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 (

"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 |


    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 |


    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:

    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.


  • 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.
    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.

Bet you can't fast

Bet you can't fast

People who continue to consume the world's most destructive grain, i.e., wheat, can rarely endure fasting--not eating for an extended period--except by mustering up monumental willpower. That's because wheat is a powerful appetite stimulant through its 2-hour cycle of exaggerated glycemia followed by a glucose low, along with its addictive exorphin effect. Wheat elimination is therefore an important first step towards allowing you to consider fasting.

Why fast? I regard fasting as among the most underappreciated and underutilized strategies for health.

In its purest form, fasting means eating nothing while maintaining hydration with water alone. (Inadequate hydration is the most common reason for failing, often experienced as nausea or lightheadedness.) You can fast for as briefly as 15 hours or as long as several weeks (though I tell people that any more than 5 days and supervision is required, as electrolyte distortions like dangerously low magnesium levels can develop).

Among its many physiological benefits, fasting can:

  • Reduce blood pressure. The blood pressure reducing effect can be so substantial that I usually have people hold some blood pressure medications, especially ACE inhibitors and ARB agents, during the fast since blood pressure will drop to normal even without the drugs. (A fascinating phenomenon all by itself.)

  • Reduce visceral fat, i.e., the fat that releases inflammatory mediators and generates resistance to insulin.

  • Reduce inflammatory measures

  • Reduce liver output of VLDL that cascades into reduced small LDL, improved HDL "architecture," and improved insulin responsiveness. (The opposite of fasting is "grazing," the ridiculous strategy advocated by many dietitians to control weight. Grazing, or eating small meals every two hours, is incredibly destructive for the opposite reason: flagrant provocation of VLDL production.)

  • Accelerate weight loss. One pound per day is typical.

Beyond this, fasting also achieves unique subjective benefits, including reduced appetite upon resumption of eating. You will find that as single boiled egg or a few slices of cucumber, for example, rapidly generate a feeling of fullness and satisfaction. Most people also experience greater appreciation of food--the sensory experience of eating is heightened and your sense of texture, flavors, sweetness, sourness, etc. are magnified.

After decades of the sense-deadening effects of processed foods--over-sugared, over-salted, reheated, dehydrated then just-add-water foods--fasting reawakens your appreciation for simple, real food. On breaking one of my fasts, I had a slice of green pepper. Despite its simplicity, it was a veritable feast of flavors and textures. Just a few more bites and I was full and satisfied.

Once you've fasted, I believe that you will see why it is often practiced as part of religious ritual. It has an almost spiritual effect.

More on fasting to come . . .

Comments (28) -

  • Soul

    5/26/2011 12:43:19 PM |

    Thought this interesting, talking about wheat, saw yesterday on the news that NBC is hosting "health week" this week.  It is sponsored by General Mills, if I remember correctly, with emphasis on the importance of eating whole wheat for good health.

  • Gene K

    5/26/2011 3:56:41 PM |

    1. Should I continue to take all my supplements and medications during fasting, e.g. Niacin, or does it depend?
    2. If upon fasting, satiety comes after eating a small amount of food, how do I make sure my nutrition is sufficient to maintain the muscle mass? How do you combine fasting and exercise?

  • Joe

    5/26/2011 4:52:26 PM |

    Gene, my guess is that you can't. Or shouldn't. But then you're probably not going to fast for more than a few days at most, so going without exercise for a few days is probably not going to cost you any muscle mass.

    I would also think it's probably okay to take your usual supplements, too.  Medicines may be a problem, depending on what they are.  People with serious health issues probably should avoid fasting altogether, unless under the close supervision of his or her doctor.

    I'm interested in hearing what Dr. Davis has to say regarding fasting.  Hurry up doc!


  • Kent

    5/26/2011 5:22:21 PM |

    Is it true that fasting can also improve LP(a)?

  • Steve Cooksey

    5/26/2011 8:27:45 PM |

    Agreed Dr. Davis.

    I am a big fan of intermittent fasting.... looking forward to more posts.

  • Rob O.

    5/26/2011 8:54:14 PM |

    I've had a similar experience to your post-fast feeling upon eating by doing a 2 or 3 day liquid-only diet that's heavy on water and includes a large protein shake each day.  It's as though you have to periodically remind the part of your brain that listens to the stomach what "full" means.

    Like the others, I'm very interested in what the doc has to say in the next article in this series!

  • Paul

    5/26/2011 9:28:09 PM |

    To what extent does a person with impaired adrenal and/or thyroid function need to be careful when fasting or low-carbing?

  • Mark. Gooley

    5/26/2011 10:24:13 PM |

    Type 1 diabetic for 40 years, and nowadays I eat about a thousand-calorie high-fat breakfast and a similar dinner.  I rarely eat lunch, and skipping breakfast (simply omit the pre-meal shot of insulin) as well is usually not a big deal any more: I do it occasionally.  Control of blood sugar is much easier now, and Hb A1c around 6 rather than over 10: still room for improvement.  When I was eating skimmed milk with Grape-Nuts or Uncle Sam (whole wheat flakes with whole flaxseed) for breakfast I would have blood sugars as high as 300 by mid-morning and a powerful hunger by lunchtime.  Whatever benefits fasting may have, I find it a lot easier now than it once was, and plan to try it more often, as I'm still overweight.

