By Stephanie Shanti
A new area in the field of psychology which has hardly ever been studied is the relationship between mental health and nutrition. This article focuses on the association between the consumption of certain fatty acids, depression, bipolar disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children.
When addressing the relationship between certain nutrients and mental health, a great amount of research has been conducted on omega-3 fatty acids, in particular the long-chain fatty acids eicosapentaenoid acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA have been linked to ADHD, depression and bipolar disorder. According to epidemiological studies, there is a significant negative correlation between higher fish consumption and mood disorders. Thus, countries in which diet is predominantly comprised of oily fish, report lower levels of depression and other mood disorders in their population (Parker, Gibson, Brotchie, Heruc, Rees, & Hadzi-Pavlovic, 2006).
In the case of bipolar disorder, low plasma omega-3 and high omega-6 levels are familial trait markers (Sobczak, Honic, & Christophe, 2004). Therefore, there has been a growing interest in the use of omega-3 fatty acids as a therapeutic tool in treating bipolar disorder. In a pilot study, supplementation with 2000 mg EPA/day correlated with a 50% decrease in depressive symptoms, as measured by the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (Osher, Bersudsky, & Belmaker, 2005).
Omega-6 fatty acids are the most common polyunsaturated fat consumed in the Standard American Diet (SAD). The problem with the SAD diet is its high proportion of omega-6 fatty acids and low proportions of omega-3s compared to diets consumed by other healthier cultures. Foods containing the highest amounts of omega-6 fats are: margarine, mayonnaise, salad dressings, snack foods, processed foods and fast foods. In contrast, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in high quantities in flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, purslane, and oily fish.
According to research, there is a strong association between lowered omega-3 levels and depressive symptoms. Thus, omega-6 to omega-3 ratios play an important role in symptom severity of mood disorders. Therefore, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been used in intervention studies as a treatment for depression. In their study, Su, Huang, Chiu, and Shen (2003) used a high dose of EPA (2200 mg DHA and 4400 mg EPA/day) on patients with depression. The results indicated a significant reduction in depressive symptoms compared with the control group.
In the case of ADHD, studies have also shown that lower plasma levels of essential fatty acids are associated with increased behavior problems (Rojas & Chan, 2005). In one study, children who were not taking stimulant medication, were given 400 mg flax oil and 50 mg/day vitamin C. Results indicated significant improvements in their ADHD symptoms after three months (Joshi, Lad, & Kale, 2006). In another study, Australian children with ADHD were given supplementation of fish and evening primrose oils. Results indicated significant improvements on the Conners ADHD and Global Index scores, as well as decreased hyperactivity, impulsiveness, oppositional behavior and restlessness (Sinn, & Bryan, 2007).
Unfortunately, most of the research on mood disorders and depression has focused on supplementing diets with omega-3 fatty acids without addressing the unhealthy eating patterns associated with elevated omega-6 to omega-3 ratios. Future research should focus on diets comprised mainly of whole foods. By eliminating processed foods, it would seem that one would be able to reestablish a healthy balance of omega-6 to omega-3, thus improving physical and mental health.
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