Alan C Logan email

Integrative Care Centre of Toronto, 3600 Ellesmere Road, Unit 4, Toronto, ON M1C 4Y8, Canada

author email corresponding author email

Lipids in Health and Disease 2004, 3:25doi:10.1186/1476-511X-3-25



Omega-3 fatty acids play a critical role in the development and function of the central nervous system. Emerging research is establishing an association between omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic, eicosapentaenoic (EPA), docosahexaenoic (DHA)) and major depressive disorder. Evidence from epidemiological, laboratory and clinical studies suggest that dietary lipids and other associated nutritional factors may influence vulnerability and outcome in depressive disorders. Research in this area is growing at a rapid pace. The goal of this report is to integrate various branches of research in order to update mental health professionals.


Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a recurrent, debilitating, and potentially life threatening illness. Over the last 100 years, the age of onset of major depression has decreased, and its overall incidence has increased in Western countries. The increases in depression, up to 20-fold higher post 1945, cannot be fully explained by changes in attitudes of health professionals or society, diagnostic criteria, reporting bias, institutional or other artifacts [1,2] Despite advances in pharmacotherapy, and the increasing sophistication of cognitive/behavioral interventions, there are many patients with MDD who remain treatment resistant [3].

Depression is undoubtedly an extremely complex and heterogeneous condition. This is reflected by the non-universal results obtained using cognitive-behavior and antidepressant medications. As research continues to mount, it is becoming clear that neurobiology/physiology, genetics, life stressors, and environmental factors can all contribute to vulnerability to depression. While much attention has been given to genetics and life stressors, only a small group of international researchers have focused on nutritional influences on depressive symptoms. Collectively, the results of this relatively small body of research indicate that nutritional influences on MDD are currently underestimated [4]. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular represent an exciting area of research, with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) emerging as a new potential agent in the treatment of depression [5].

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) of plant and marine origin. Because these essential fatty acids cannot be synthesized by the human body, they must be derived from dietary sources. Flaxseed, hemp, canola and walnut oils are all generally rich sources of the parent omega-3, alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Dietary ALA can be metabolized in the liver to the longer-chain omega-3 eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This conversion is limited in human beings, it is estimated that only 5–15% of ALA is ultimately converted to DHA [6]. Aging, illness and stress, as well as excessive amounts of omega-6 rich oils (corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed) can all compromise conversion [7]. Dietary fish and seafood provide varying amounts of pre-formed EPA and DHA as highlighted in Table 1.