Mamas on Bedrest: Low Levels of Omega 3’s May Increase Post Partum Depression

December 3rd, 2012

I am increasingly encouraged by the amount of attention supposed “alternative” therapies are getting in medical research. As we have previously reported on this blog, Fish Oil May Be Useful in Treating Post Partum Depression.  On November 26, 2012, Med Scape reported on new research out of Canada that suggests that low levels of Omega 3 Fatty Acids, i.e. fish oil, may decrease the risk of developing post partum depression (PPD).

Gabriel Shapiro, MPH/PhD candidate and colleagues from the University of Montreal and the Centre de Recherche du CHU Sainte-Justine, Montreal, Canada, report that the review shows several carefully conducted studies that indicate an association between the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) genotype and PPD.

Now what does that mean in plain language?

“The literature shows that there could be a link between pregnancy, omega-3, and the chemical reaction that enables serotonin, a mood regulator, to be released into our brains (causing a decreased uptake of serotonin). Many women could bring their omega-3 intake to recommended levels (and perhaps reduce their risk for developing PPD).”

The 5-HTT gene regulates serotin uptake in the brain. This gene is the target of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil and others) in reducing and eliminating depressive symptoms.  

When trying to assess biological factors for the development of PPD (Marital Stress, low Socioeconomic status and stressful life events are the major psychosocial causes), they noted the activation of the 5HTT gene. Drawing from previous research in the literature, the researchers decided to look at the 5 HTT gene in conjunction with Omega 3 Fatty acids. What researchers have noted is that women who have low levels of Omega 3 fatty acids are more likely to develop PPD than their counterparts with higher levels of Omega 3 Fatty acids.

The Canadian researchers noted that  docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is an important building block of the central nervous system (CNS) in infants. If it is not available in sufficient levels during pregnancy and lactation, there can be serious negative effects for both the child and mother later on.

While researchers here in the US are slow to accept reports that Omega 3 Fatty acids do impact a woman’s risk of developing PPD, Canada has an entire webpage outlining the benefits and proposed doses.  Although the research is promising, here in the US, physicians, researchers and health care advocates (me!) are stopping short of recommending that pregnant women routinely take Omega 3 fatty acids during pregnancy. If you are considering adding Omega 3 Fatty Acids to your diet while you are pregnant, we highly recommend that you discuss this with your health care provider.

Everyone agrees that more research needs to be done to better understand the exact role and mechanism of action of Omega 3 Fatty Acids in the treatment of prevention of PPD. However, it’s really great to contemplate that we may be able to help women prevent post partum depression and reduce the severity of symptoms in those women who develop post partum depression by simply adding fish oil to their dietary regimen.


Emerging Risk Factors for Postpartum Depression: Serotonin Transporter Genotype and Omega-3 Fatty Acid Status

Gabriel D Shapiro, MPH (PhD Candidate); William D Fraser, MD, MSc, FRCSC; Jean R Séguin, PhD. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 2012;57:704-712

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