is some evidence suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids may help decrease symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and could reduce risk of dementia. Other research has demonstrated that supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids improves cognition and decreases the likelihood that you’ll develop dementia. Although there isn’t definitive evidence supporting the usage of fish oil for neurodegenerative diseases, it is important not to ignore the research suggesting that it helps.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24954371
Neuroprotective agents: Both DHA and EPA generate metabolites that act as neuroprotective agents, meaning they may help preserve healthy long-term brain functioning. EPA specifically has been shown to protect the hippocampus region from age-related changes and synaptic impairment. Most of the neuroprotective effect derived from fish oil is a result of its ability to reduce inflammation, specifically of cytokines like IL-1beta.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18072818
Reaction time: An interesting small-scale study demonstrated that fish oil supplements (particularly concentrated with DHA) improved complex reaction time, precision, and efficiency in elite female soccer players. The study was considered “double-blind” and the players that experienced significant benefit were given 3.5 grams of DHA-based fish oil.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24149875
Schizophrenia: While there is no cure for schizophrenia, there is some evidence suggesting that fish oil supplementation may help reduce symptoms and may enhance symptom reduction when utilized as an adjunct to an antipsychotic. Fish oil supplementation may be among the best natural remedies for schizophrenia. Individuals with schizophrenia tend to have deficiencies in omega-3 PUFAs and therefore would likely stand to benefit from long-term supplementation.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21501206
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25363186
Stress reduction: There is evidence suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids impact a branch of the autonomic nervous system called the “sympathetic nervous system.” The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for producing our fight-or-flight response which is generally a primary cause of stress and anxiety. In a small-scale study, it was found that all stress biomarkers including plasma: epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisol, and energy expenditure were all significantly reduced after just 3 weeks of supplementation with fish oil.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12909818
Fish Oil: Omega-3 Fatty Acids’ Mechanism of Action
There are several mechanisms by which the omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found within fish oil are capable of improving brain performance and mental health.
- BDNF increase: Supplementing fish oil is associated with increased levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). People with low levels of BDNF often have severe forms of depression and other mood disorders. By supplementing omega-3 fatty acids, BDNF levels may increase, resulting in improved neurotransmission and protection of nerve cells.
- Cell membrane function: From the perspective of a cell, omega-3 fatty acids are like the “building blocks.” They are essential components that provide neurons with structural support, improved signaling, and more efficient neurotransmission. The fact that omega-3 fatty acids are capable of improving the functioning of your neurons (brain cells) is likely to contribute to their efficacy.
- Decreases arachidonic acid derived eicosanoids: The omega-3 PUFAs within fish oil elicit an effect by targeting and reducing arachidonic acid (AA) derived eicosanoids. The AA-derived eicosanoids are commonly associated with various diseases and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. When you take fish oil, the EPA is primarily responsible for decreasing the metabolism of arachidonic acid and producing healthy eicosanoids.
- Dopamine levels: There is some preliminary evidence in animals that low dopamine may be a direct consequence of a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids. Although animal studies do not necessarily have carryover to humans, it should be considered that the same effect may occur in humans. Diets low in omega-3 fatty acids may lead to lower production of dopamine, which is known to contribute to depression (possibly to a greater extent in some people than serotonin). (Read: Depression from dopamine vs. serotonin). Further evidence from animal studies reveals that omega-3 PUFAs decreases activity of MAO-B (monoamine oxidase) – a specific enzyme that influences dopamine breakdown. Decreased dopamine breakdown would lead to increases extracellular levels of dopamine for the brain to use, thus possibly improving your mood.
- Inflammation reduction: Perhaps the most obvious function of omega-3 fatty acids is their ability to reduce inflammation. When you take fish oil, the omega-3 PUFAs decrease production of inflammatory cytokines, which have been linked to a variety of mood disorders. Those with high levels of inflammatory cytokines (e.g. TNFa, IL-1b, etc.) are more likely to suffer from depression, cognitive impairment, and anxiety.
5 Factors To Consider When Taking Fish Oil
There are several caveats to consider when taking fish oil. Not all fish oil is created equally, not all have the same dosing instructions or storage requirements. To make sure you’re getting optimal benefit from any supplement you take, do your research.
1. Type of Fish Oil
There are many different types of fish oil available for purchase, and each is associated with a different benefit. There are cod-liver oils (which provide mostly an antioxidant benefit) vs. fish oils with high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA). If you’re taking fish oil to benefit your brain, you’ll want to make sure that you’re buying fish oil that contains sufficient omega-3 fatty acids to get any mental health benefit.
Also consider the type of fish that your fish oil is being extracted from. If you’re getting sufficient omega-3 fatty acids, you may not care the type of fish they are being extracted from. Others may care about the specific type of fish that they’re getting oil from, so make sure you are satisfied with your particular source.
