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Can Fish Oils Prevent or Delay Development of Psychosis?

December 04, 2014 | 86,104 views

By Dr. Mercola

In 1999, Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Stoll published a study showing that omega-3 fats improved the course of illness in people with bipolar disorder.1 In 2001, he published the book The Omega-3 Connection, which was among the first works to bring attention to and support the use of omega-3 fats for depression.

Now, more than a decade later, there has been additional research supporting the importance of omega-3 fats for mental health, including a potentially groundbreaking study presented at the 2014 International Early Psychosis Conference in Tokyo, Japan, which took place in November.2

If you have a loved one who is struggling with any form of psychosis or even has early signs there may be a problem, animal-based omega-3 fat supplementation may represent a powerful, and safe, form of treatment.

Omega-3 Fats May Delay Development of Psychosis

Sixty percent of your brain is made up of fat. The omega-3 fat DHA alone makes up about 15 percent to 20 percent of your brain's cerebral cortex. It's found in relatively high levels in your neurons – the cells of your central nervous system, where it provides structural support.

Because your brain is literally built from omega-3 fats, it makes sense that it would play an integral role in your brain function. But in addition, omega-3s also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and these are thought to be responsible for some of their therapeutic effects on mental health.

In one of the latest studies, researchers from the Orygen Youth Health Research Center in Australia revealed that people at high risk of developing psychosis can prevent the condition from developing for about seven years… simply by taking an animal-based omega-3 fat supplement.3

Among the patients taking animal-based omega-3s, only 10 percent transitioned to psychosis during the study period. The rate of transition among the non-omega-3 group was 40 percent.

Further, those in the placebo group had a more rapid progression time to psychosis compared to those in the omega-3 group. Those taking omega-3s also had significantly improved overall symptoms and psychosocial functioning.

The study builds on 2010 research by the same group, which found that supplementing with animal-based omega-3s for 12 weeks reduced the risk of psychosis development in those at high risk for over one year. The 2014 study has now established that omega-3s may delay progression to psychosis for much longer – a period of at least seven years.

Also notable, the 2010 study revealed that the beneficial effects of the omega-3s on delaying psychosis remained even after the supplements were stopped – a benefit the study's lead author, Dr. Paul Amminger said has not been seen in trials of antipsychotic medications.4

'Hope That There May Be Alternatives to Antipsychotics'

Antipsychotic medications are among the most powerful and side-effect-prone drugs in medicine, which is why finding a natural alternative is all the more important. And the researchers believe animal-based omega-3 may present a viable option. According to Dr. Amminger:5

"The finding that treatment with a natural substance may prevent, or at least delay, the onset of psychotic disorder gives hope that there may be alternatives to antipsychotic drugs… Omega-3 fish oil preparations have the advantage of excellent tolerability, public acceptance, low cost and benefits for general health.

…Although early treatment [of psychosis such as schizophrenia] has been linked to better outcomes, early intervention in psychosis has been hampered by the fact that young people do often not accept conventional medications because they often cause unwanted side-effects."

The side effects caused by these drugs include, ironically, psychotic symptoms (like hearing voices or paranoia), aggressive behavior, hostility, seizures, heart attack, delayed puberty, and more. Oftentimes, the side effects are far worse than the symptoms for which they're prescribed, and rival illegal street drugs in terms of their dangerous risks to health.

In children, the long-term effects are often largely unknown, while in the short term, we've seen shocking increases in violent and aggressive acts committed by teens taking one or more antipsychotic drugs.

As Dr. Barbara Cornblatt, director of recognition and prevention program at Zucker Hillside Hospital, explains in the video above, it's known that early intervention can help those who might develop psychosis. So it was not uncommon for antipsychotic drugs to be prescribed to healthy people – even before they were displaying symptoms.

As she stated, only 30 percent of those people went on to develop actual psychosis while the other 70 percent were on powerful medications, risking serious side effects, for nothing.

Taking animal-based omega-3 fats, on the other hand, may offer similar potential to ward off psychosis without any negative side effects and, likely, some very good ones. Animal-based omega-3 fats are so beneficial that I recommend virtually everyone optimize their intake, whether they have mental health challenges or not.

Fish Oil May Also Help Preserve Your Brain Cells

In related news, a study in the journal Neurology reported that "older women with the highest levels of the DHA and EPA omega-3 fats, found in fish oil, had better preservation of their brain as they aged than those with the lowest levels, which might mean they would maintain better brain function for an extra year or two."6, 7

The researchers assessed these omega-3 fat levels in the red blood cells of more than 1,100 participants in the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study. The average age of the participants was 70. Eight years later, their brain volumes were measured using an MRI scan.

The women whose omega-3 levels were the highest—7.5 percent—at the outset of the study had 0.7 percent larger brain volume eight years later. Their hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory formation, was also 2.7 percent larger.

Their findings suggest that omega-3 can be helpful in slowing down age-related brain atrophy. Brain shrinkage tends to be accelerated in those with Alzheimer's, making preserving your brain a key facet of Alzheimer's prevention. According to Bloomberg:8

"...more studies are needed to look at what that means for memory, said James Pottala, the lead study author. 'Omega-3s are building blocks for brain cell membranes,' said Pottala...

