Your Health

Fish Oil Supplements Good For Heart, Maybe Not For Depression

spoonful of Omega-3s

How many health benefits can we get out of these Omega-3 pills? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Although they may cause some people to experience unpleasant fishy burps, Omega-3 fatty acids enjoy rock star status in the nutrition world.

There's oodles of evidence linking fish oil to heart health. Studies have shown Omega-3s can help lower triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), improve heart rhythm problems, and protect against a range of cardiovascular diseases.

But evidence that fish oils may help with post-partum depression? Not so much.

Doctors like recommending fish oil because it comes with few risks. And many patients like taking the supplement. They think of it as a medicine — without dangerous side effects. "A lot of physicians have jumped on the bandwagon," says Brent Bauer of the Mayo Clinic.

But there's a limit to how much we can expect from a daily dose of fish oil.  Take, for instance, the suggestion that Omega-3s may help fight depression.

"I'd put this in the category of very intriguing," says Bauer. He explains researchers first made this link when they observed lower levels of depression in countries that consume a lot of fish, like Japan. But as scientists use more rigorous methods to evaluate an anti-depressive effect, the evidence is mixed.

Take the new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association of some 2,400 moms-to-be in Australia. The women were divided into two groups. One group took a daily capsule of 800 mg of DHA-rich fish oil. The other group took a supplement that looked the same, but was actually filled with vegetable oil. None knew if they were taking the "real thing" or the placebo.

When their babies were 6 months old, researchers checked in to determine the moms' levels of depression. It turns out that those who had been taking fish oil were no less likely to suffer from post-partum depression.

Experts say these findings shouldn't dissuade moms-to-be from taking 200 mg of DHA daily during pregnancy.

"I think the recommendations should remain the same" says Emily Oken of Harvard Medical School. She points out that while fish oil hasn't been found to fight depression, it's generally recommended for moms-to-be because it helps support fetal brain development and helps decrease the risk of pre-term birth.

The Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science summarized these benefits following a year-long review in 2007.

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