Is Omega-3 the silver bullet of supplementation?
It’s potential effects are vast, from improving cholesterol numbers, reducing the risk of developing diabetes, reducing inflammation, preventing renal disease, assisting in weight loss, increasing muscle growth, reducing stress, improving cognition, and boosting mood.1
But don’t let the hype confuse you. There are conflicting studies (a lot of them, actually); they just don’t get the same level of media attention. Omega-3 doesn’t improve heart health? Boring.
On balance; however, there are more studies which report positive change than those that report null or negative change.1
If you are interested in investigating one of the potential benefits besides mood, you can find an overview of the relevant studies at examine.com’s page on fish oil.
Let’s talk about mood.
Can taking omega-3 make you happier?
To answer that question, we’re going to look at three sub-questions:
- Does omega-3 supplementation treat depression?
- If omega-3 does improve the mood of the depressed, can those results be generalized to ‘normal’ people?
- Does omega-3 supplementation reduce stress?
Does omega-3 supplementation treat depression?
Sort of. There are more than a dozen studies which show positive results, and almost a dozen which show no result.2
The authors of Marine omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders – linking the sea and the soul, a 2011 review of over 100 relevant studies speculate two main results for the inconsistency:
- Rather than hounding some of the studies as products of bad science, the authors point out that there was no common testing protocol – the studies tested different preparations and doses of omega-3 on different demographics. The true reality is likely to be highly complex, with different people responding to different preparation/dose combinations.
- Omega-3 supplementation is likely of most benefit to those with a deficiency. Unfortunately, accurately detecting that deficiency is not easy. There are almost as many studies which show that blood levels of omega-3 (which a doctor order blood test would measure) can not predict depression and bipolar disorder as those than can. However; post-mortem dissections of the brains of the depressed can predict omega-3 deficiency and depression. I don’t suppose you want to be dissected?
To put numbers to the uncertainty, the authors suggest that 5%-10% of depressed individuals seem to have a ‘true/severe’ omega-3 deficiency, which when treated improves their mood.
So what about for ‘normal’ people?
The science seems grim – it seems clear that the largest benefits go to those with a ‘true/severe’ deficiency, and that there are not many like that.2
Studies which examine healthy humans have so far turned up less than spectacular results. For example, one study of 90 healthy children over a 2-month period of supplementation found no significant effect on mood or cognitive performance.3 Another study of 33 health adults found an increase of 5% across mood states like anxiety and vigor, but given the small study and effect size, the results are only slightly encouraging.4
At this point I must admit to being a bit sad. The allure of a pill which can cheaply, safely, and easily boost mood is huge. I myself eat eggs and omega-3 fortified gummy bears every day, precisely because the media had me convinced of its cognitive and mood benefits.
Nevertheless, there are still four reasons to consider supplementation: its stress reducing effects, its safety, its low cost, and its other potential benefits.
Omega-3 vaporizes stress.
Ah, if only that were true. But it does help.
Students taking tests, subjects that were shocked, and even healthy non-stressed people have had their norepinephrine levels (a stress hormone) reduced by taking omega-3 supplements.1
Omega-3 is extremely safe.
I’m sure I missed something – but from my review of the literature, dozens of studies turned up zero negative effects on health; while just one provided a cautionary tale.
This study suggests that high omega-3 levels increases the risk of men developing aggressive prostate cancer by two-and-half times. Still, quoting one of the authors of the study, “the beneficial effects of eating fish to prevent heart disease outweigh any harm related to prostate cancer risk.”5
Give how cheap and safe fish oil supplements are (anywhere from $0.20 to $0.50 a day), although they may not directly make you happier, they will improve your heart health and prevent you from having a heart attack.
I’m going to continue consuming eggs, omega-3 fortified gummy bears, and fish oil supplements, even if they don’t boost my mood.
So what if I lose my prostate? I think my heart is a bit more important.
- Kennedy, D. O., Jackson, P. A., Elliott, J. M., Scholey, A. B., Robertson, B. C., Greer, J., & … Haskell, C. F. (2009). Cognitive and mood effects of 8 weeks’ supplementation with 400 mg or 1000 mg of the omega-3 essential fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in healthy children aged 10–12 years. Nutritional
- Fontani, G. G., Corradeschi, F. F., Felici, A. A., Alfatti, F. F., Bugarini, R. R., Fiaschi, A. I., & … Berra, B. B. (2005). Blood profiles, body fat and mood state in healthy subjects on different diets supplemented with Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. European Journal Of Clinical Investigation, 35(8), 499-507.