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The Best Guide to Omega 3 Fatty Acids for Mental Health

Welcome to Driftless Integrative Psychiatry's comprehensive guide to the power of Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are well-studied and considered one of the most effective supplements in psychiatry1. Whether you're a fan of fish, vegetarian, vegan, or interested in supplementation, this guide will delve into the exceptional impact of these essential nutrients on mental health.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Unsung Heroes in Mental Health

These nutrients, found abundantly in fatty fish like salmon and trout, are integral for optimal brain function and mental health. Besides being delicious, these fish offer a potent dose of these neuroprotective nutrients. However, for those who can't or don't wish to consume fish, Omega-3 supplements, often derived from fish oil, serve as a reliable and surprisingly not terrible tasting source of consistent intake.

Foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, fresh salmon with lemon on a cutting board

How Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Benefit the Brain?

Omega-3 fatty acids play a key role in maintaining brain health in several ways, including regulating neurotransmitters, enhancing the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and reducing inflammation.

Here's a more in-depth look at each of these aspects:

Regulating Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that play a crucial role in how your brain cells, or neurons, communicate with each other. Some of the primary neurotransmitters that affect mood and mental health include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate.

Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly involved in the function of serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is often called the "feel-good" neurotransmitter because it contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. Dopamine, on the other hand, is responsible for motivation, reward, and feelings of pleasure. Studies have shown that Omega-3 fatty acids can help increase the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain, thereby improving mood and reducing symptoms of depression.

Enhancing the Production of BDNF

BDNF is a protein that supports the survival of existing neurons and encourages the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. In essence, BDNF is like fertilizer for your brain, helping to support the most vital parts of your brain associated with learning and memory.

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, have been shown to increase the production of BDNF. As such, a higher intake of Omega-3 could potentially lead to improved memory, learning, and overall cognitive function. Conversely, deficiencies in Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to decreased BDNF levels and cognitive impairments.

Decreasing Inflammation

Inflammation in the brain, known as neuroinflammation, can lead to neuronal damage and has been linked to various mental and neurodegenerative disorders, including depression and Alzheimer's disease. Omega-3 fatty acids have potent anti-inflammatory effects. They give rise to molecules that are proactive in resolving inflammation, rather than merely blocking pro-inflammatory signals.

Omega-3 fatty acids are metabolized into resolvins and protectins, compounds that not only help to resolve inflammation but also have neuroprotective effects. This could have significant implications for the treatment of neuroinflammatory conditions like depression, dementia, bipolar disorder, psychosis, and traumatic brain injuries.

The Potential of Omega-3 in Diverse Mental Health Conditions

Omega-3 fatty acids have shown promising potential in managing a variety of mental health conditions. Their impacts on neuronal health, neurotransmitter regulation, and inflammation, among other mechanisms, lend them potency in supporting mental wellbeing. Below, we explore the roles of Omega-3s in several mental health conditions:

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions globally. Multiple research studies have linked lower levels of Omega-3 fatty acids to higher rates of both depression and anxiety. Clinical trials have demonstrated that Omega-3 supplementation can reduce the symptoms of these disorders, potentially due to Omega-3s' role in neurotransmitter function, particularly serotonin and dopamine, which are key to mood regulation.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

There is emerging evidence that Omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for individuals with BPD. One study found that supplementation with ethyl-EPA, a form of Omega-3, led to significant improvements in aggression and depression, two common features of BPD. It's believed that this effect might be due, in part, to Omega-3's ability to help regulate mood and emotional responses.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Children and adults with ADHD may have lower levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies, which is particularly significant given the role of these fatty acids in cognitive function and neurotransmitter regulation. Several studies have suggested that Omega-3 supplementation can improve symptoms of ADHD, including attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Bipolar Disorder

Omega-3 fatty acids have shown potential in managing bipolar disorder, a condition characterized by periods of depression followed by episodes of mania. Some studies have suggested that Omega-3 supplementation might decrease the frequency of mood swings and the severity of depressive episodes in people with this disorder.


Emerging research has suggested that Omega-3 supplementation may help delay or prevent the progression of early-stage psychotic disorder to a full-blown condition. It is thought that Omega-3s might protect the brain in ways that are specifically beneficial for people at high risk of psychosis.

Cognitive Decline and Traumatic Brain Injuries

Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, are critical for brain health and function. Research has shown that they may slow cognitive decline in older adults and could be beneficial in the recovery process following traumatic brain injuries. DHA is a significant component of brain cell membranes and plays a vital role in the structure and function of brain cells, which can be particularly crucial in the repair and recovery process following a brain injury.

Fish or Supplements: Ensuring Adequate Omega-3 Intake

While fatty fish are a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, the levels of EPA and DHA can vary significantly based on the species and their habitats8. For some individuals, maintaining the recommended amount through diet alone may prove challenging. Omega-3 supplements (capsule or liquid form) can ensure a consistent and adequate intake. In regards to cost, the liquid form tends to be more affordable and sometimes easier to take. The capsules are larger in size and some individuals find it difficult to swallow them.

Navigating Fish Burps

Storing fish oil supplements in the refrigerator or freezer can help lessen the unpleasant taste and smell that some people find bothersome. It can also reduce the likelihood of experiencing the "fishy" aftertaste or burps that some people have after taking the supplement. Moreover, keeping your fish oil in the refrigerator can help to extend its shelf life, as it can slow down the oxidation process that can lead to the oil becoming rancid.

