(RxWiki News) Omega-3s are often praised for their heart health benefits. But new evidence suggests the fatty acids may play an important role in mental health, too.
A new study from Penn State College of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health found that patients with bipolar disorder (BD) may have a lower availability of certain omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies than patients without the disorder.
Omega-3s are naturally found in fish, vegetable oils and nuts — especially walnuts, flax seeds, salmon and leafy vegetables.
These essential fatty acids are important for cell-to-cell communication in the brain. They also play an important role in the body's immune and inflammatory systems.
"We are actively pursuing the next step in this line of inquiry to get to the point where we know what changes in diets are going to help people with bipolar disorder so they can have another option beyond the medications that are currently available," said lead study author Erika Saunders, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Penn, in a press release.
BD is a brain disorder that causes shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and behavior. These shifts can be severe and are different from the normal ups and downs of everyday life.
Although past studies have found that omega-3 supplements may be beneficial for patients with depression, the findings have been more mixed for patients with BD.
To investigate, Dr. Saunders and team compared fatty acids in 27 BD patients and 31 control patients. These patients self-reported their fatty acid intake and BD drug use. Levels of different forms of the polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6 were then measured.
In the patients with BD, these researchers found that the levels of an omega-3 fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) were lower than in the other patients. And these lower levels correlated with symptoms.
No difference in self-reported fatty acid intake was found between the two groups.
In spite of this promising finding, Dr. Saunders said it's still too early to advise dietary changes or omega-3 supplements for patients with BD.
This study was published in last month's issue of the journal Bipolar Disorders.
The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences funded this research.
Dr. Saunders consulted for Projects in Knowledge. Study author Dr. Gelenberg received grant support from Pfizer and consulted for similar companies.