By Amanda Van Dall, Asu Nutrition Student
Chronic depression is the invisible monster we fail to acknowledge as a serious threat. Contrary to the traditional thinking, what you can’t see is what may impair you the most. This living nightmare is compounded by its esoteric identity. It is a fractured entity which presents a different face to each victim. And for every presentation, there is a different remedy for the situation. Psychotropic pharmaceuticals and unregulated supplements. Old wisdom and new hope. Everything is tried, but nothing remains true.
However, a bright spot shines within this bleak landscape of chronic depression. And it may be a unifying factor in this fractured battle for a common goal. Proper intake of all types of fats may allay depressive symptoms in sensitive populations. During this dietary diatribe, we’ll dive past the surface of this claim to examine the science and determine the depth of its potency. Let’s begin with the most-researched aspect:
1) Polyunsaturated Omega-3 Fats (in the form of fish oil supplementation)
Polyunsaturated omega-3 fats in the form of fish oil supplementation (from anchovies and herring, in doses ranging from 1-4 grams) is a nutrition-based option which is highly-regarded and extensively-researched by the medical communities of several different countries. This international staple which transitioned into a traditional supplement has experienced an easy transition into modern acclaim and acceptance. If there were a Venn diagram of acceptable remedies within the allopathic, naturopathic, and alternative medical communities, fish oil would be one of the few supplements which would float comfortably and confidently in the center. Due to an abundance of scientific, peer-reviewed research, nutritionists may securely recommend the use of fish oil supplements as a potential tool in their fights against malnutrition and disease.
Specifically, in cases where a client displays traits of chronic depression, adding at least 1 gram of polyunsaturated fatty acid (in the therapeutic form of fish oil) to a daily dietary regime may ameliorate depressive symptoms in adult patients who have been diagnosed with either minor or major inflammation-based depression (1).
That being said, it is always prudent to refer any clients who are at risk of depression to either a licensed counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. For strict vegetarians and vegans, polyunsaturated omega-3 fats may be obtained from sources such as chia seeds and flax oil. That being stated, the fats from plant sources are in the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) form. It is true that ALA is an essential omega-3 and a precursor to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). However, on average less than one percent of ALA is converted to EPA and DHA (3). Polyunsaturated fats from animal sources are conveniently pre-packaged in the long-chain formation which is easily recognizable and assimilated by the body because its structure is similar to ours.
Several peer-reviewed studies have expounded on the potential benefits of the addition of polyunsaturated fats via fish oil supplementation. Specifically, research conducted by Duffy, et al, in 2015 examined the link between supplementation and attenuation of inflammation-based depressive symptoms in the aging adult population. The specific aim of the study was to examine the potential effect of polyunsaturated supplementation on in vivo neurometabolite glutathione (GSH) concentration as it relates to depression risks. By measuring GSH concentration in the thalamus, researchers were able to establish this as a baseline measurement of oxidative stress (1). During the twelve-week-long study, fifty-one adults who were deemed at risk for depression were randomly given either four, 1 gram polyunsaturated fat supplements (in the form of fish oil, containing 1.2 g EPA & 0.8g DHA) or four, 1 gram paraffin-oil placebos daily. Throughout the weeks, participants underwent self-report assessments (including the Patient Health Questionnaire) as well as procedures including magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Overall, compared with the placebo group, the group which was given polyunsaturated fat supplements in the form of fish oil had a lower rate of change to GSH levels in the thalamus, which translates to a stable in symptoms or, for a fortunate few, a decrease in overall depressive symptomology (1). The conclusion, for both them as well as us, may be that fish oil supplementation may be associated with a decrease in GSH (a marker of oxidative stress) in the thalamus of the brain, which may also allay depressive symptoms in older adults.
A similar study with an interesting variable supports this theory. Earlier this year in research conducted by Sharifan, et al, at Sina Hospital in Iran, this theory was examined in a population which has one of the lowest amounts of fish consumption in the world. Throughout the course of six months, 180 participants who were diagnosed as suffering from depressive symptoms were randomly assessed for symptoms in both the experimental and control groups (4). The results initially demonstrated no significant differences in depressive symptoms between the groups. However, adjustments for covariates showed significant reduction in depressive symptoms between the control and experimental groups (4). A tenuous conclusion may be inferred that high intakes of polyunsaturated fats in the form of fish oil may diminish the symptoms of depression, even in populations who do not traditionally consume high amounts of this supplement. Further research is warranted to examine this potential link. But the outlook is bright. And more importantly, it offers hope to those who feel lost.
Conclusion: Adding between one to four grams daily of fish oil to an individual’s diet may reduce inflammation-based depressive symptoms. It is not a cure, but merely an amelioration of a larger problem.
2) Polyunsaturated Omega-6 Fats (in the form of conjugated linoleic acid supplementation)
The essential fatty acid we love to hate. Omega-6 fats are essential fatty acids which we must consume via our diets in order to facilitate normal brain function, overall growth & maintenance, and metabolism regulation. That last trait has become a major selling point in the role of Capitalism against the Battle of the Bulge. But we will expound on that soon.
