Fish Oil “Brain Food” Raises Hope for Mental Health Problems


Omega-3s have dominated the media spotlight for quite some time, notable for their role in the development of the brain, cardiovascular health, immune and eye function, but scientists believe that there is an awful lot more to discover about these important nutrients. Despite the Advertising Standards Agency currently only permitting health claims in relation to heart health and joint health, a good deal of research demonstrates a link between low levels of long-chain fatty acids and mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Experts believe that the average Western diet is a major factor in the development of certain mental health problems, which affect 1 in 4 of us in the UK each year.1 Most people realise that consuming too many processed foods high in trans fats, saturated fat and sugar isn’t good for our waistlines but what might not occur to people is that this type of eating can also lead to conditions like depression. This type of diet tends to go hand in hand with low consumption of oily fish rich in omega-3 and micronutrient-packed fruit and vegetables. Parents take note because, if this sounds familiar, your children are more likely to develop behavioural problems and learning difficulties, according to Dr Ray Rice of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids.

When comparing the average Western diet to that which is typical in the Far East, it appears that our diets somewhat fall short. With an incidence of 6%, depression is 60 times more common in New Zealand where fish consumption is very low, when compared with Japan, where it affects just 0.12% of the population.[2] Scientists suggest that one of the reasons for the low rate of depression is the high intake of omega-rich oily fish by our Far Eastern counterparts.

Fish is a vital source of the long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which is crucial for moderating the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin. Fundamentally, the purpose of this fat is to ensure that cell membranes in the body, including those in the brain, are functioning fluidly. Depressive symptoms can occur when low levels of EPA slow down communication between brain cells, creating a chemical imbalance in the brain which affects the production of mood-stabilising neurotransmitters.

The evidence

A number of trials have shown a link between depression and levels of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA. In several studies scientists have demonstrated the efficacy of pure EPA supplementation in depressed patients, ranging from those with mild or moderate depression, to those with severe depression and bipolar disorder. The American Psychiatric Association has since recommended treatment with at least 1g/day of omega-3 for these conditions as an addition to standard treatment.

A large double blind, randomised trial published showed that the omega-3 EPA is as effective as Prozac in the treatment of depression and, when used in combination, is increasingly advantageous.[3] Indeed, leading clinicians and researchers such as Dr Dianne LeFevre, consultant psychiatrist with over 40 years’ clinical experience, and Professor Basant K. Puri, Head of the Lipid Neuroscience Department at Imperial College, London, use our pure EPA supplement Vegepa, for patients with depression, with extremely positive results.

Experts agree that ideally we should get our fatty acids from food – between two and four portions of oily fish a week is the Food Standards Agency recommendation – but on average we in the UK eat only a third of a portion of oily fish a week. For conditions such as depression, which require much higher doses of omega-3, clinicians prefer to use molecularly distilled EPA which has been rigorously purified, to remove unwanted dioxins and PCBs which prevent us from safely consuming high amounts of fish in our diet. Signs of a deficiency, which suggest that supplementation would be advantageous, include dry skin, dandruff, excessive thirst, emotional sensitivity and problems with vision, attention, memory and sleep.

Help us to support the Mental Health Foundation

We are donating a proportion of the proceeds from the sale of Vegepa this month to the Mental Health Foundation, in support of Mental Health Action Week – a campaign to raise awareness of the issues surrounding mental health within the general population. Igennus actively supports charities and research organisations focused on finding effective natural treatments for a range of ailments, with a view to helping to improve the quality of life for those affected by mental and physical illness.


[1] The Office for National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report (2001).

[2] Hibbeln, J.R. (1998) Fish consumption and major depression. Lancet. Apr 18;351(9110):1213.

[3] Jazayeri, S., Tehrani-Doost, M., Keshavarz, S.A., Hosseini, M., Djazayery, A., Amini, H., Jalali, M. and Peet, M. (2008) Comparison of therapeutic effects of omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid and fluoxetine, separately and in combination, in major depressive order, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 42:3, 192 – 198.

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