Postnatal depression: omega-3 fatty acids may be important
EDITOR - It was surprising to see, in the editorial by Hendrick on
postnatal depression , no mention of the increasing recognition that
omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) may play an important role in
the pathophysiology of this condition.
Patients with depression have been shown to have a deficiency of
omega-3 PUFA [2, 3, 4]. From the epidemiological data, societies with a
high consumption of fish, which contains more omega-3 fatty acids than do
other foods, appear to have a lower rate of major depression . Omega-3
supplementation has been reported to have highly significant anti-
depressant effects in double-blind, placebo-controlled trials (in patients
already on maintenance medication) [6, 7].
Mothers selectively transfer docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to their
foetuses to support optimal neurological development during pregnancy.
Without sufficient dietary intake, mothers become depleted of DHA. Women
developing depressive symptoms in the postnatal period have been shown to
have reduced availability of DHA .Higher concentrations of DHA in
mothers’ milk and greater seafood consumption are associated with lower
prevalence rates of postpartum depression .
Chiu and colleagues report the case of a pregnant patient with major
depressive disorder who was treated with omega-3 fatty acid monotherapy (4
g of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 2 g of DHA per day); she experienced
remarkable improvement .
In a randomised, double-blind trial, DHA supplementation for 4
months after delivery did not influence self-ratings of depression,
diagnostic measures of depression, or information processing .
However, the low dose of DHA used in this study (approximately 200 mg/day)
was perhaps only one tenth of what might be an effective therapeutic dose.
In addition, it is not currently clear whether DHA, EPA or EPA/DHA in
combination has the greatest anti-depressant effect.
Although further studies are needed, increasing the intake of omega-3
fatty acids before, during and after pregnancy, through diet and/or
supplementation (via low-mercury sources), is a promising approach for
both prevention and treatment of postnatal depression.
Dr Peter J Lewis integrative physician
15 South Steyne, Manly, NSW 2095, Australia
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Competing interests: No competing interests