2. Quality of Product
It is important to realize that not all fish oil is created equally. Some fish oils tend to go rancid before others and should be avoided at all costs. If you end up going to the grocery store and pick up some random brand of fish oil off the shelf, there’s about a 50% chance that it’s already rancid. A good tip is that if the fish oil you buy smells “fishy,” it’s probably not safe for consumption; avoid fish oil that emits a fishy odor.
Look up the product to make sure that it has been through IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards) testing. If it hasn’t, you may be risking potential rancidity and/or not getting the product that’s advertised. Many companies list false amounts of DHA and EPA within their product and it often takes third-party lab testing to determine that the quantities listed are inaccurate.
3. The Dosage of Omega-3’s
The amount of omega-3 fatty acids that your fish oil contains will matter. If you are suffering from a mood disorder like depression, some experts recommend taking between 2 and 4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids daily. Understand that grams of omega-3 fatty acids is NOT the same as the total grams of fish oil you’re taking.
Taking 2-4 grams of fish oil will certainly not provide 2-4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Read the label of your product and make sure you are getting enough of the actual omega-3’s. When looking for a product, it is important to find the ones that provide the most omega-3 fatty acids per serving. Other sources recommend staying towards the higher end of the recommended spectrum and taking between 3-4 grams of EPA/DHA combined per day.
If you don’t have a mood disorder, taking a low dose of 1-2 grams total omega-3 fatty acids is sufficient. You can experiment with the amount you decide to take and determine whether a particular dose tends to “work” better than another. It can take time before you find the amount that seems to provide the most benefit.
4. Time Span of Supplementation
When you begin supplementing fish oil, it is important to not expect immediate results. If you’re expecting it to provide some sort of “quick fix” to your depressed mood or anxious demeanor, you probably will discontinue treatment before it actually starts working. Assuming you are taking a quality brand at the proper dose, it may take weeks (and in some cases months) before you’ll start to notice an effect.
Some studies have recorded statistically significant results within 3 weeks for improving a resilience to stress, while for cognitive benefits it may take 40 weeks. Like any treatment, it is important to give it plenty of time to work. Take it on a daily basis (at the proper dose) for a moderate period of time before expecting to notice any results.
5. The Person (It doesn’t work for everyone)
Many people assume that because fish oil works for them that it will automatically work for someone else. While ensuring that the person is taking the proper amount, a quality brand, etc. can go a long way, it is important to understand that people respond differently to all kinds of supplements and treatments. Not everyone is going to derive benefit from taking fish oil supplements.
Recognize that each person has a unique genetic code, may be on a different stack of supplements, is likely eating a unique diet, etc. The bottom line is that everyone’s different and not everyone will have a positive response to fish oil. In fact, the dopaminergic boost that may occur with supplementation could theoretically exacerbate certain conditions like anxiety.
Fish Oil: Weighing the Pros vs. Cons of Omega-3 PUFAs
The best case scenario is that fish oil significantly improves your mental health and/or cognitive function. Worst case scenario is that you don’t find it very helpful and/or it makes you feel worse. Below are some potential “pros” or benefits associated with fish oil supplementation as well as some potential “cons” or drawbacks.
Potential “Pros” of Fish Oil
There are many potential benefits associated with taking fish oil. Supplementation isn’t associated with any major side effects, doesn’t usually have withdrawals, and is often effective as an adjunct treatment for psychiatric conditions.
- Adjunct treatment option: While fish oil cannot be medically recommended as a replacement for any psychiatric drug, it is often recommended as an adjunct treatment option. Many people have better success when they combine fish oil with their antidepressant and/or antipsychotic. If you’re considering this, be sure to talk to your doctor.
- Brain health: There are numerous studies that suggest fish oil may improve the functionality and health of your brain. If you want to potentially improve your brain for the long-term, this would be a supplement to consider.
- Cognitive function: You may start to notice that your thinking improves, your performance in school or on the job improves, and that your memory has gotten sharper. As an experiment, you may want to take a cognitive performance assessment prior to your supplementation and then at a later date to determine whether it’s providing benefit.
- Cost: The price of fish oil is relatively inexpensive as long as you’re benefitting from it. Even the more expensive brands are less than $50 for a fairly large supply. Do a bit of comparison shopping and look for the omega-3 contents within each product when you compare.
- General health: As was already mentioned, there are plenty of ways in which fish oil is capable of improving a person’s general health.
- Low risk of side effects: There can be side effects such as allergic reactions and blood thinning (when taken at high doses). Be sure that you are aware of any allergies you may have to fish oil as well as any potential interactions that the fish oil could have with other medications that you’re taking.
- No withdrawal period: There are no known withdrawals associated with discontinuation of fish oil. This means that if you stop taking it, you won’t experience any dizziness, shaking, or any other joyous perils that accompany psychotropic drug withdrawal.
- Treating mental illness: Although it cannot be medically recommended to take fish oil as a standalone treatment for any particular mental illness, there are some studies suggesting that it does work. Some people may want to consider giving fish oil a try before delving into the (often problematic) realm that is psychiatry.
