Fish oil makes you happy: Psychological distress and omega-3 index

For another perspective on omega-3 blood levels, here's an interesting study in northern Quebec Inuits.

Traditionally, Inuits consumed large quantities of omega-3-rich seal, fish, caribou, and whale, even eating the fat. However, like the rest of the world, modern Inuits have increased consumption of store-bought foods, largely processed carbohydrates. Along with this trend has emerged more heart disease, diabetes, and depression.

A group from Laval University and University of Guelph, both in Canada, examined the relationship of plasma EPA + DHA levels and measures of psychological distress. This group had previously shown that Inuits older than 50 years had twice the plasma omega-3 levels (11.5%) compared to those younger than 50 years (6.5%), reflecting the shift away from the traditional diet.

Psychological distress was measured with The Psychological Distress Index Santé-Québec Survey (PDISQS-14): the higher the score, the greater the psychological distress. (In the graphs, tertile 1 is least distressed; tertile 5 is most distressed. Sorry about the small chart graphic--click on the graphic to make it bigger.)


From Lucas M et al 2009 (http://www.nutrasource.ca/NDI/Assets/Articles/Plasma%20omega-3%20and%20psychological%20distress%20among%20Nunavik%20Inuit.pdf)

"Our main finding was that women in the second and third tertiles of EPA+DHA concentrations in plasma PLs [phospholipids] had a 3 times lower risk of having a high-level PD [psychological distress] score than women in the lowest tertile."

While the relationship is stronger for women, you can see that, the higher the EPA + DHA plasma level, the lower the likelihood of psychological distress. Interestingly, the tertile with the greatest distress and lowest EPA + DHA levels had a plasma level of 7.0-7.5%--far higher than average Americans.

(Plasma levels of EPA + DHA were used in this study, which tend to reflect more recent omega-3 intake than the more stable and slower-to-change RBC Omega-3 Index that we use. Plasma levels also tend to run about 10-20% lower than RBC levels.)

Of course, there's more to psychological distress than omega-3 blood levels. After all, eating fish or taking fish oil capsules won't make money worries go away or heal an unhappy marriage. But it is one variable that can be easily and safely remedied.

Comments (24) -

  • Boris

    10/30/2009 1:31:07 PM |

    I think your are on to something, Dr. David. Every winter I get sad and depressed. After starting my omega-3 supplements, I noticed that I started feeling "better". I know that's very subjective. We set our clocks backwards 1 hour in a few days. I guess I will get a chance to test the "happy factor" of fish oil soon!

  • Rob McVey

    10/30/2009 2:14:08 PM |

    FYI, Laval is in Quebec, but Guelph is in Ontario (albeit both Canada). Perhaps you'd edit the post.
      --  Rob McVey, Markham, Ont.

  • Haggus

    10/30/2009 3:02:22 PM |

    Just to make it clear, the Univesity of Guelph is located in Ontario.

  • Jim Purdy

    10/30/2009 3:25:04 PM |

    I live in a high-rise apartment building where many of the residents are grouchy old ladies.

    Should I sneak fish oil into their food?

    Or should I move into a building with lots of happy old Inuits?

  • Deb

    10/30/2009 3:27:52 PM |

    I always enjoy and learn so much from you blog. Thank you.
    I have tried taking omega 3 fish oil capsules but they give me acid stomach and fish burps. Any solution to these problems? I have tried the enteric coated ones too.

  • William Trumbower

    10/30/2009 4:13:28 PM |

    I am not surprised at this data.  When I began taking adequate fish oil (7gm EPA+DHA) I noticed an improved mood, memory, and ability to organize my activities.

  • Dr. William Davis

    10/30/2009 5:00:07 PM |

    Rob and Haggus--

    Thanks for the correction.

  • Dr. William Davis

    10/30/2009 5:00:37 PM |

    Hi, Jim--

    Perhaps throw a fish oil party for the ladies!

  • Boris

    10/30/2009 6:13:55 PM |

    Deb,

    You are experiencing the effects of "cheap" fish oil that has a lot of other stuff in it besides Omega-3. I tried Walmart's Nature Made stuff and it made me feel sick. Now I am take Omapure 4x a day (one capsule each time) and I do not feel the same "fishy" burps.

  • Rich S

    10/30/2009 6:48:34 PM |

    Deb-

    Try lemon-flavored liquid form of EPA/DHA. Go with a high quality brand like Carlson, which a lot of us use.

    One tsp gives you 800EPA+500DHA (1300 total), and it actually tastes pretty good (it's not cod-liver oil).

    Buy it online, such as from i-Herb as an example:

    http://www.iherb.com/The-Very-Finest-Fish-Oil-Lemon-Flavor-16-8-fl-oz-500-ml/2796?at=0

    You won't have to swallow all those softgels, which used to bother me.  Also, a good quality distilled fish oil should not cause gastro distress, etc.

