There is considerable evidence supporting the usage of fish oil for depression. The omega-3 fatty acids within fish oil are capable of increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex, enhancing neurotransmission, and reducing inflammation. Although they can be effective as a standalone treatment for mood disorders (e.g. depression), they are also commonly used with success as an augmentation strategy.
Despite the fact that many people have found fish oil (and omega-3s) to be tremendously beneficial for optimization of brain function, others have discovered that the fish oil exacerbates depression, anxiety, and brain fog. In the event that you are experiencing an increase in depression (or anxiety) from fish oil, there are some factors you’ll want to consider.
Factors to consider before blaming fish oil for worsening depression…
Things to consider before assuming that the fish oil is a direct culprit for the worsening of your condition include: the quality, the omega-3 content, other medications/supplements/drugs that you use, as well as individual factors (e.g. lifestyle, allergies, genetics).
1. Quality of fish oil
Taking low quality fish oil can have a toxic effect on both your brain functioning. You should always strive to take the best fish oil supplement on the market, rather than settling for low quality stuff that you’ll find at a local convenience store. The fish oil you take should be laboratory tested for toxins (PCBs, dioxins, Mercury, etc.), purity, and accuracy of ingredients.
You should never take fish oil that smells fishy as this indicates the possibility of rancidity. Fish oil should be stored out of the sunlight and in a cool environment (e.g. the fridge). If you haven’t properly stored your fish oil, are taking low quality stuff, and haven’t done your research, you are setting yourself up to feel worse. There’s no way to tell if you reacted badly to the “fish oil” or the fact that it was poor quality (e.g. rancid).
2. Omega-3 fatty acid content
Many fish oils contain varying amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA). Some supplements contain slightly more EPA than DHA, while others are the opposite. Additionally some companies formulate fish oils that contain considerably more of one than the other, and others contain even ratios. Although many consider both DHA and EPA beneficial for brain health and mood, not everyone needs both.
Some people may find that DHA provides the most benefit, while others may conclude that EPA provides superior benefit. Certain formulations are available of 100% DHA and 100% EPA. Consider the amount of each of these omega-3s in your current supplement and realize that the ratio may be responsible for making your depression worse.
3. Other drugs, meds, supplements
If you are taking other drugs (e.g. marijuana, alcohol, etc.), pharmaceutical medications, and/or supplements while simultaneously taking fish oil, it’s difficult to specifically isolate the effect of fish oil. Always consider the fact that a worsening of depression (or anxiety) may be related to the side effects of the other substances that you’re using and/or an interaction that may have occurred between the particular substance and the fish oil.
Many people make the mistake of starting multiple supplements simultaneously, which makes it difficult to know whether: Supplement A or Supplement B is the actual culprit for feeling more depressed. If you’re taking fish oil as a standalone supplement, it will be much easier to conclude that the fish oil specifically worsened your condition rather than pinpointing blame on fish oil while taking a myriad of other substances.
Consider any recent changes to your lifestyle that may have contributed to a worsening of your depression. While fish oil may be the direct culprit, if you recently took up any new activity that affects your brain, that could be the cause as well. For example, if you started taking fish oil and meditating on the same day, you won’t truly be able to determine whether the fish oil or the meditation worsened depression and anxiety.
Additionally if you are under significant stress from work, are dealing with a tough relationship, or going through a drug withdrawal, these are all things that may negatively affect your brain and physiology. Always think about what’s going on in your life before assuming a dietary supplement is to blame.
How Fish Oil May Worsen Depression or Anxiety
People love backing a supplement that has shown clinical promise in treating depression. That said, many of those same people fail to understand that not everyone has a good experience. It is important to realize that just because fish oil helps you doesn’t mean that it’ll help your friend, neighbor, or colleague.
Perhaps the primary culprit for the worsening of your depression (or anxiety) as a result of fish oil supplementation is the neurotransmission of acetylcholine. Many researchers believe that supplementation of fish oil tends to increase extracellular levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in processing sensory information, recall memory, vigilance, and learning.
For individuals with abnormally low levels of acetylcholine, fish oil supplements will likely provide tremendous benefit. Chronically low levels of acetylcholine are associated with neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive deficits. However, among those who already have high levels of acetylcholine, (or in those who are sensitive to acetylcholine), fish oil may compound the existing problem.
Just a year ago, scientists discovered that when mice were given an SSRI, the drug increased levels of acetylcholinesterase (an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine). By increasing acetylcholinesterase, you’ll lower levels of acetylcholine. The scientists speculated that although serotonin increase may help depression, reducing high acetylcholine may also be responsible for some of the antidepressant effect from an SSRI.
If fish oil is elevating your acetylcholine levels and acetylcholinesterase levels are low (or staying the same), you may end up feeling more anxious (and/or depressed) as a result of the supplementation. Those who are sensitive to the effects of fish oil supplements may need to discontinue in hopes that acetylcholine levels naturally decrease.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12221201
Amines: These are chemicals that are formed in food during the breakdown of amino acids. The most common of food-derived amines is that of histamine, which can cause a variety of unwanted psychiatric symptoms including depression and anxiety. Some people with a sensitivity to salicylate have reported that they aren’t able to tolerate fish oil capsules. It is speculated that they may have an unfavorable reaction to the amines.