Potential “Cons” of Fish Oil
It is important to understand that not everyone has a good reaction to fish oil supplementation, some people may find that they simply don’t feel as good when they take it. The good thing is that there aren’t any major withdrawal symptoms associated with fish oil like there are often with other psychiatric medications.
- Blood thinning: At very high doses, fish oil can have blood thinning effects. Most therapeutic doses for improving general health and mental health are nowhere near the amounts taken for blood thinning, but this is certainly something to keep in mind.
- Doesn’t work: Some may find that taking fish oil supplements simply don’t work. Regardless of the EPA and DHA content, dosage, brand, and method of administration, some people just have no luck. Fortunately fish oil is relatively inexpensive and at the very least you only wasted a few bucks.
- Interactions: Although fish oil doesn’t tend to interact with many psychiatric drugs, it is important to be knowledgeable of any contraindications with other drugs that you’re taking. Always talk to your doctor to find out whether you may experience an interaction. Some interactions may be unexpected and lead to unnecessary health scares.
- Lack of scientific evidence: Not all science supports the idea that fish oil improves mental health and cognition. There are many studies that highlight the fact that fish oil supplementation is no better than a placebo for the treatment of various conditions. You could take the studies showing fish oil’s inefficacy to the bank if you wanted to make an argument against its use. That said, there is more evidence highlighting potential benefits and the fact that it is relatively low risk.
- Rancidity: One aspect of supplementation that people fail to consider is rancidity. Many fish oils that people buy from general grocery stores and pharmacies tend to be “rancid.” If the fish oil smells a little bit “fishy” it’s probably not safe for supplementation. To avoid rancidity, always purchase from a quality buyer with a tested product. Rancidity is a huge concern when it comes to fish oil.
- Self-experimentation: It can be tough to self-experiment and try to tweak various dosages and ratios of EPA to DHA in order to find something that finally “works.” You may spend countless hours experimenting with dosages over extended periods of time only to realize that the fish oil didn’t provide any benefit.
- Worsening of condition: Some people with anxiety disorders (and even depression) have reported that fish oils exacerbated their existing symptoms. One could argue that this may be a result of the omega-3 PUFAs increasing dopamine. When dopamine levels increase, it could theoretically lead to greater amounts of anxiety.
Recommendations to consider…
There are a couple of recommendations that you may want to consider associated with fish oil supplementation.
- Cycling off of fish oil: Since this is a supplement and it isn’t necessarily “natural” to take consistently, you may want to “cycle off” of it for a period of several weeks to let your body readjust to normative functioning. Not that you’ll become dependent on fish oil to function, but there may be some unknown health consequences of taking any supplement on a daily bases over a long-term. While cycling off is arguably unnecessary, it is a concept to consider nonetheless.
- Eating fish instead: There’s always the option of eating fish as opposed to taking supplements. The problem with eating fish to obtain sufficient omega-3 fatty acids is that you’ll often need to eat a LOT of it to get the quantities of EPA and DHA that you’re after. As an example, a 6 oz. serving of wild salmon contains approximately 8-9 grams of EPA, and 10-11 grams of DHA. If you think that you’d be getting enough oil from eating wild-caught fish, some would argue that this is a superior method.
- Experimentation: You may want to experiment with different brands, different types (soft-gels vs. liquid formulations), daily dosage, as well as contents of EPA and DHA. Some people may find that a particular brand works better than another or that a liquid formula works better than the soft-gels. Others may find that an EPA-dominant fish oil helps their mood more than one with a more balanced ratio of EPA to DHA. Yet others may find that a DHA-dominant formula improves cognition better than one with a lot of EPA. Take the time to do a little bit of experimentation to find what works for you.
Should you take fish oil supplements to improve mental health?
It is important to realize that humans did not evolve to shovel down supplements and multivitamins in order to function. That said, there is compelling evidence demonstrating that people who eat diets high in seafood tend to experience less mental illness and improved cognitive function compared to those who don’t. The omega-3 fatty acids found within fish oil are the primary way by which fish oil improves the brain.
If you eat fish regularly (e.g. 4-6 times per week), you probably don’t need to be taking fish oil supplements. By eating sufficient amounts of fish, you should be getting the necessary oil directly from the fish; a superior way to get omega-3 fatty acids. The problem is that not everyone likes eating a lot of fish or can afford to buy high quality wild-caught fish that provides sufficient omega-3 fatty acids.
Assuming you don’t eat a lot of fish, the most convenient method of obtaining omega-3 fatty acids is by taking a high quality fish oil supplement. Keep in mind that not everyone will notice a benefit from supplementation and if you aren’t noticing any benefit, it makes no sense to continue taking it. If you’ve experimented with fish oil for the treatment of a particular psychiatric condition, physical condition, and/or to improve cognitive function – feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.