Study: Fish Oil May Prevent Symptoms of Postpartum Depression

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Lianne Milton

Postpartum depression can affect up to 25% of new mothers during the first year after delivery, but researchers say there may be a relatively easy way to lower that risk — starting before women give birth.

Presenting at the annual Experimental Biology meeting in Washington, D.C., Michelle Judge of the University of Connecticut School of Nursing and her team reported the results of a trial showing that women who took fish oil supplements during pregnancy had fewer symptoms of postpartum depression than women who took placebo.

In previous research on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids — the primary fat in fish such as salmon, mackerel and swordfish — during pregnancy, Judge, like other research groups, had found that the babies of expectant moms who consumed more of the beneficial fats developed faster, both mentally and physically. Emerging research at the time also hinted at why this occurs — in the third trimester, fatty acids like omega-3 fats are preferentially shunted from the mother to the developing fetus, enhancing the final stages of growth and maturity in the womb. But that leaves the mother with a potential deficit in omega-3 fats, and Judge was curious about what effect that drop might have.

Fueling her interest was research showing that omega-3 fatty acids could improve depressive symptoms in general, even among people who weren’t pregnant. There were also some trials suggesting that expectant moms who ate more fish tended to have lower rates of postpartum depression.

For the current trial, Judge’s team studied 42 pregnant women who took either 200 mg of fish oil, in the form of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), or a placebo, daily from their 24th week of pregnancy to birth. Health experts currently recommend that pregnant women take about 200 mg daily of DHA, but most moms-to-be fall far short of this advice, consuming only about 50 mg to 100 mg per day.

The women also filled out questionnaires to rate their depressive symptoms, before the trial and four more times postpartum. The women who took the fish oil supplements scored six points lower on the postpartum depression scale than those who received placebo.

Unfortunately, the study was too small to include a sufficient number of women who went on to develop postpartum depression, but Judge says the reduction in depressive symptoms is a good preliminary result, and hints that omega-3 fatty acids may help address some of the contributing factors to postpartum depression.

Recent studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can enhance the signals that nerve cells use to communicate in brain networks. And, in animals studies, lower levels of fish oil have been associated with reduced levels of less dopamine and serotonin, two brain chemicals associated with mood.

Judge is planning to expand the study to include more women who go on to develop full-blown postpartum depression. But in the meantime, she notes that since most pregnant women don’t meet the daily recommended dose of omega-3 fatty acids, it wouldn’t hurt to encourage them to increase their consumption. Expectant moms should consider adding a fish oil capsule or two to their daily regimen — for both their baby and themselves.

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