We know that omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish such as salmon can help protect against chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Now, recent research from Ohio State University designed to test these fatty acids’ effect on inflammation has shown they can calm nerves too. This news—that help for overwhelming fearfulness may be as close as the fridge—should be a great comfort to the 40 million American adults
who suffer from anxiety and anxiety-related disorders.
“We quickly make the connection between what we eat and our physical health but not as often associate diet with mental health,” says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness and Eat Your Way to Sexy. However, she says, the link between food and mood is very strong. “Cognition, depression,and anxiety are all connected to what we eat. This makes sense. The brain is made up of 60% fat. Essential fatty acids such as the omega-3 fatty acids are integral components of this fat. Health problems can develop because we need to eat five to 10 times more of this type of fat than we do now in the typical American diet.”
Two types of fatty acids—omega-3s and omega-6s—are considered essential because our bodies can’t make them. Sources of omega-6s, which are found abundantly in the American diet, include meat, poultry, nuts, and most vegetable oils such as soybean, sunflower, and corn. The typical diet generally lacks omega-3s because some of the best sources—herring, sardines, Spanish mackerel,salmon, halibut, swordfish, green-lipped mussels,tuna, and tilefish—aren’t foods Americans eat on a regular basis. In fact, the typical American diet contains as many as 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. In reality, and for optimal health, this ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s should be only four to one.
Two omega-3 fatty acids important for brain function are EPA and DHA.
“DHA is the most concentrated of these two omega-3 fatty acids in the brain,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York and author of The Happiness Diet. “It makes up over 30% of the brain’s cell membranes and enables proper communication between nerve cells. DHA also helps to promote BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor]. BDNR is a protein that has been called ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain’ because it can promote neurogenesis [nerve cell growth] in areas such as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and mood and can play a role in anxiety.”
In the Ohio State study,medical students who took a supplement of 2.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids (both DHA and EPA) were tested by psychological surveys and compared with a placebo group that did not take the fish oil. The study revealed that they experienced a 20% reduction in anxiety compared with those who didn’t take the supplement.
“What really encouraged us about these findings was that if young people could get this type of benefit from a dietary supplement, then perhaps people at high risk for certain types of diseases may benefit even more,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD,a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and the study’s lead author.
Is a supplement or food the best way to get enough omega-3s? The answer is a combination of the two.
“A daily dose of 250 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids has been suggested to help protect against cardiovascular disease, but for mental health, it’s more like 1 to 2 grams or more,” Ramsey says. “That’s why I suggest my patients take a daily liquid supplement that contains 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids in combination with vitamin D. A vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression.”
Somer recommends increasing omega-3 consumption through foods as well. “I suggest eating salmon two to three times per week. Bake, broil, or poach it. If butter or oil is used, this can negate the benefit of the omega-3s by increasing the amount of omega-6 fats in the dish. Wildcaught salmon from Alaska is the most sustainable choice,” she says.
Don’t like fish? There are a number of DHA-fortified foods,such as Silk soymilk, Golden Circle Farms eggs, Mission Foods’ Life Balance tortillas, and Francesco Rinaldi’s ToBe Healthy pasta sauces.
Finally, omega-3 fatty acids don’t act alone when it comes to improving health. “You can’t just add omega-3s to your diet and then turn around and eat a double cheeseburger,” Somer says. “Instead, it’s important to incorporate omega-3s in a diet based around lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Then, make sure to eat breakfast each day. I recommend a ménage à trois of whole grains, protein,and fruit. Also, drink enough water. One of the first symptoms of dehydration is fatigue and feeling gloomy. Eat this way at least 75% of the time, and you’ll feel an improvement in your mood and mental outlook. What’s more, there are no harmful side effects to a healthful diet.”