Although there are several laudatory studies which state the benefits of omega-6 consumption, there are an equal number of researchers who claim it is the cause of our current health epidemic. This is not due to the nature of omega-6 fats per se. Instead, this acrimonious stance is due to the ratio at which the average American consumes them. Depending on which source is stated, the typical consumption of omega-6 to omega-3 fats varies from a ratio of 6:1 to as high as 12:1. One questionable study even suggests that the ratio may be as high as 30:1 in extreme cases. And that is the main problem. Even the experts have failed to reach a consensus on the magnitude of this problem. Which is why we will depart from the numbers and focus on one of the beneficial omega-6 fats: conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
CLA may resound across the far corners of your brain with a ring of familiarity. This is due to its marketable reputation as a ‘belly fat burner’. Everyone from local health coaches to national diet gurus have claimed that CLA is the safest and easiest way to lose weight without breaking a sweat. Although this claim is laughable at best and tenuous at worst, if a customer is taking this supplement and thinks that he sees a result (from a placebo effect or otherwise), then he may continue taking it as long as his patience and wallet will last. As an essential fatty acid, consumption of CLA, even if it is for a lazy reason to avoid exercise, will provide the body with the fuel it needs to function efficiently. A consumer may or may not lose his spare tire; but he will be providing his brain with the fuel it needs to determine which new health fad he should try.
There are assorted theories which propose utilizing CLA by itself, or paired with fish oil, to aid in the attenuation of depression. However, the results are not conclusive yet, and further research is warranted before a definitive statement can be made.
Fortunately, consumption of CLA is not limited to purchasing pills of dubious quality from unknown sources. The most easily-assimilated form of CLA is as close as your local butcher in the form of grass-fed beef and dairy products. Nature knows best, and ranchers are a close second in regard to nutrition erudition. Even if the steer which provided the meat or the cow which provided the dairy was corn-finished, as long as the animal was primarily raised on a grass-based diet, then the food will be redolent with CLA and other valuable nutrients. So treat yourself to a real meal of hearty steak, instead of spending money on another pill to swallow. Because you know which one you’d prefer.
Conclusion: Omega-6 fatty acids are either praised or vilified depending on the study which is being discussed. Yet this is due to a semantic matter over the quantity consumed, not the quality of the nutrient. Omega-6 fats are essential to proper biological function, including brain health. One of the most efficient and safest ways to obtain this nutrient is by consuming CLA from grass-fed meat or dairy products.
3) Saturated Fats (from both animal and plant sources)
Everyone praises the benefits of omega-3 fat consumption. The public opinion is split in regard to omega-6 fatty acids. But when the subject of saturated fat is introduced, in most cases it is almost always vilified in contemporary American education. While a plethora of factors played a role in the public demise of this essential nutrient, the campaign against its good nature was inflamed from one unfortunate situation. During the 1960s, researchers from Harvard were paid an undisclosed amount of money from the sugar industry to incorrectly state that consumption of saturated fat was the main (some say only) contributor to heart disease. The foundation for this claim was based on the work of Ancel Keys. Although Dr. Keys was a brilliant scientist, the study from which he made his conclusion was flawed because he fed saturated fat to vegetarian animal subjects (mostly cows and rabbits) whose physiology could not naturally assimilate saturated fat. Yet by the time this was discovered, the damage had already been done. By the 1970s, it was fashionable to wax vitriolic about saturated fat. And the steak-and-eggs diets of the past decade were replaced with high-sugar, high-carbohydrate ‘health’ food which we still see today. As we sadly see with Hindsight, the obliteration of saturated fat did not end the heart disease epidemic. Instead, heart disease is now the number one killer in our country. And its partner in crime is our rampant obesity epidemic.
I am not a nutrition expert by any means, and I will end my dietary diatribe about saturated fat with that. But I will leave this list of biological functions which depend on proper saturated fat intake to read at your leisure (2):
- The human brain is composed mainly from cholesterol and fatty acids. The majority of those fatty acids are saturated. This is because the brain does not have a fuel storage system, yet it still requires a constant source of nutrient-dense, high-quality fuel.
- Nerve signaling is dependent on the myelin sheaths which surround nerve tissues. This is composed of saturated fat. Everything from metabolic function to brain stem function is dependent on this.
- The debate on whether the saturated fat layer which covers the heart is protective or harmful is still being argued. But everyone understands that a lack of saturated fat does reduce the amount of protective lipoproteins (against heart disease).
- Saturated fat shields the liver from the deleterious effects of various medications, drugs, and alcohol.
- Surfactant, the lining which keeps your lungs moving, is composed of saturated fat.
- Calcium cannot properly store calcium into bones without proper saturated fat intake.
Conclusion: Sometimes your worst enemy can be your best friend in disguise. Saturated fat is essential and retains an undeserved reputation. Proper intake of saturated fat is necessary for normal brain function, including mental health.
It is a wonderful time to be adrift in this ocean of life. We have the opportunities to travel farther and explore more than we had ever dreamed. But we are currently lost in a sea of information, and we are at a risk of being caught under a wave of depression. Before the storm strikes us, we must examine all possible links to prevent ourselves from sinking. Otherwise, we will all be lost due to an avoidable tragedy. We must work on our strengths, and one of our most probable links at the moment is the potential connection between a responsible intake of fat consumption and a diminishing of depressive symptoms. It is a sink-or-swim moment in the current environment of nutrition erudition. Let’s rise above the false claims and fake medicine, and scientifically demonstrate how we can use what we have to help ourselves develop into fully-interactive members of society.
- Duffy SL, Lagopoulos J, Cockayne N, Lewis SJ, Hickie IB, Hermens DU, Naismith SL. The effect of 12-week polyunsaturated-omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on in vivo thalamus glutathione concentration in patients ‘at risk’ for major depression. Nutrition. 2015 Oct; 31(10): 1247-54. Accessed on October 7, 2017.
- Nestler EJ, Hyman SE, Malenka RC. Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience. 2nd ed. New York City, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2009.
- Omega-3s: Always a Good Idea. Always Omega-3s website. http://alwaysomega3s.com/learn/epa-dha-ala-omega-3s. Published 2017. Accessed on October 7, 2017.
- Sharifan P, Hosseini MS, Sharifan A. The interventional relationship between frequent fish consumption and depression symptoms in aging adults: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2017 Jan 26. Accessed on October 7, 2017.