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Omega-3s could ward off depression in pregnancy, but don't count on it

April 13, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey
  • Pregnant women who took fish oil capsules had fewer depression symptoms in a new, small study.
Pregnant women who took fish oil capsules had fewer depression symptoms… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Pregnant women are often urged to eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (usually simply referred to as “fish”) for healthier and smarter babies, but now research suggests that the “brain food” may also help women ward off postpartum depression. Or, rather, depression symptoms. Maybe.

In a 52-person study, pregnant women who took a fish oil capsule five days a week during their third trimester had fewer symptoms of postpartum depression—such as anxiety—than women who took a placebo of corn oil during their third trimester, researchers at the University of Connecticut have announced. The fish oil capsule had 300 milligrams of the omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA; experts recommend 200 milligrams to 300 milligrams for pregnant women.

After giving birth, women were screened on a postpartum depression scale that assessed eating and sleeping changes, confusion and feelings of guilt or suicide. The results of the study were announced Wednesday at the Experimental Biology meeting in Washington, D.C.  Overall, women who’d taken the fish oil scored lower.

Researchers would like to find a natural way to prevent postpartum depression, especially because women may be reluctant to take medications while pregnant, but no one is suggesting that omega-3s can replace antidepressants. 

Between 14% and 23% of pregnant women get depression symptoms during pregnancy, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and about 13% take an antidepressant while pregnant. 

Omega-3s are beneficial for sure, especially in pregnant women. In several studies, babies whose mothers took fish oil capsules are born heavier and score higher on mental and hand-eye coordination tests several years later. And in the general population, eating foods high in omega-3s has been linked to healthier eyes, brain and heart. 

But a reality check: This study involved only 52 people. Fifty-two. There simply weren’t enough participants to determine whether there were fewer diagnosed depression cases in the fish oil group. There were just enough to add slight emphasis to the message that DHA is probably a good thing to consume.

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