Fish Oil May Reduce Postpartum Depression Symptoms

The omega-3 in fish oil may be beneficial if taken during pregnancy, a UConn study finds.

There are many advantages to eating fish or taking fish oil supplements as part of a healthy diet. But new research out of the University of Connecticut shows that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil is particularly beneficial to pregnant women, as it appears to reduce symptoms of postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression is a serious health issue that, by some estimates, affects as many as one in four new mothers in the first year after childbirth. It can make a mother feel sad, worthless, and hopeless, and cause her to have trouble caring for and bonding with her baby.

For the past several years, Michelle Price Judge, an assistant professor-in-residence at the UConn School of Nursing, has been looking into how omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish impact both maternal and infant health.

In a recent study, Judge focused on whether docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, a prominent omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, lowers the risk of postpartum depression when it is consumed during pregnancy. UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Cheryl Beck, an international expert on postpartum depression, and former UConn professor Carol Lammi-Keefe, who is now the Alma Beth Clark professor and head of the Human Nutrition & Food Division in the School of Human Ecology at Louisiana State University, served as co-PIs for the project. The study results were presented at Experimental Biology 2011 in Washington, D.C. in April.

In a randomized, double-blind study involving 42 pregnant women, Judge found that women who took a supplement containing 300mg of DHA five days a week had lower scores on a standardized postpartum depression screening scale (separately developed by Beck) than women who took a placebo. The women were monitored from the 24th week of pregnancy to birth. Those who took the fish oil supplement showed significantly lower scores on symptoms of anxiety/insecurity, emotional liability (characterized by excessive emotional reactions and frequent mood changes), and sense of loss of self, when compared to the placebo group.

“Generally, experts agree that the omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish are beneficial to maternal and infant health,” says Judge. “Yet on average, pregnant women consume less than half of the level considered optimal during pregnancy. If women consume 12 ounces (two to three servings) of fish weekly, there is no need for fish oil supplementation. Women who consume very little or no fish should consider supplementation. As always, women should speak to their practitioner prior to initiating any supplement. Not all fish oil supplements are equivalent, and pregnant women should seek formulations that have been developed for use during pregnancy.”

Health experts recommend that pregnant women consume 200 mg of DHA daily. Salmon and tuna, including canned light tuna, are excellent sources of the important omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. Some fish, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and marlin can contain mercury, which is harmful in high amounts and should be avoided. An alternative is fish oil supplements, in which almost all mercury is removed as part of the manufacturing process.

The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have been well-proven, but expectant mothers in particular need to be careful that they consume enough fish oil to supplement their diet. Prior research has shown that the omega-3 fatty acids found in the primary fat of fish like salmon and tuna are preferentially transferred through the placenta during the later stages of pregnancy in order to help the baby grow and mature. As a result, expectant mothers often show a depletion of maternal stores of omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies. This lack of DHA in the mother is compounded by the fact that pregnant women tend to eat only a fraction of the amount of fish and DHA considered optimal during pregnancy, says Judge.

Consuming adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and DHA is important in helping to reduce symptoms of depression. Animal studies have shown that the presence of DHA aids in elevating mood and lessening the chances of depression. DHA deficiency in some animals has been associated with the decreased release of important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which both play a factor in mood elevation. Additionally, high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in plasma are believed to reduce levels of certain cytokines that promote systemic inflammation, which also is considered a factor in depression.

Because the research team’s DHA study was small, Judge says the group was unable to draw any conclusions regarding whether fish oil supplementation reduces the incidence or prevalence of major postpartum depression in women. The research team, which included co-authors Michele McKelvey, a clinical nursing instructor from UConn, and Holiday Durham, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Human Ecology at LSU, intends to conduct a larger study to investigate the role of omega-3 fatty acids in reducing the incidence of major postpartum depression as the next step in its work. The research was funded by the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation.