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Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Actually Improve Your Depression? What the Research Says

By Jacquelyn Buffo, MS, LPC, CAADC

August 14, 2023

Omega 3 And Depression

Are you experiencing feelings of sadness, loss of interest in once enjoyable activities, or low motivation? If so, you may be experiencing some form of depression. There are many different types of depression, and only a doctor can determine if you meet the criteria for depression. Fortunately, depression is a treatable disorder. With the help of professional interventions, complimentary services, and lifestyle changes, you can manage your symptoms of depression. Research suggests Omega 3s may be able to help reduce and manage depression symptoms.

What Is Depression?

Depression isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Rather, there are many different types of depression. Although they may share similar symptoms, they are distinct from one another. Some of the most common types of depression are:

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD) (when the general term “depression” is used, it usually refers to MDD)
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  • Perinatal depression
  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Bipolar depression

Symptoms of Depression

To meet the criteria for MDD, five or more symptoms must exist within the same two-week time frame, and one of the symptoms must be either a depressed mood or anhedonia (loss of interest in once pleasurable things) and the symptoms include:

  • Having a depressed mood almost every day for the majority of the day (hopelessness, sadness, emptiness)
  • Anhedonia (significant loss of interest in once pleasurable and enjoyable activities)
  • Significant changes in weight including weight loss or weight gain
  • Changes in sleep including oversleeping (hypersomnia) or undersleeping (insomnia)
  • Psychomotor changes (speeding up or slowing down of speech, walking, moving around)
  • Significant reduction in energy, low energy, fatigue
  • Feelings of excessive guilt and worthlessness
  • Problems with focus and concentration as well as difficulty making decisions almost daily
  • Chronic thoughts of death including suicidal thoughts with or without a plan

Additionally, the above symptoms must not be caused by another medical disorder or substance and must contribute to impairment or distress in areas of life functioning including work and family. Symptoms can range in severity from mild to moderate to severe.

Persistent depressive disorder is also known as dysthymia, and it refers to depressive symptoms that have been present for at least two years. Symptoms of dysthymia are similar to MDD, and they include:

  • Depressed mood for nearly every day for at least two years
  • At least two of the following symptoms: changes in appetite, low energy, sleep changes, low self-esteem, poor concentration, and feelings of hopelessness

Seasonal affective disorder includes the symptoms listed under MDD. However, these symptoms only occur during specific times of the year, usually fall/winter, and the symptoms resolve in the spring and summer months.

Perinatal depression is depression that occurs during pregnancy or postpartum as a result of all of the changes and stressors that a mother experiences during this time. If the symptoms present during pregnancy it is referred to as prenatal depression and when the symptoms present after childbirth, it is referred to as postpartum depression.

Bipolar depression includes episodes of depression with symptoms of sadness, hopelessness, or indifference, as well as episodes of mania or hypomania (elevated moods).

How Many People Experience Depression?

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the country. Research shows that:

  • Approximately 21 million adults in the United States (8.3%) experienced a major depressive episode in 2021.
  • Major depression impacts more adult females (10.3%) compared to adult males (6.2%) in the United States.
  • Adults between the ages of 18-25 years old report the highest incidents of depression (18.6%).
  • People with two or more races report the highest incidents of MDD (13.9%).

Who’s at Risk for Depression?

Anyone can experience symptoms of depression. Life circumstances and stressors elicit normal feelings of sadness and hopelessness at times. Sadness, grief, and fatigue are normal, temporary emotions that we all experience, and having those feelings doesn’t necessarily mean you have depression.

However, certain risk factors can make you more vulnerable to developing depression, and they include:

  • Genetic predisposition: You are more at risk of developing depression if a direct family member has been diagnosed with depression.
  • Biochemistry: The chemistry in your brain and body can make you more vulnerable to depression.
  • Environmental factors: Chronic exposure to stressors including poverty, neglect, homelessness, and abuse can make you more vulnerable to depression.
  • Personality factors: Individuals who are sensitive to stress, have a negative outlook on life, or have low self-esteem have an increased risk for depression.

How Is Depression Diagnosed and Treated?

