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When it comes to treating mental disorders naturally, most of us know that changing basic aspects of our lives can help make a difference in our mental health. People who have depression or other mood disorders sleep too much or too little compared to people without a mood disorder. Treating insomnia naturally leads to resolving sleep issues, which may reduce some environmental stress and improve mental health enough to reduce the symptoms of depression too. Similarly, people with depression often neglect other aspects of their lives, including nutrition, and find that their mental health improves when their diet does, too. It makes sense that resolving small issues in your life will help support the bigger ones, making it easier to recover.
While overall improvement of diet is surely better than leaving deficiencies, targeting specific areas in which mental health may improve is ideal. Depression is correlated with cardiovascular disease, in that people who suffer from poor cardiovascular health are more likely to experience depression or other mood disorders. Specifically, omega-3 fatty acids are linked to cardiovascular health, with deficiencies in omega-3s indicating poorer cardiovascular health—and subsequently higher incidence of depression. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been implicated as having a specific role in relieving depression symptoms independently of cardiovascular involvement. Supplementing your diet with omega-3s may be the key to improving your mental health.
The Role of Omega-3s in Mental Health
Omega-3 fatty acids include ALA, DHA, and EPA, all of which are considered essential fatty acids that are required for normal functioning of the body’s many systems. Because our bodies cannot produce omega-3 acids independently, it is important that the diet include a regular source of them to prevent deficiencies. People who consume primarily processed foods may find that their diets are alarmingly low in omega-3 fatty acids, a problem that is common in Western food culture. On the other hand, people who cook much of their own food from scratch, utilizing fresh fish, produce, and diverse cooking oils, will tend to have higher levels of omega-3s, as these are the foods where the acids are most abundant naturally. People with poor physical and mental health who also are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids should find that their overall health and well-being increase with omega-3 fatty acids added into the diet in healthy levels.
A recent study in Norway examined two groups of patients with symptoms that included markers for depression, suicidal tendency, and stress. After twelve weeks of intensive omega-3 supplementation, at 1,200 mg per dose, the group that received treatment improved significantly in scores for all indicators for mental health compared to the group that didn’t receive the omega-3s. This effect might be part of the omega-3s enabling better control of the fight-or-flight response within the endocrine system. An overactive endocrine system can result in the fight-or-flight response being deployed near-constantly, leading to physical and mental symptoms of depression and anxiety. Omega-3 fatty acids in normal amounts may help this system regulate itself more effectively, improving mental health by helping the patient to physically feel more normal and functional.
The Effect of Diet on Mental Health Overall
The bio-psychosocial model of mental health emphasizes that mental health is a culmination of factors both inside of the body and out. One of these factors falls under both biological and environmental categories of health, and that is nutrition. People who steadily receive adequate nutrition tend to sleep better, have better support systems, and take better care of themselves overall. They may have jobs that are stable because the rest of their foundation is stable too, and this reduces stress that otherwise contributes to depression and other mental illness. Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids are overall important contributors to health, and where nutritional health is complete, mental health will be more stable and less subject to stress-related mood disorders. When your body feels healthy, your mind will feel healthier, too.
Although much of depression can be genetically or biologically determined, environmental factors such as your diet and your personal health can influence the severity and duration of your symptoms. For any disorder, mental or not, recovery is easier and symptoms are more manageable when you take care of yourself in other areas of your life, and omega-3 fatty acids are one area in which many people can improve. Poor diets are linked to depression, which makes sense when you consider how much of the brain is devoted to producing neurotransmitters that regulate our moods and physical reactions. When diet suffers, so does mental function, especially if mental health is already compromised due to other factors. Omega-3 supplementation is a step that you can take whether you are currently under medical treatment for your condition or supporting your mental health with natural remedies and strategies.
Adding Omega-3 Presence to Your Diet
Although you can improve your mental health by taking omega-3 supplements in some form, it makes more sense to modify your diet so that omega-3s are present naturally instead. Supplementation in pill form can sometimes cause blood thinning, making them unsuitable for people who are at risk for clotting disorders. However, supplementing with natural food sources is completely safe and recommended. Omega-3s are present in fish and fish oil, and a portion of fish several times weekly in the diet is often enough to normalize omega-3 levels, especially of DHA and EPA. These essential acids are also present in flaxseed oil, algae, chia, and most tree nuts. Ideal fish species to consume for omega-3 supplementation include tuna, trout, sardines, salmon, and anchovies, among others. Bluefish, herring, mackerel and sturgeon are also excellent sources of omega-3s. Within tree nuts, walnuts have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids per serving, making them an ideal source for snacking. Finally, many cooking oils contain omega-3s, so making the switch from plain vegetable to olive or canola oil can make a difference in your levels.
When you consider that half the available sources for natural omega-3 supplementation include cooking oils, adding omega-3s to your diet becomes an easy step toward mental health that requires no pills, no doctors, and only positive life change on your part. Even vegetarians or people who abstain from eating fish for other reasons can use olive oil or canola oil in everyday cooking to improve their individual omega-3 levels, and the same benefit holds true for the chia and tree nuts that hold abundant levels of the essential fatty acids. Because adding omega-3s to the diet is so easy, you should find that you have more energy to devote to other personal interventions that might support your mental health. This can include anything from therapy sessions to increasing time spent with your family and loved ones, or even focusing on a new hobby that requires enough mental energy to keep you distracted from your symptoms. Positive life changes are one of the best ways to support mental health, whether you suffer from depression, another mood disorder or even just seasonal stress. Combined with other steps that you take toward mental health, adding omega-3s to your diet in levels that are more abundant can help reduce your mental symptoms and make recovery come more easily.