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Omega-3s May Cut Risk of Postpartum Depression

Eating fatty fish or other foods rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy may help lower your risk of developing symptoms commonly seen in postpartum depression, a small study suggests.

April 11, 2011 -- Eating fatty fish or other foods rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy may help lower your risk of developing symptoms commonly seen in postpartum depression, a small study suggests.

The findings are slated for presentation at the Experimental Biology 2011 meeting in Washington, D.C.

Many new mothers experience the “baby blues” in the first few weeks after delivery. Symptoms of the baby blues, such as mood swings, insomnia, and feeling overwhelmed, are generally not long-lasting.

Postpartum depression is a more serious illness. It has moderate to severe depression symptoms such as sadness and hopelessness, severe mood swings, confusion, guilt, sleeping and eating disturbances, and sometimes thoughts of suicide.

There is a wealth of research linking omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in salmon and other oily fish to improved cardiovascular health. Omega-3 fatty acids are important to the development of a fetus’s neurologic development and growth. In fact, some prenatal vitamins contain omega-3 fatty acids including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

In the new study, 52 pregnant women took either a corn oil placebo pill or a fish oil capsule containing 300 milligrams of DHA for five days a week during the 24th to 40th weeks of their pregnancy. The amount of DHA contained in each capsule is the equivalent of about one-half serving of salmon.

The researchers used a postpartum depression screening scale to determine if the women were showing any signs or symptoms of postpartum depression two weeks, six weeks, three months, and six months after delivery.

Women who received the fish oil supplements scored lower on the scale and had significantly fewer postpartum depression symptoms than those who received the placebo. Women in the fish oil group were also less likely to report anxiety symptoms, the study shows.

But the study was too small to draw any sweeping conclusions about fish oil and risk for postpartum depression.

"DHA consumption during pregnancy -- at levels that are reasonably attained from foods -- has the potential to decrease symptoms of postpartum depression," conclude study researchers led by Michelle Price Judge, PhD, RD, a faculty member at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing.

Omega-3s Only Part of the Equation

Most experts agree that omega-3s offer many health benefits but should not be considered a panacea for postpartum depression risk.

“Essential fatty acids including those found in fish may help some women who are at-risk for postpartum depression by bolstering the vesicles that carry mood chemicals such as serotonin in the brain,” says Antolin M. Llorente, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of neuropsychology at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore.

“Some women have seen positive mood changes after taking these supplements and kept taking them, but from a scientific standpoint, it’s too soon to say what role they have in preventing postpartum depression,” he says.

That said, these fatty acids do have positive effects on child growth and development.

“Seek professional assistance if you are at-risk for, or experiencing signs of, postpartum depression,” he says. “Many times you do need medications such as an antidepressant to get through an episode.”

Women with a personal or family history of depression may be at increased risk for developing postpartum depression. “Share this with your obstetrician and team at hospital to make them aware that there is a history and to watch you for any signs and also tell someone on the team if you feel differently or have symptoms that define depression,” Llorente says.

Cassie Vanderwall, RD, an outpatient dietitian at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, routinely counsels pregnant women on nutrition.

“Omega-3s are heart-healthy fats that will benefit brain and cardiovascular system, and there may be some mental health benefits,” she says. “It makes sense that if we eat more omega-3s it would benefit our brain and other organs surrounded by fatty tissues.”

Vanderwall usually encourages people to get their nutrients from food instead of supplements. She typically tells pregnant women to eat fatty fish such as salmon once or twice a week during pregnancy.

Predatory fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish are thought to have high mercury levels and pregnant women should avoid eating these fish.

Other food sources of omega-3 fatty acids are walnuts and flaxseeds.

“I don't say this will prevent postpartum depression, but fatty fish and other omega-3-rich foods will benefit them and their child’s development,” she says. “It is a good idea to discuss your diet during pregnancy with your obstetrician.”

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