Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for their many functions within the body. It’s been studied thoroughly for its effects on heart health and inflammation — and even mental health.

So what do we know? For over 10 years, researchers have been studying the effects omega-3 may have on depression, as well as other mental and behavioral conditions. Although the research is fairly recent, and more needs to be done before final conclusions can be made, it’s been promising. Most studies are showing that omega-3s may be helpful in treating some forms of depression.

Keep reading to learn more about the research and omega-3’s benefits and side effects.

Fish oil

There are three main types of omega-3s in the diet, and two are found in fish oil: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). You can get fish oil by including fish in your diet or through a supplement.

Including fish oil and omega-3s as part of a healthy diet has been shown to improve or, in some cases, prevent several health conditions, including heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and high cholesterol. Other conditions are being researched and look like they may also be helped with omega-3 and fish oil. These include ADHD as well as some forms of cancer.

It’s good to note that fish oil and cod liver oil aren’t the same thing. Fish oil doesn’t contain other vitamins like D and A.

Your brain needs the type of fatty acids that are in omega-3s for proper functioning. It’s believed by some that those who experience depression may not have enough EPA and DHA. This is the premise that researchers are using as they study the possible benefits of using omega-3 and fish oil to treat depression.

In 2009, researchers reviewed data from three studies that used EPA in the treatment of three different types of depression: recurrent major depression in adults, major depression in children, and bipolar depression. The large majority of subjects taking EPA in all types showed significant improvement and benefited from the EPA as compared to those with a placebo.

An overview of research from 2004 on omega-3s and depression showed that DHA may also play an important role along with EPA in the treatment of various types of depression. Those with minor depression, postpartum depression, and suicidal ideation had lower levels of EPA and DHA. These studies showed that a combination of EPA and DHA found in fish oil seemed to improve the depression symptoms of most participants that were tested.

As a whole, the research done up to this point seems positive for the use of fish oil and omega-3s in the treatment and management of depression. However, most studies acknowledge the need for larger studies and continued research on the subject.

Omega-3s can be added to your diet in a variety of ways. Some of these are:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that you eat 2-3 servings of fish each week, including a variety of types. A serving for an adult is 4 ounces. A serving for a child is 2 ounces.

The dosage for treating various health conditions with supplements varies on the condition and the severity of it. You should be sure to talk to your doctor about what dose would be right for you and before adding any supplement to your health regimen.

You shouldn’t take more omega-3 than your doctor recommends as it can be harmful to your health. Too much of the fatty acids in omega-3s may have a negative effect on your health. These negative effects include:

Children and pregnant women may be at risk from mercury in some fish and shouldn’t take fish oil or eat certain types of fish without first talking to their doctor. When consuming certain fish, there’s a higher risk of mercury poisoning. These types of fish include:

  • albacore tuna
  • mackerel
  • swordfish
  • tilefish

If you’re allergic to shellfish, you should talk to your doctor before taking fish oil supplements. There hasn’t yet been enough research done to determine if they’ll affect your allergy or not.

Fish oil and omega-3 supplements may also interact with some medications — including some that are over-the-counter. Talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements or vitamins.

In all, the research that’s been done up to this point has shown benefit for using omega-3 and fish oil in the treatment of a variety of depressive disorders, in combination with other treatments.

While there’s still more research that needs to be done in this area, the initial outcomes look positive. Although there are few side effects to getting the recommended amounts of fish oil and omega-3s into your diet, it should be something you discuss with your doctor. Even though fish oil is a natural supplement, you should talk to your doctor first to make sure it doesn’t interact with other medications or another medical condition.

For other herbs and supplements, these may help in the treatment of your depression.