  • Gene K

    5/27/2011 3:07:21 AM |

    Is snacking on raw green vegetables between meals also considered grazing?

  • JLL

    5/27/2011 11:22:09 AM |

    I experimented with intermittent fasting (IF) for a little over a year. I first got interested in IF through calorie restriction (CR) -- there were a couple papers suggesting that you could extend lifespan through IF without the CR, which seemed like the perfect combination.

    These papers are still quoted on many blogs, but I doubt many have actually read them, since none of them actually show you can increase lifespan without restricting calories. See this post for a more detailed analysis:

    Anyhow, I still think there might be benefits for doing intermittent fasting -- though I've also seen some studies showing it might have negative effects as well -- and certainly it seems pretty good for weight loss. When I was on a high-fat, low-carb diet and fasting for 24 hours, then eating for 24 hours, I was the leanest I'd ever been. And that was without trying or counting calories:

    And one more shameless plug, some tips for those who have trouble going without food for 24 hours (or more):

    Personally, I never went for several days without food. I'm not sure it's needed for weight loss anyway, although it might have other health benefits.

    - JLL

  • Dr. William Davis

    5/27/2011 11:40:28 AM |

    Hi, Gene--

    Green vegetables have no discernible postprandial chylomicron/VLDL consequence and is the exception. I'd consider that safe "grazing."

    We usually hold niacin during a fast due to the fluid struggles, which can magnify the hot "flush." We usually continue the other supplements, however.

  • Dr. William Davis

    5/27/2011 11:41:49 AM |

    Hi, Paul--

    If not yet corrected, I don't think it would be a good time to fast, since you could feel pretty crumby during your fast.

    Fasting should be a positive experience, not something to endure. I'd wait until these issues are corrected.

  • Dr. William Davis

    5/27/2011 11:45:56 AM |

    Hi, JLL--

    Agreed. In fact, I believe that the greatest benefits of intermittent fasting are the subjective benefits of reawakened taste and appreciation of food, rather than the physiologic benefits. Nonetheless, it makes sense that, since atherosclerosis and arterial dysfunction are to a large degree postprandial phenomena, prolonged "no-prandial" periods might facilitate arterial health.

  • Carl N

    5/27/2011 1:26:16 PM |

    Is it possible that current wheat strains have been selected or genetically engineered to be addictive?

  • Steve O

    5/27/2011 4:36:54 PM |

    Today's Urban Dictionary Word of the Day: Carb Coma -- The sleepy feeling after eating a large meal comprised chiefly of carbohydrates, whether in the form of rice, noodles, bread or dough.  "Dude, I was totally dozing at the office after that giant serving of chow mein for lunch. Total carb coma."

  • Curtis

    5/27/2011 6:12:12 PM |

    I have been following Fast-5 for three years, and quickly got down to a healthy weight. I'm 58 years old and lost 25 lbs to get down to 160lb (5'-11''), and a reasonable BMI. I fast daily for 19 to 21 hours with absolutely no effort required - it is just the way I live now. During this whole time I have made no effort to restrict wheat in any way. I don't eat a lot of wheat and I don't eat it every day, but on the day after pigging out on pizza I have no trouble with my fasting. There's your black swan.

  • Might-o'chondri-AL

    5/28/2011 12:28:56 AM |

    Ketone metabolites from Beta oxidation of fatty acid, B-hydroxy-butyrate , increase when fasting;  these metabolites act on visceral fat receptor HM74A. The result is upregulation of the anti-inflammatory  molecule adiponectin;  it (adiponectin)  also keeps less glycerols  (think of tri-glyceride group).

    The increased adiponectin upshot is the white visceral adipose (not subcutaneous fat) does less lypo-lysis (fat cleaving) and there is a reduced level of free fatty acids going into circulation.  This relief, from excessive "freed" fatty acids ,  permits the response to insulin to improve (ie: sensitivity to insulin better) when go back to eating;  and the longer the fast went on for  the longer the boost of circulating adipinectins stays  around   than before.

    Low serum adiponectin levels are common in the obese, hyper-glycaemic,  diabetic;  individuals with  hyper-triglycerides, coronary artery disease (and often even the children of  hyper-tensives.  Metabolic syndrome tends to low adiponectin and concurrent high levesls of circulating triglycerides.

    The  actual anti-inflammatory action of adiponectin is a major  part of why the fast makes the body feel so much better;  the digestive  organ rest is given too much focus.   Many individuals report  " pain gone"  from diets  that favor more ketone derived energy
    production (like low carb,  calorie restriction &/or  ferments for gut bacteria) ;  because,  there too, the metabolite Beta hydroxy-butyrate is instigating more circulating adiponectin that  then stymies pro-inflammatory cytokines.