Evaluating Vegan and Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3

Vegetarians or vegans can opt for plant-based Omega-3s, such as algae-derived supplements. Algal oil provides a bioavailable form of DHA and EPA and has shown promise in supporting mental health9.

Quality is Paramount in Omega-3 Supplementation

Quality control in Omega-3 supplementation is of utmost importance. It's crucial to select high-quality, third-party tested Omega-3 supplements to ensure optimal concentration and avoid harmful contaminants. Furthermore, understanding the potential risks and the importance of correct dosage associated with Omega-3 supplementation is equally crucial.

Considering the Omega 3: Omega 6 Ratio

Although both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential for human health, their ratio is critical. Omega 3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA, are considered anti-inflammatory whereas Omega 6 fatty acids such as arachidonic acid is pro-inflammatory (contrary to popular belief, some Omega 6 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory). But it's more complicated that that - it is all about the balance. Several studies have suggested that an imbalance in this ratio, particularly a high Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio, as seen in Western diets, may adversely affect mental health.

Role of Omega-6: Omega-3 Ratio in Mental Health Disorders

A high dietary intake of Omega-6 fatty acids relative to Omega-3 has been associated with increased risks for depression1. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders noted that increased dietary intake of linoleic acid (an Omega-6 fatty acid) and a high Omega-6: Omega-3 ratio were associated with higher risks of both depression and inflammation1.

Balanced Ratio for ADHD

The role of Omega-3 supplementation and the balance of Omega-3: Omega-6 has also been examined in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A 2017 systematic review of the existing literature revealed that while Omega-3 supplementation can help improve symptoms in ADHD, the improvement may be enhanced by balancing the Omega-3: Omega-6 ratio2.

Optimal Ratio for Reducing Anxiety and Stress

Additionally, studies have shown that a balanced ratio of Omega-3: Omega-6 fatty acids can be beneficial for individuals suffering from anxiety disorders. A meta-analysis in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders indicated that Omega-3 supplementation could help reduce anxiety symptoms, and these benefits may be influenced by the Omega-3: Omega-6 ratio3.

Impact on Bipolar Disorder

A study conducted on individuals with bipolar disorder showed that a lower Omega-3: Omega-6 ratio was associated with poorer cognitive performance and more mood symptoms4.

These studies collectively suggest the importance of a balanced Omega-3: Omega-6 ratio for optimal mental health. It emphasizes the need not only to increase Omega-3 intake but also to monitor and reduce Omega-6 intake for maintaining mental health.

Omega 3 Fatty Acid Lab Testing

In a functional psychiatry practice, there are several ways to test the Omega-3 fatty acid status in the body, which can give valuable insights into a person's dietary intake and inflammatory status. Two such tests are the Omega-3 Index and the high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) test.

Omega-3 Index: The OmegaQuant lab measures the amount of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in the red blood cells. It provides an accurate picture of the omega-3 fatty acid status over a longer period (about 120 days, the lifespan of red blood cells). It's a more reliable method than measuring levels in plasma or serum, which can fluctuate based on recent dietary intake. Higher Omega-3 Index values (8-12%) are associated with the most health benefits.

This test also provides the Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio. They measure the levels of various fatty acids in your blood and calculate the ratio. Their home test kits are easy to use and provide a comprehensive report.

High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hs-CRP): C-reactive protein is a substance produced by the liver in response to inflammation. The hs-CRP test measures very small amounts of CRP in the blood and thus is a highly sensitive measure that can detect low-level inflammation. Inflammation plays a significant role in several health conditions, including depression, heart disease, and diabetes.

It's important to note that hs-CRP does not specifically measure omega-3 fatty acid levels but gives a broader picture of systemic inflammation. It can help us understand a person's inflammatory status, which can guide dietary and lifestyle interventions, including omega-3 fatty acid supplementation if needed.

The hs-CRP test is commonly performed in a regular lab setting following a doctor's order. It's a simple blood test, requiring only a small sample of blood drawn from a vein in the arm.

In conclusion, Omega-3 fatty acids, one of the most well-studied and potent supplements in psychiatry, offer real benefits. Regardless of whether they're sourced from diet or supplementation, they can significantly enhance brain health, reduce inflammation, and foster mental wellbeing.

Dr. Erica Burger, integrative psychiatrist at Driftless Integrative Psychiatry, applies a holistic and functional medicine approach to mental health, focusing on treating root causes - not just symptoms. Our strategies include omega-3 fatty acid lab assessments to tailor nutritional solutions like supplements and dietary changes. We prioritize the interconnectedness of physical, psychological, and environmental health elements for comprehensive wellness. To learn more or become a patient, click here.

Disclaimer: The content provided in this blog is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be construed as providing medical advice or as a substitute for professional healthcare advice, diagnosis, or treatment. While every effort has been made to ensure that the information shared in this blog is accurate and up-to-date, medical information and knowledge are continually evolving. Therefore, this information should not be used to make any health-related decisions. Readers are strongly advised to consult with a qualified healthcare professional before making any changes to their health regimen or trying new treatments. The author and publisher expressly disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects arising from the use or application of the information contained in this blog


  1. Lin, P.Y., Huang, S.Y., & Su, K.P. (2010). A meta-analytic review of polyunsaturated fatty acid compositions in patients with depression. Biological Psychiatry, 68(2), 140–147. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.03.018. Link

  2. Chang, J.P., Su, K.P., Mondelli, V., & Pariante, C.M. (2018). Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Youths with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials and Biological Studies. Neuropsychopharmacology, 43(3), 534–545. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.160. Link

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