Brian Dean, MS, RD – Brain Blogger Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Omega-3s and Depression – Treatment Miracle or Fishy Connection? Wed, 13 Oct 2010 12:00:06 +0000 A new study investigating the effects of fish oil on depression has helped cement omega-3 fats as one of the most effective natural approaches to depression. A new research study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry was one of the first to put fish oil’s potential depression-battling benefits through the rigor of a randomized control trial. If these results are repeated in future studies, it could provide relief to the twenty one million adults who struggle with depression and side effect laden antidepressant medications.

Fish oil is one of the most popular supplements in the world due to its incredible breadth of health benefits –including brain health.  However, until recently, fish oil has been largely ignored by the medical community as a legitimate treatment for depression. As François Lespérance, MD, the author of the new study states about the current state of depression treatments,” Many alternative treatments have not been adequately evaluated. That is why it was important to assess the efficacy of omega-3, one of the most popular alternative approaches.”

In this study, a group of people experiencing serious bouts of depression were given a high-potency fish oil supplement or a placebo for eight weeks. They found that the fish oil improved depression about 30% more than the placebo –beating the effectiveness of prescription Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac.

Why have omega 3’s been overlooked in favor of prescription drugs? It appears that it has less to do with a conspiracy cooked up by the pharmaceutical industry than the simple fact that until very recently, there was little science backing the omega 3-depression connection. Most of the research into omega 3 fats and depression were population-wide studies that weren’t able to eliminate the possibility of confounding variables mucking up the results. For example, a Finnish study found a potential, but inconclusive, link between fish intake and depression in a group of 5000 men.

However, the connection was promising enough for scientists to start ramping up high quality intervention trials. While this month’s study was one of the best in terms of quality, it wasn’t the first. A 2003 placebo-controlled trial found that two months of fish oil supplementation improved depressive symptoms.

How do omega-3s lift mood? Scientists think that omega 3s alter the brain’s cell membranes, making them more fluid and permeable (interestingly, it’s the same cell permeability that allows fish to avoid freezing in frigid waters, hence their high omega-3 content). Biochemically, omega-3 fats make brain cells more likely to accept serotonin –a neurotransmitter that’s known to combat depression. In fact, many studies have found that eating lots of omega-3s increase serotonin levels in the brain.

But these results don’t have every psychiatrist prescribing trips to the GNC for their depressed patients. Many remain skeptical that fish oil really works. Even though some studies show incredible promise for omega-3s and depression, others, like a 2004 study published in The Journal of Psychiatry which found no association between omega-3 intake a depression in a group of nearly 30,000 men make many health professionals wonder if omega-3s are the real deal.

Could omega-3s one day replace the Prozacs and Zolofts of the world? It looks like the jury is going to remain out on this issue until more conclusive results from randomized control trials start rolling in.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s wise to avoid fish oil in the meantime. Because fish oil has proven cardiovascular health benefits, most health bodies, like the American Heart Association, recommend eating fish at least twice per week. If you’re feeling depressed, a popping a few fish oil capsules surely isn’t going to hurt you, and if recent research results hold true, it might make a serious dent in your mood.


Lespérance F, Frasure-Smith N, St-André E, Turecki G, Lespérance P, & Wisniewski SR (2010). The efficacy of omega-3 supplementation for major depression: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of clinical psychiatry PMID: 20584525

Hakkarainen R, Partonen T, Haukka J, Virtamo J, Albanes D, & Lönnqvist J (2004). Is low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids associated with depression? The American journal of psychiatry, 161 (3), 567-9 PMID: 14992986

Logan AC (2004). Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: a primer for the mental health professional. Lipids in health and disease, 3 PMID: 15535884

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Can a Tan Stave Off Dementia? Vitamin D and Cognitive Decline Mon, 04 Oct 2010 12:00:06 +0000 With Alzheimer’s disease affecting 5 million Americans — a rate that the Alzheimer’s Association warns is ballooning — public health experts are scrambling for cost-effective ways to combat this deadly disease. While Alzheimer’s medications remain expensive and largely ineffective in preventing or halting disease progression, an unexpected potential weapon has recently emerged. Research published in the The Archives of Internal Medicine found a strong predictive link between circulating levels of vitamin D and cognitive function in the elderly.

Researchers at Peninsula Medical School measured changes in vitamin D status and cognitive function over an 8 year span in a group of older Italian adults. The researchers divided the volunteers into two groups — one vitamin D deficient and another with adequate vitamin D levels.  Vitamin D levels were linked to scores on a cognition test. They found that those with the lowest levels of vitamin D had a 60% greater risk of experiencing “substantial cognitive decline” than those with exceptional vitamin D levels.

These results mirror data from The American Journal of Geriatric Psychology, which found low vitamin D levels were associated with low mood and poor performance on a battery of cognitive tests. Considering that an estimated 1 billion are vitamin D deficient worldwide, these results have potential wide-reaching implications for our aging world. Alzheimer’s already burdens the cash-strapped US health care system, and with Alzheimer’s cases expected to grow to 16 million by 2050, the results of this study couldn’t have come at a more important time. A patient with dementia costs nearly three times the amount in Medicare costs than a similar patient without it.

Vitamin D has a number advantages over the current battery of Alzheimer’s treatments currently available. Firstly, it is cheap. Vitamin D from the sun is the only free supplement available, and even vitamin D capsules are merely pennies per dose. Compare this with prescription Alzhemier’s drugs, which cost upwards of $200 per month, and may not work as well. Most importantly, vitamin D is one of the only natural approaches scientists think have the power to stop Alzheimer’s before it starts. Dollars and cents aside, if taking a highly tolerated supplement like vitamin D can help turn the tide of epidemic-level Alzheimer’s, it could improve the quality of life for millions of seniors around the world.

What does vitamin D — a vitamin widely considered a bone builder — have anything to do with our brains? Scientists are still working on this question, but they postulate that vitamin D may improve blood flow to the brain and clear out toxic build up. Does this mean that preventing, or even better, reversing Alzheimer’s is as simple as getting a tan? Before heading to the nearest beach or tanning booth, remember the link between vitamin D and Alzheimer’s disease is still in its infancy.

There are still many crucial questions that need to be answered before vitamin D can be considered as a practical Alzheimer’s treatment. Until we know the answers to how much vitamin D is needed for prevention or treatment, how do vitamin D and Alzheimer’s interact, and how effective is vitamin D compared to already-available options, vitamin D remains an exciting, but unproven, anti-Alzheimer’s agent. For example, this study only compared the highest vitamin D levels with the lowest. We still do not know what effect vitamin D levels between the two extremes will have on Alzheimer’s risk. Also, no intervention study — a study that gives vitamin D as a treatment — has yet to take place.

On the other hand, vitamin D has been shown to help with a number of other health problems, like diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease. This study just adds another reason to get your vitamin D. To protect your brain, and the rest of your body, continue to follow the current recommendations from vitamin D experts — 1,000 to 5,000 international units (IUs) per day.


Alzheimer’s Association (2010). 2010 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Alzheimer’s & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, 6 (2), 158-94 PMID: 20298981

Llewellyn DJ, Lang IA, Langa KM, Muniz-Terrera G, Phillips CL, Cherubini A, Ferrucci L, & Melzer D (2010). Vitamin D and risk of cognitive decline in elderly persons. Archives of internal medicine, 170 (13), 1135-41 PMID: 20625021

Wilkins CH, Sheline YI, Roe CM, Birge SJ, & Morris JC (2006). Vitamin D deficiency is associated with low mood and worse cognitive performance in older adults. The American journal of geriatric psychiatry: official journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, 14 (12), 1032-40 PMID: 17138809

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