    Rich

  • Nameless

    10/30/2009 7:24:58 PM |

    They have done Omega 3 depression studies. I believe they found EPA more important than DHA for improving depression scores. A lot of the 'mood' fish oil supplements tend to be EPA heavy too.

    I think they theorize that EPA helps the brain function, while DHA is primarily for structure (hence why it's important for children/babies).

  • Anonymous

    10/30/2009 8:32:51 PM |

    I think this is an important study, but I have to wonder if low omega-3 might also indicate difficult in fiding adequate food, which would clearly be stressful.  It's a chicken and egg argument so to speak.  Without verying that total nutrition other than omega-3 was adequate, I'm no sure a real conclusion can be made.

  • JD

    10/30/2009 10:37:58 PM |

    The question would be is it the Omega 3's or the fact that those who eat carbs get more depressed?

  • AuntWie

    10/31/2009 4:36:55 AM |

    I've battled depression on and off for most of my life.  Meds help.  Fish oil and lots of vitamin D help even more.  I increase my intake of both whenever my exposure to sunlight is limited (including when the summer heat keeps me indoors a lot.)

  • Anonymous

    10/31/2009 11:41:10 AM |

    So what would be the typical EPA+DHA daily dose (not the oil) to reach these heights of happiness...or plasma levels?

  • Dr Matti Tolonen

    10/31/2009 12:20:06 PM |

    Another recent report from Laval University suggests that highly purified ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid (E-EPA) may relieve psychological distress in middle-aged women.
    The daily dosage was about 1gram.
    http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/89/2/641
    E-EPA is a very popular omega-3 supplement in Europe and Japan.

  • Dr. William Davis

    10/31/2009 1:32:40 PM |

    In response to several comments--

    Taken in the context of other studies, this study simply adds to the notion that omega-3 intake is associated with mood status.

    While omega-3 plasma levels may also serve as a surrogate for other phenomena, such as vitamin D intake (also rich in fish, though not fish oil), the experience as a whole do indeed show a strong relationship between omega-3 levels and depression/mood/"psychological distress."

  • Red Sphynx

    11/1/2009 2:24:01 PM |

    I'm skeptical of this study.  Look, I expect that, eventually, research will show a strong relationship between mood and LC ω-3.  But this study ain't it.

    First off, this is an observational study.  When observational studies turn up order-of-magnitude differences, they point to cause-and-effect relationships.  But when they turn up relationships that barely pass the statistical significance test (p ~ .05) they are more likely measuring the shared influence of some other cause.

    And what might this cause be?  Well, the authors point out (a) seafood consumption varies upwards with wealth and income.  (b) Happiness varies upwards with wealth and income. (c) They really would have liked to have controlled for wealth and income but they couldn't because the Inuits wouldn't fill out the wealth and income portion of the questionnaire.  

    So their study was underpowered to measure one of the most obvious non-physiological explanations of the (weak) correlation they found.

    This study would have us believe (a) Inuits have much higher ω-3 levels that other Quebec citizens.  (b) The suicide rate among Inuit in 1987–1994 was 6.5 times higher than in the rest of Québec, and the rate in the younger age group (15–
    24 years) was 20 times higher. (!!) (c) ω-3 is associated with better mood.

    Something is pretty discordant there.

    I'll wait for an intervention study.

  • Dr. William Davis

    11/1/2009 9:38:06 PM |

    Hi, Red-

    That's right.

    This study, taken in isolation, proves nothing. It only adds to the other observations that suggest that omega-3 may exert an effect on ADHD, bipolar illness, depression, etc.

    The fact that there appears to be concordance across different populations, though with differing frequencies of depession, is the argument of importance.

  • Dr. William Davis

    11/1/2009 9:38:13 PM |

    Hi, Red-

    That's right.

    This study, taken in isolation, proves nothing. It only adds to the other observations that suggest that omega-3 may exert an effect on ADHD, bipolar illness, depression, etc.

    The fact that there appears to be concordance across different populations, though with differing frequencies of depession, is the argument of importance.

  • Razwell

    1/26/2010 6:40:33 PM |

    Fish oil makes me depressed and nauseous and tired . I do not  know what all the fuss is about.

    I use a supposedly good type too, Carlson's.

  • buy jeans

    11/3/2010 10:03:25 PM |

    A group from Laval University and University of Guelph, both in Canada, examined the relationship of plasma EPA + DHA levels and measures of psychological distress. This group had previously shown that Inuits older than 50 years had twice the plasma omega-3 levels (11.5%) compared to those younger than 50 years (6.5%), reflecting the shift away from the traditional diet.

  • Lisa

    5/16/2011 9:13:39 AM |

    Omega-3 is geally great. Improves memory , I'm loosing pounds and I don't feel hungry or depressed (and when I'm depressed I eat soooo much!).  I prefer flax oil of flax seed as a sourse of omega-3.  My body seems to reject fish oil and I think it's not for nothing. The mercury pollution won't do any good.

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Scare tactics

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"I can't be responsible for what happens to you."

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