If achieving certain omega-3 levels 'can prevent or delay dementia, that would have huge mental health benefits, especially since levels can be safely and inexpensively raised through diet and supplementation.'"

Professor Pottala also indicated that previous studies have shown that eating non-fried oily fish twice a week and taking fish oil supplements, can raise your mean red blood cell level of EPA and DHA to 7.5 percent—the same level as the women with the highest omega-3 levels had in this study.

What Are the Best Sources of Omega-3 Fats?

From my perspective, based on medical experience and overwhelming scientific evidence, making sure you're getting enough omega-3 in your diet, either from wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and anchovies, or a high-quality omega-3 supplement like krill oil, is absolutely crucial for your optimal health, including your mental health. While a helpful form of omega-3 can be found in flaxseed, chia, hemp, and a few other foods, the most beneficial form of omega-3 -- containing two fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which are essential to fighting and preventing both physical and mental disease -- can primarily be found in animal-based seafood like fish and krill.

Because, nearly all seafood is severely contaminated with environmental pollutants like PCBs and mercury, you have to be careful about the types of seafood you consume when trying to increase your omega-3 fats. A general guideline is that the closer to the bottom of the food chain the fish is, the less contamination it will have accumulated. Sardines, in particular, are one of the more concentrated sources of omega-3 fats, with one serving containing more than 50 percent of your recommended daily value.9 Other good options include anchovies, herring, and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.

The risk of authentic wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon accumulating high amounts of mercury and other toxins is reduced because of its short life cycle, which is only about three years. You're probably aware that if you don't eat a lot of fish, you can supplement your diet with animal-based omega-3 fats by taking fish oil. Less widely known is that you can also get your omega-3s from krill oil, and it may, in fact, be preferable to do so.

Why might you be better off with krill? The omega-3 in krill is attached to phospholipids that increase its absorption, which means you need less of it, and it won't cause belching or burping like many other fish oil products. Additionally, it contains almost 50 times more astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant, than fish oil. This prevents the highly perishable omega-3 fats from oxidizing before you are able to integrate them into your cellular tissue.

In laboratory tests, krill oil remained undamaged after being exposed to a steady flow of oxygen for 190 hours. Compare that to fish oil, which went rancid after just one hour. That makes krill oil nearly 200 times more resistant to oxidative damage compared to fish oil! When purchasing krill oil, you'll want to read the label and check the amount of astaxanthin it contains. The more the better, but anything above 0.2 mg per gram of krill oil will protect it from rancidity. To learn more about the benefits of krill oil versus fish oil, please see my interview with Dr. Rudi Moerck, a drug industry insider and an expert on omega-3 fats.

5 Tips to Support Your Mental Health

It can be a major challenge if someone you love is struggling with mental illness. The solutions offered below will often help you to overcome your battle in the long run, but in no way are they meant to minimize the complicated puzzle of mental illness, or the extreme toll it can take on family units and in some cases extended circles of friends. Whether you're facing schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, or another mental condition, these strategies have nothing but positive effects and are generally very inexpensive to implement. Plus, they can be used for both children and adults alike, and work great when implemented with your entire family involved.

  1. Exercise – If you suffer from depression, or even if you just feel down from time to time, exercise is a MUST. The research is overwhelmingly positive in this area, with studies confirming that physical exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed. One of the primary ways it does this is by increasing the level of endorphins, the "feel good" hormones, in your brain.
  2. Address your stress – Stress can worsen symptoms of mental illness as well as trigger relapses. Meditation or yoga can help. Sometimes, all you need to do is get outside for a walk. But in addition to that, I also recommend using a solid support system composed of friends, family, and, if necessary, professional counselors, who can help you work through your emotional stress. The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is also often effective.
  3. Eat a healthy diet -- Another factor that cannot be overlooked is your diet. Foods have an immense impact on your mood and ability to cope and be happy, and eating whole foods as described in my nutrition plan will best support your mental health. Avoiding fructose, sugar and grains will help normalize your insulin and leptin levels, which is another powerful tool in addressing positive mental health.
  4. In addition, scientific evidence increasingly shows that nourishing your gut flora with the beneficial bacteria found in traditionally fermented foods (or a probiotic supplement) is extremely important for proper brain function, and that includes psychological well-being and mood control. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride has successfully demonstrated the power and effectiveness of this theory. In her England clinic, she successfully treats children and adults with a wide range of conditions, including autism, ADD/ADHD, neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders, immune disorders, and digestive problems using the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Nutritional Program, which she developed.

  5. Support optimal brain functioning with essential fats -- I agree with the results of the featured study and also strongly recommend supplementing your diet with a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat, like krill oil, or eating sardines, anchovies, or wild-caught Alaskan salmon regularly to ensure you have an adequate intake of omega-3 fats.
  6. Get plenty of sunshine – Making sure you're getting enough sunlight exposure to have healthy vitamin D levels is also a crucial factor in treating depression or keeping it at bay. Vitamin D deficiency is actually more the norm than the exception, and has previously been implicated in numerous psychiatric and neurological disorders.

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