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Depression, Mood & Stress

Health News: 22.Oct.2002

Fish fatty acid, EPA, may relieve stubborn depression

Supplementation with Eicosapentaeonic acid, or EPA, an Omega-3-fatty acid, found in fish and fish oil, may help alleviate the symptoms of depression in patients who do not respond to standard antidepressant medications, new research findings suggest.

Dr Malcolm Peet of the Swallownest Court Hospital in Sheffield, England and his colleague Dr David Horrobin of Laxdale Research Ltd, in Stirling, Scotland, found that depressed patients who received a daily dose of 1 gram of an omega-3 fatty acid for 12 weeks experienced a decrease in their symptoms, such as sadness, anxiety and sleeping problems. The only side effect of the treatment appeared to be mild gastrointestinal problems.

All of the patie tried other medications before enrolling in the current study, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and medications from an older family of drugs called tricyclic antidepressants. Both types of drug are considered standard treatments for depression.

This is not the first study to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids, such as the form of eicosapenaenoic acid (EPA) used in this report, may help patients with psychiatric disorders. Previous researchers have suggested that the balance of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain may become skewed in people with depression, and earlier studies have shown that fish oil supplements can help alleviate the symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, or manic depression.

In addition, researchers have found that people who are depressed, as well as those diagnosed with cardiovascular diseases and other conditions associated with depression, have relatively low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood.

In the current study, reported in the October issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, Peet and Horrobin asked 70 depressed patients who had not benefited from previous treatments to take a daily dose of either 1 gram, 2 grams or 4 grams of EPA, or an inactive drug. The treatment lasted 12 weeks. The investigators found that people given the 1 gram daily EPA dose experienced improvements, relative to those given the inactive drug, in all of the measured aspects of depression, including sadness, anxiety, low libido and suicidal tendencies.

In fact, 69% of the patients treated with the 1-gram daily dose achieved a 50% reduction in their symptoms of depression, a result seen in only 25% of the patients given an inactive drug.

"The effect of ethyl-eicosapentaenoate (the form of EPA used) applies to all major components of the depressive syndrome and is seen equally in the patient and physician assessments," the authors write.

Peet and Horrobin did not note any improvements in the patients given higher doses of the fatty acid relative to the placebo group, which they suggested may be due to the small number of people who were given either 2 grams or 4 grams per day.

"Although there appeared to be a trend toward significant efficacy at the 4-gram per day dosage, larger studies would be required to elucidate possible beneficial effects of the higher dosages," they write.

Archives of General Psychiatry 2002;59:913-919.

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