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Can Omega-3s Help Banish the “Winter Blues”?
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Feeling “SAD”? Fish oil seen to diminish seasonal affective disorder

by Craig Weatherby

Are you feeling sad, anxious, or listless? Are you oversleeping? Do you have unsual cravings for sweets or heavy starches? You may be suffering the effects of “SAD”.

An estimated 35 million Americans—including children—suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). After months of short, dark days, the “winter blues” can be very depressing and debilitating.

Even Eskimos get SAD, absent omega-3s

The indigenous peoples of the far north depend on fatty, omega-3-rich fish, seals, and whales to maintain the high caloric intake and ample body fat needed to survive long, brutal Artic winters.

Recently, researchers at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks concluded that these native peoples also depend on omega-3-rich foods to avoid the depressing effects of SAD.

As the researchers concluded in their 2003 study, “The change… from traditional foods to the processed groceries... has already led to… increased rates of depression, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, and suicide... we hypothesize that diet is an important risk factor for mental health in circumpolar peoples.” (McGrath-Hanna MK et al 2004)

SAD is usually treated with antidepressants such as Prozac or Zoloft—whose effectiveness remains unclear—and with light therapy, in which sufferers sit in front of a strong light for 30-120 minutes every day.

Fish oil seen as mood supporter

Given the preponderance of evidence indicating that omega-3s can elevate mood, reduce depression, and reduce the risk of suicide, fatty fish and fish oil supplements should be part of any anti-SAD strategy.

In fact, a recent study from Belgium found seasonal declines in people’s blood levels of EPA and DHA: declines that correlated with lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and increased rates of suicide (de Vriese SR et al 2004).  Like modern antidepressants such as Prozac, omega-3s appear to alleviate depression in part by modulating serotonin levels.

Researchers at the Harvard University Medical School described the promising state of scientific knowledge concerning the preventive/therapeutic promise of fish-derived omega-3s (especially DHA) in a 2000 review article (Mischoulon D, Fava M 2000):

  • “Geographic areas where consumption of DHA is high are associated with decreased rates of depression.”

  • “DHA deficiency states, such as alcoholism and the postpartum period, also are linked with depression. Individuals with major depression have marked depletions in omega-3 FAs (especially DHA) ...”

  • “These data suggest that DHA may be associated with depression, and the limited data available on supplementation with DHA or other omega-3 FAs seem to support the hypothesis that DHA may have psychotropic [brain-changing] effects.”

If you live north of the Mason–Dixon line, it certainly seems a good idea to favor fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, and sablefish during those long months of short, dark days.

Note: It takes time—several weeks at least—to benefit from dietary omega-3s, so get started now, be a bit patient, and look forward to feeling better and having more energy!

It's also helpful to get outdoor as often as possible for fresh air and exercise, which will help lift your mood.  And if possible, time spent in a greenhouse can help restore your spirits.


  • K, Hamazaki T. Suicide attempt and n-3 fatty acid levels in red blood cells: a case control study in China. Biol Psychiatry. 2004 Oct 1;56(7):490-6.
  • Hakkarainen R, Partonen T, Haukka J, Virtamo J, Albanes D, Lonnqvist J. Is low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids associated with depression? Am J Psychiatry. 2004 Mar;161(3):567-9.
  • Yao JK, Magan S, Sonel AF, Gurklis JA, Sanders R, Reddy RD. Effects of omega-3 fatty acid on platelet serotonin responsivity in patients with schizophrenia. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2004 Sep;71(3):171-6.
  • De Vriese SR, Christophe AB, Maes M. In humans, the seasonal variation in poly-unsaturated fatty acids is related to the seasonal variation in violent suicide and serotonergic markers of violent suicide. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2004 Jul;71(1):13-8.
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