  • Dr. William Davis

    5/28/2011 3:08:20 PM |

    Hi, Might--

    You make a crucial point that, I believe, explains much of the benefits to fasting: via improvements in cytokine levels and tissue responsiveness, especially adiponectin.


  • Dr. William Davis

    5/28/2011 3:09:26 PM |

    Hi, Curtis--

    Exactly. There are going to be exceptions. However, I speak for the 80% or more people who do indeed have addictive and appetite-increasing relationships with wheat.

  • Shreela

    5/29/2011 6:08:03 AM |

    I wasn't able to fast when Dr. Davis started discussing it about 1-2 years ago. Most of my life, if I didn't "graze", I'd get hypoglycemic symptoms like my mother, and my paternal grandmother. My mother even got a note from my doctor that I had to have a sandwich before Jr high band practice, else I'd get headaches or light-headed - that's how long I've dealt with frequent hypoglycemia episodes.

    So I came up with my own personal mini-fast-challenge. I would only eat when an actual hypoglycemic symptom happened, ignoring the regular hunger pangs. Then when I ate, I avoided sugars, starch and wheat - I did have a bit of rice though. I'm guessing it was about 3-4 days before I could go 5-6 hours with no hypoglycemic symptoms, and about 10'ish days before I could go 12 waking hours with no calories (I draink tea with stevia).

    Looking back, both my parents' families ate lots of wheat: bread, biscuits, pasta, so that's probably what gave my paternal grandmother, mother, and then me our hypoglycemia. If I have a hypoglycemic symptom, I start my mini-fast-challenge again. I finally figured out my family's curse is wheat, so I avoid it except the occasional pasta dish.

  • Paul Lee

    5/30/2011 11:27:42 AM |

    I followed the "East Stop Eat" approach a while back, with good results. I agree with one poster that said best to skip the breakfast insulin surge. In fact I think the whole "three square meals" with grazing in between, needs to be challenged (perhaps one meal a day). My guess is that humans are designed to go days without food and have plenty of energy. Its an ability that needs to be regained. Also I gather fasting is good for HGH response, especially if combined with resistance training.

  • Matt Titus

    5/30/2011 4:34:48 PM |

    Dr. Davis, I have done intermittent fasting for a long long, I have lost count but I think that it has been 4 years. I do my version on a daily basis so it I am not as strict as someone who does this occasionally. Now that being said, my final meal of the day is the meal that I begin my fast so I keep it as nutritious and ketogenic as possible. So, I eat my final meal at around 7:00 P.M. I don't eat again until 3:00 P.M. the following day. Eating is such a treat and I eat very tasty low carb food when I break my fast. I will have my morning coffee with heavy whipping cream and MCT oil. Or I will have a glass of water with MCT oil. I take my vitamin D at this time of day because it wards off any allergy bugs lurking in the air. This summer I would like to lose 10 lbs so I will just kick up my fasting method in intensify my diet by keeping it balanced between protein and fats.

    I am not athletic in the least but I find that being active is not hindered during fasting. I strongly believe that we should not need to eat before exercise. Nor should we need to eat immediately after exercise.

  • Mary Titus

    5/30/2011 4:38:17 PM |

    Sorry, I just noticed that post came up under my husband's name. That post on fasting should come up under my name Mary...I am the one playing flute.

  • Mary Titus

    5/31/2011 4:27:54 AM |

    Yes, I do agree with you . I read about HGH becoming activated through a combination of fasting and resistance training.

  • bbtri

    6/6/2011 1:17:06 AM |

    18 hour fasts are easy, 24 hour fasts are hard, but once I break the 24 hour barrier, another 12-16 hours isn't bad.  My diet isn't wheat heavy, but I certainly don't avoid it.  What works for me is moderate physical activity, which gets me over the hump.  The hump may be the switchover from carb burning to fat burning, which moderate activity of a couple hours duration trains the body to do.

  • Whoosh

    6/9/2011 6:36:41 PM |

    I was quite sold on IF but keep finding conflicting findings, any comments on this ?

  • M R

    6/29/2011 9:22:19 PM |

    Dr. Davis,
    Please refer me to your source of  "wheat is destructive".  I have eaten Shredded Wheat breakfast cereal every day for 25 years.  It is the only breakfast cereal I am not allergic/sensitive to.  After eating it for breakfast, it fills me up and I do not eat again for 6 hours.  I understand about wheat products raising a person's glycemic index, but I have read that the fiber in Shredded Wheat takes so long to digest that it actually controls a person's blood sugar all day.
    I am a healthy, near ideal-weight 50 year-old female.  My experience finds this statement to be false: "wheat is a powerful appetite stimulant through its 2-hour cycle of exaggerated glycemia followed by a glucose low, along with its addictive exorphin effect".
    Thank you for your time.