Depression is a serious and common mental disorder responsible for the majority of suicides. As I’ve covered in Antioxidants & Depression, intake of fruits, vegetables, and naturally occurring antioxidants have been found to be protectively associated with depression. Therefore, researchers have considered that “it may be possible to prevent depression or to lessen its negative effects through dietary intervention.”
But not so fast. Cross-sectional studies are snapshots in time, so we don’t know “whether a poor dietary pattern precedes the development of depression or if depression causes poor dietary intake.” Depression and even treatments for depression can affect appetite and dietary intake. Maybe people who feel crappier just eat crappier, instead of the other way around.
What we need is a prospective study (a study performed over time) where we start out with people who are not depressed and follow them for several years. In 2012, we got just such a study, which ran over six years. As you’ll see in my video Fish Consumption and Suicide, those with higher carotenoid levels in their bloodstream, which is considered a good indicator of fruit and vegetable intake, had a 28% lower risk of becoming depressed within that time. The researchers conclude that having low blood levels of those healthy phytonutrients may predict the development of new depressive symptoms. What about suicide?
Worldwide, a million people kill themselves every year. Of all European countries, Greece appears to have the lowest rates of suicide. It may be the balmy weather, but it may also have something to do with their diet. Ten thousand people were followed for years, and those following a more Mediterranean diet pattern were less likely to be diagnosed with depression. What was it about the diet that was protective? It wasn’t the red wine or fish; it was the fruit, nuts, beans, and effectively higher plant to animal fat ratio that appeared protective. Conversely, significant adverse trends were observed for dairy and meat consumption.
A similar protective dietary pattern was found in Japan. A high intake of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, and soy products was associated with a decreased prevalence of depressive symptoms. The healthy dietary pattern was not characterized by a high intake of seafood. Similar results were found in a study of 100,000 Japanese men and women followed for up to 10 years. There was no evidence of a protective role of higher fish consumption or the long-chain omega 3s EPA and DHA against suicide. In fact, they found a significantly increased risk of suicide among male nondrinkers with high seafood omega 3 intake. This may have been by chance, but a similar result was found in the Mediterranean. High baseline fish consumption with an increase in consumption were associated with an increased risk of mental disorders.
One possible explanation could be the mercury content of fish. Could an accumulation of mercury compounds in the body increase the risk of depression? We know that mercury in fish can cause neurological damage, associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and autism, but also depression. Therefore, “the increased risk of suicide among persons with a high fish intake might also be attributable to the harmful effects of mercury in fish.”
Large Harvard University cohort studies found similar results. Hundreds of thousands were followed for up to 20 years, and no evidence was found that taking fish oil or eating fish lowered risk of suicide. There was even a trend towards higher suicide mortality.
What about fish consumption for the treatment of depression? When we put together all the trials done to date, neither the EPA nor DHA long-chain omega-3s appears more effective than sugar pills. We used to think omega-3 supplementation was useful, but several recent studies have tipped the balance the other way. It seems that “[n]early all of the treatment efficacy observed in the published literature may be attributable to publication bias,” meaning the trials that showed no benefit tended not to get published at all. So, all doctors saw were a bunch of positive studies, but only because a bunch of the negative ones were buried.
This reminds me of my Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil? video. Just like we thought omega-3 supplementation could help with mood, we also thought it could help with heart health, but the balance of evidence has decidedly shifted. I still recommend the consumption of pollutant-free sources of preformed long-chain omega 3s for cognitive health and explain my rationale in Should We Take DHA Supplements to Boost Brain Function? and Should Vegans Take DHA to Preserve Brain Function?
For more on the neurotoxic nature of mercury-contaminated seafood, see:
What can we do to help our mood? See:
What about antidepressant drugs? Sometimes they can be absolutely life-saving, but other times they may actually do more harm than good. See my controversial video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?.
Michael Greger, M.D.
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