Fortunately, depression can be successfully treated, regardless of the severity of symptoms. As previously stated, only a doctor or licensed medical professional can diagnose MDD or any other mental health disorder. Treatment plans for depression are individualized based on each person’s unique symptoms, history, and functioning. Usually, there is a combination of services and interventions that are used to treat depression.

Common treatment interventions include:

  • Medications: Medications can help regulate brain chemistry. Keep in mind, that medication can take 4-8 weeks to take effect. It’s important to tell your doctor about any other medications you are taking and to not make any changes to your medication without speaking to your doctor first.
  • Counseling/Psychotherapy: Counseling that implements cognitive and behavioral strategies can help you learn different ways of thinking and responding to life events.
  • Brain stimulation therapies: Brain stimulation therapies have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that treat symptoms of depression.
  • Alternative treatments and lifestyle changes: These can include things such as incorporating exercise or supplements into your daily routine.

If you decide to incorporate supplements into your daily routine, it’s important to discuss with your doctor all of the medications you are taking as certain supplements can impact the effectiveness of prescription medications.

What Are Omega 3s?

Omega 3 fatty acids are important for your body to function, and what’s interesting is that our body doesn’t naturally produce some fatty acids. Therefore, we have to get it from supplements or the food we eat. There are 3 types of Omega 3s and they include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Our bodies don’t naturally produce ALA.

Omega-3s are found in foods such as:

  • Flaxseed
  • Seafood and fish
  • Canola oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Dairy products such as eggs, yogurt, and milk
  • Soy beverages

Omega 3s are important to our body’s ability to function at an optimal level because they impact the membranes around the cells in our body. More specifically Omega 3s impact:

  • Our eye health
  • Sperm quality
  • Brain function
  • Energy levels
  • Lung function
  • Immune system
  • Endocrine system (the glands that produce hormones in our body)

Out of the three types of Omega 3s, the only one that has been identified as having a recommended amount is ALA and the recommendation for adult males is 1.6 grams and 1.1 grams for women daily.

How Can Omega 3s Help with Depression?

While more research is needed to determine the significance of Omega 3s on depression, current research is promising. Research shows a direct correlation between Omega 3 levels and mental health. Studies have shown that Omega 3s can help improve symptoms of bipolar depression and foods rich in EPA have helped people with depressive disorders. It may also be used with prescription anti-depressants such as SSRIs. However, talk to your doctor before incorporating fatty acid supplements into your diet. Additionally, research has shown that people with reduced amounts of fish oil report an increase in depression symptoms. Studies have also suggested that fatty acids can help treat symptoms of dementia and schizophrenia.

What Do I Do If I Think That I Have Depression?

The consequences of untreated mental illness can be significant, so it’s important to get the help you need. Mental health disorders like depression are treatable. However, without treatment, your quality of life and ability to function daily can be negatively impacted. If you think you or a loved one may be struggling with symptoms of depression or another mental health disorder, talk to your doctor.

Your doctor can help you create a treatment plan that is specific to your needs, or they can refer you to a mental health specialist who can. Your treatment plan may include a combination of the interventions listed above. If prescription medication is part of your treatment plan, ScriptSave WellRx offers a free discount savings card that can help you save up to 80%. The prescription savings card is free and is accepted at a pharmacy near you.

Jacquelyn Buffo began writing at the age of 10 when she won a county-wide essay contest explaining why her mother is worth her weight in gold. Since that time, she has written for several newspapers and a health and wellness blog. Her education and experience is in mental health and addiction. She is a licensed counselor and currently provides therapeutic services on an outpatient basis. Her counseling and substance abuse experience includes inpatient residential, in-home, and early recovery counseling. She is a certified addiction specialist and is working on obtaining her certification in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. She also specializes in working with pregnant and post-partum women and has received advanced training on women's health.


  1. National Institute of Mental Health. (2024).
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. (2023). Major depression.
  4. American Psychiatric Association. (2020). What is depression?
  5. National Institutes of Health. (2022). Omega-3 fatty acids.
  6. Ara, A., Bhat, S.A., & Wani, A.L. (2015). Omega 3 fatty acids and the treatment of depression: A review of scientific evidence. Integrative Medicine Research, 4(3), p.132-141.
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