Brain activity: It is possible that fish oil enhances homeostatic functioning and changes regional activity within the brain after consistent supplementation. This means your brain may literally re-wire itself in response to the supplement that it’s receiving. In many cases people notice that their cognitive function is enhanced and their mood improves.
However, for others the alteration of regional blood flow may be detrimental to mood and possibly cognitive performance. It should also be hypothesized that brain waves and QEEG patterns may change with continued fish oil supplementation. Although most evidence would suggest that fish oil is highly beneficial in promotion of healthy brain activity, supplement-induced changes may not be optimal for everyone.
Neurotransmitters: It is also important to consider that the fish oil may be affecting levels of other neurotransmitters that could increase levels of depression and/or anxiety. In addition to the aforementioned acetylcholine, other neurotransmitters affected by fish oil include: serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate. Increasing levels of omega-3s may enhance the efficiency by which neurotransmitters are delivered and may elevate levels. Some believe that levels of norepinephrine may be lowered after consistent omega-3 supplementation, but this claim is unverified.
What to do if fish oil makes you depressed…
It makes zero sense to continue supplementing something that makes you feel worse each day. Whenever conducting a supplement trial, you should document your mood and cognition (with some sort of test or chart) pre-trial, and then compare it at various timed checkpoints to determine whether you’ve improved or declined in mood and/or performance. Another couple options you could test include: reduce the dosage and frequency by which you supplement the fish oil, and you could also switch to a formulation with different omega-3 contents.
Common sense would suggest that you discontinue from the fish oil if it’s clearly making you feel worse. If may take awhile for you to bounce back to feeling normal after you’ve discontinued the supplement. While the fish oil isn’t going to have a major withdrawal like most antidepressants, your brain may take awhile to readjust to lowering levels of certain neurotransmitters (e.g. acetylcholine) that the fish oil was increasing.
2. Cut back
A second option to consider if you believe that you stand to benefit from omega-3 fatty acids is to simply reduce the dosage that you’re currently taking. High amounts of fish oil are more likely to elicit more significant changes within the brain. More significant changes are likely to occur when the dosage of the fish oil supplement is higher. However, not everyone needs a the same high, recommended dose.
Assuming your fish oil is of good quality, you may simply want to scale back on the quantity that you take. Some people are highly sensitive to the fish oil’s effects and may not need as much as others. In addition to cutting back on the dosage, you could also cut back on the frequency by which you take the fish oil. Instead of supplementing daily, supplement once every few days or with reduced frequency.
3. Alter omega-3 ratios
Some rodent studies suggest that increasing levels of DHA (an omega-3 in fish oil) may be responsible for increasing acetylcholine. If you suspect that the increase in acetylcholine is responsible for your increased depression and/or anxiety, it may be worth testing out a different formulation of fish oil that contains less DHA. There are some companies that make pure EPA (which may be what you’d want to try if you’re more concerned about mood than cognition).
Before jumping to conclusions as to which omega-3 fatty acid is causing the problem, you may want to test each one on for a trial and determine whether you react better to EPA, DHA, or a certain ratio of the two. This is something that most people don’t try, but may eliminate the problem.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9408223
4. Consider L-Tyrosine
Although fish oil-induced depression hasn’t been thoroughly investigated in humans, if you buy into the theory that it may be a direct result of increased acetylcholine, you could possibly offset the effects by supplementing L-Tyrosine. In rodent studies, increasing levels of L-Tyrosine also increased acetylcholinesterase activity, thus helping break down more acetylcholine.
Assuming this has the same effect in humans, the L-Tyrosine would be increasing the amount of acetylcholinesterase, and you’d be lowering your acetylcholine. This may end up improving your mood assuming that it actually increases acetylcholinesterase in humans and that high acetylcholine was responsible for a worsening of your depression (or anxiety) while taking fish oil.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23046746
5. Adjustment Phase
When you start taking any drug or supplement, there may be a phase during which your brain begins adapting to its effects. This is why it takes some people several weeks (or months) before they feel a noticeable difference after they start a supplement. It can take awhile for your brain to accommodate and adapt to the changes.
During the adaptation phase, some individuals may feel temporarily worse, before feeling better. This is a common experience among those who take antidepressants, but lesser reported among those taking supplements. Certain people may want to give fish oil a long trial before automatically assuming that the endgame will result in deep feelings of depression and/or anxiety. It may be worth continuing to supplement with the thought that the cumulative long-term outcome will outweigh short-term discomfort.
Have you experienced a worsening of depression from fish oil?
When any supplement is considered helpful for improving mood, you’ll find many people who have success using it. Then you’ll find some people who can’t really tell if it’s making a difference, and others that swear it’s making them worse. It is important to keep in mind that just because this is a supplement (as opposed to a pharmaceutical drug) does not make it void of potential side effects and adverse reactions.
Many people with high levels of acetylcholine may find that fish oil supplementation makes them feel increasingly depressed, anxious, or moody. Should you experience a “worsening” of your current condition, you probably shouldn’t keep taking fish oil. Just like not everyone responds well to certain drugs, not everyone responds well to certain supplements.
If you noticed that you’ve felt considerably worse from taking fish oil, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Be sure to mention how you know it was from the fish oil and not from any other supplements and/or lifestyle changes that you had made at the time. Share what symptoms you experienced, brand of fish oil, and the levels of omega-3s if you can remember – as this will help others get a more accurate understanding of your situation.