Bipolar Disorder Associated with Low Levels of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Bipolar disorder is a mental condition defined by dramatic mood swings. Emotions alternate between extremes of high and low, mania and depression. The manic phase exhibits elevated mood and high energy, which are followed by deep depression, often despair and suicidal tendencies. Opposing displays of emotions can last for days or even weeks while the patient cannot think clearly and is unable to cope with daily activities and life.


Bipolar disorder affects 3-4% of the population. This data is up from 1% in the past. There are no tests to diagnose since symptoms often overlap with other psychiatric disorders. There is no cure other than medications.

Study to Determine Levels of Omega-3s in Bipolar Disorder Patients

A recent study by researchers from Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, led by Dr. Erika Saunders, associate professor and chair of psychiatry, compared omega-3 fatty acid levels in people with bipolar disorder with healthy subjects to determine if omega-3 fish oils could improve mood swings in bipolar disorder.

Selected were 27 bipolar disorder patients and 31 healthy subjects. Different levels of omega-3 and omega-6 were measured together with information of consumption of fatty acids in their diets as well as medications used.

The resulting data showed no altered ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in bipolar subjects. However, lower levels of omega-3s were found in bipolar patients that corresponded to symptoms. In spite of this, recommendations to remedy this with supplements of omega 3 were not given.

The researchers believe there is a difference in how healthy people and bipolar patients convert fatty acids from one form to another. It is also thought that medications for bipolar disorders can interfere with the absorption of omega 3.

Diet and Essential Nutrients

It is crucial to maintain a healthy diet at all times, but when illness strikes, special care must be taken to supply the body with all nutrients needed to recuperate.

Some nutrients are essential and can only be obtained through diet. These are essential fatty acids, a group of omega-3s to which belong alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and polyunsaturated essential omega-6 fatty acids.

Our western diet contains large amounts of vegetable oils, which are loaded with omega-6. Omega-6 causes inflammation, a good thing to fight off invading bacteria, but too much makes inflammation run rampant. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory.

It is important to keep the balance between omega-3 and omega-6. The ratio in the past was 6:1 during times when diets did not contain as many polyunsaturated vegetable oils teeming with omega-6. Now the ratio is 3:1 and sometimes the recommendations are to keep an even balance of 1:1. According to researcher Erika Saunders, omega-3 and omega-6 can shift the balance of inflammation, which is important in bipolar disorder.

Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

DHA and EPA omega-3 can only be found in cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, deep-sea tuna and trout.

Leafy green vegetables, flaxseeds and nuts contain omega-3 as ALA, alpha-linolenic acids, however enzymes in the body can convert these into EPA and DHA, but in smaller amounts and only then when functioning enzymes are available. This is not always the case, especially in older people who often lack systemic and digestive enzymes.

Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Brain Function

Omega-3 fatty acids are the ultimate fats for the brain. They are instrumental in communication between brain cell membranes providing flexibility to function properly in the exchange of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters that influence mood by producing feelings of calmness and contentment.

Regardless of data revealed in this study, a healthy diet inclusive of essential nutrients is imperative. By eating fish containing EPA, DHA, and vegetables, seeds and nuts, a person with bipolar disorder is getting what he needs to nourish the brain and nervous system even if assimilation is not achieved to the fullest. Continued studies in the field of bipolar disorder will eventually reveal how it can be done, either with food alone, or supplementing with encapsulated omega-3s or with and without medication.


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