Omega 3’s are the type of nutrients that have been most extensively studied in relation to PPD. They are essential for proper brain function in the mother, as well as infant neural and visual development (Shapiro, ). High levels of omega-3 fatty acids are found in neurons, the core components of the nervous system, which process and transmit information throughout the whole body. It is believed that due to supplying the fetal brain women lose a substantial amount of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy (Nahas & Sheikh, 2011; Shapiro, ). In addition, depressed patients have significantly lower red blood cell omega-3 levels. It has also been found that cultures that consume larger amounts of fish suffer less from depression. The link between pregnancy and lower omega-3 levels, points to its possible contribution to PPD (Nahas & Sheikh, 2011; Shapiro, ).
In the United States, the average DHA content of mother’s milk is among the lowest in the world. U.S. women usually eat as little as 40-50 mg of DHA per day (Kurko, 2011). Two Canadian studies found that Canadian women of childbearing age consumed 126-160mg/day of DHA and EPA combined. These levels are well below the recommendations of 500mg/day from the National Institutes of Health, the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada (Shapiro). Japanese women typically consume as much as 600 mg/day, while Eskimo women eat up to 1400 mg/day (Kurko, 2011)! “Research has shown that countries with higher fish consumption (such as Japan, Hong Kong, Sweden and Chile) have the lowest levels of postpartum depression, while countries with the lowest fish consumption (Brazil, South Africa, West Germany and Saudi Arabia) had the highest (Kurko, 2011.)”
Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly found in fish, and especially fatty fish such as salmon or sardines. You can also take fish oil supplements. Flax, soy, canola, and walnuts contain an Omega-3 precursor, called Alpha-linolenic (ALA) acid. However, it is poorly converted in most humans, so is therefore not an ideal source of Omega-3’s (Nahas & Sheikh, 2011). If you still prefer a vegan source, out of the various vegetable seeds and oils, chia seeds and flax seeds have the highest amounts of ALA. Flax seed oil is easy to obtain and tastes delicious on cottage cheese, salad, and even ice cream.
As far as other sources go, studies found that dairy which comes from grass-fed cows has more Omega-3’s than dairy that comes from factory farms. Similarly, eggs that come from hens with a foraging diet based on grass and insects have higher amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids than eggs from hens that are fed a corn or soy-based diet (“Omega-3 Fatty Acid”, 2013).
One reason why fish are so high in omega 3’s is because of their food source. If you are vegetarian, you can get some Omega 3’s from eating seaweed such as dulse or kelp. The best-known seaweed in North America is nori, which can be eaten in a sushi roll, or munched on as a snack. While not an extremely high source of Omega-3’s, relative to some other vegetarian options, nori is a good source. One piece of nori contains three times as much Omega-3’s as two avocados. Popular types of seaweed are kelp varieties of wakame, kombu, and hijiki. These can be added to most soup broths. Kombu can be added to the water when you cook dry beans, and aids in the digestion process. An easy source of seaweed is dulse flakes that you can sprinkle on other food that you eat, such as rice or salad. If you have any thyroid problems it is best to check with you doctor before adding more seaweed into your diet. Seaweed and kelp are high in iodine, which, in excess, can be dangerous and lead to hypothyroidism.
While most women in North America can benefit from increasing their omega-3 intake, you should do it with care. You should ensure that fish oil capsules are of a high quality and from a healthy source. You should be careful when changing your diet drastically, such as adding a lot of seaweed if your body is not used to it. Make big changes gradually and give your body time to adjust and also to feel if the changes feel good to you. Adding salmon to your diet once or twice a week can be a safe and easy way to begin. Most nutritionists agree that the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks. However, remember that even though omega-3’s probably influence mental health, depression is likely caused by a number of different underlying elements. Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids might represent only one factor of depression, and will therefore not heal depression all on its own (Nahas & Sheikh, 2011). Increasing your Omega-3 intake through your diet is likely to be one positive aspect of your larger treatment plan.
- Kurko, M. (2011). Omega 3 for Postpartum Depression. Retrieved from http://www.mamashine.net/omega-3-for-postpartum-depression/).”
- Nahas, R. (MD), Sheikh, O. (MD). (2011) Complementary and alternative medicine for the treatment of major depressive disorder. Canadian Family Physician, 57, 659-663.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omega-3_fatty_acid
- Shapiro, G. D., Fraser, W. D., Seguin, J. R. (2012). Emerging risk factors for postpartum depression: serotonin transporter genotype and omega-3 fatty acid status. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 57, 11, 704-712.