Omega-3 fatty acids linked to decreased bipolar disorder symptoms


Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are commonly found in fish oil, fish and flaxseed, and these fatty acids have been clinically proven to lower cholesterol — specifically LDL cholesterol, which is more commonly known as the “bad” cholesterol. Omega-3 fatty acids are known as essential acids because the body does not make them naturally and, therefore, they are essential to our diet.

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA primarily are obtained through fish, whereas ALA is obtained through nuts, flaxseed, oils, leafy vegetables and even grass-fed meat, and is actually the most common omega-3 fatty acid in the Western diet. These important omegas are not only known to prevent cardiovascular disease but recent research has revealed that they may also reduce symptoms associated with bipolar disorder — one of the most common mood disorders.

Efficacy for decreasing bipolar symptoms confirmed

Bipolar disorder is defined as a period of intense depression that alternates with periods of excessively elated mood (known as mania) for at least a one-week duration. Manic episodes are characterized by racing thoughts, ideas of grandiosity, decreased sleep, distractibility, pressured speech and engaging in activities that have a high potential for negative consequences. Mood stabilizers such as lithium have been the treatment of choice for this mood disorder. There is a very fine line between stabilizing someone and throwing them into a deep depressive or manic episode and, therefore, lithium levels must be monitored by a physician.

A study published in Psychiatric Times showed the direct correlation between the intake of omega-3 fatty acids and the decrease in bipolar symptoms. Researchers compared a group of patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder who were not taking any medication with a group of patients who were on mood stabilizers. They further divided the group of patients on mood stabilizers into those treated with omega-3 fatty acids in addition to mood stabilizers and those treated only with mood stabilizers. The group that was treated with omega-3 fatty acids and mood stabilizers combined showed a longer period of symptom remission compared with the other groups, confirming the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids and their role in decreasing bipolar symptoms.

This study went on to explain that, although omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for patients with bipolar disorder, they should not be used alone as first-line agents. Rather, they should be used in addition to mood stabilizers. The only time they should be considered to be used as a monotherapy agent is if the patient has an extremely mild form of bipolar disorder in which treatment with mood stabilizers may not be necessary. Omega-3 fatty acids have limited side effects that include gastrointestinal upset and loose stools.

Physical and mental health benefits

This study was performed because autopsy reports have shown that bipolar patients have lower levels of DHA than the general population; additionally, people who ate more fish were less likely to develop bipolar disease. “Free fatty acids are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, while fatty acids bound to proteins are not. In study subjects with bipolar disorder, the ratio of a free-circulating omega-3 fatty acid called EPA to bound EPA was lower than in other people. … Omega-3 fatty acids are a large component of brain-cell membranes and are important for cell-to-cell communication in the brain. In the study, the ratio of free to bound EPA correlated with clinical bipolar symptoms, specifically mania and tendency towards suicide,” according to a study in Science Daily.

Omega-3 fatty acids have many beneficial effects and, from the studies shown, it is beneficial to consume fish daily in your diet if possible to reduce cardiovascular risk factors as well as potentially prevent bipolar disorder.

White River Academy recognizes that multiple factors, including proper nutrition, go into an individual’s mental and physical health. That is why serving nutritious meals to our students is the No. 1 priority with our kitchen staff. We offer a multi-faceted approach to treating bipolar disorder and other mental health problems at our therapeutic boarding school for boys. To learn more or to speak to a member of our team, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast.

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