Omega-3 Fatty Acids

While fat has become a bad word in our society, a particular type of fat is so essential, our body’s cells can literally collapse without it. Fish oil – with its singular component omega-3 fatty acids, and in conjunction with other types of fat in the membranes that surround the cells – literally control cell behavior.

Fish oils are made up of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), critical in heart function, and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), critical in brain function. These oils are found in fatty fish that include salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, as well as in supplements in gelcap form. Both DHA and EPA affect calcium, sodium, and potassium ion channels that regulate cellular electrical activity in the heart and the brain.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been well established in improving nerve conduction. They are well on their way to being recognized as effective in the management of depression by regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Studies have shown a correlation between low levels of omega-3s and depression. Trials using omega-3s are showing promising results in the use of this supplement as a treatment for depression.

For example, in 2002 a study was conducted in England with 60 men and women suffering from treatment-resistant depression (depression that did not respond to conventional medications). Those taking 1 gram of EPA a day showed significantly greater improvement on depression-measuring scales than did the placebo group.

Another study, this one led by a researcher at Harvard Medical School, examined 30 patients with bipolar disorder. The group that took 9.6 grams of omega-3 acids daily (EPA and DHA) showed significant symptom reduction and a better outcome when compared to placebo [olive oil] alone. The study’s conclusion: The omega-3 fatty acids were well tolerated, and they improved the short-term course of illness.

The typical American diet is high in omega-6 compared to omega-3, prompting experts to recommend at least three servings of fish a week to maintain a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6 oils (corn, soybean, etc.) can generate an inflammatory reaction, omega-3 oils found in cold-water fish work by subduing inflammation. This is why the omega-3 oils are often used to alleviate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and Crohn’s disease. The human body can also manufacture omega-3s from walnuts and flaxseed.

When purchasing an over-the-counter omega-3 product, pay most attention to the fish oil content per capsule from a dosing perspective. Taking 2000mg of fish oil per day is recommended. For example, if a product contains 600mg of fish oil per capsule, two or three capsules per day should be taken.
There is some anecdotal evidence surfacing which suggests that omega-3s may be effective in the treatment of distractibility and inattentiveness associated with ADHD. Although efficacy is far from established in this regard, dosing recommendations for ADHD-diagnosed youth are between 500mg-1000mg of fish oil content per day.

Joseph Wegmann, R.Ph., LCSW is a licensed clinical pharmacist and a clinical social worker with more than thirty years of experience in the field of psychopharmacology. His diverse professional background in psychopharmacology and counseling affords him a unique perspective on medication management issues. In addition to consulting with numerous psychiatric facilities, he has presented psychopharmacology seminars to thousands of clinicians in 46 states.

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