Antidepressants – the alternative

Copyright 2006 David McEvoy

Depression is a very common problem which can affect your quality of life, from just slowing you down to seriously incapacitating you. It’s also a serious issue for the health service in both the USA and the UK and is predicted to become the second biggest burden on both countries health services in less than two decades. Many people suffer in silence, not wanting to go to their doctor with a condition which some still find embarrassing and difficult to discuss. Others find that the side-effects of the antidepressants they are prescribed prove almost as debilitating as depression itself, or simply that the drugs do not have the right effect. This can leave sufferers feeling even more isolated and unhappy. However, research suggests that there may be a natural remedy for what is often referred to as ‘the common cold of mental illness’.

After extensive research scientists have come to believe that high quality fish oils, rich in Omega 3 essential fatty acids, are the natural solution to depression, even in severe cases in which the patient has not responded to other treatment. The key to alleviating depressive symptoms is EPA or elcosapentaenoic acid, an essential fatty acid of the Omega 3 group which can be found in some specialist fish oils. It has been shown by brain scans to regenerate the brain, and it is also possible that it stimulates stem cells into producing new nerve cells.

EPA has a positive effect on the brain regardless of whether you are depressed or otherwise of low mood. It has been shown to improve mental performance as well as a host of other health benefits including decreasing the risk of heart attacks, deep vein thrombosis or DVT, and stroke. An international group of medical scientists have assembled an impressive body of research over the last couple of years which gives weight to these astonishing beneficial claims. Consultant psychiatrist Dr Basant Puri, who is also a senior lecturer at London’s Imperial College MRI unit, is an enthusiastic supporter of the EPA cause and prescribes it in a high-quality form to his depressed patients at his Hammersmith Hospital Clinic. He says they are responding well; “Studies show that this nutrient, found in high quality fish oil, can clear the symptoms of depression within three or four weeks, and then the patient can ward off any further attacks just by taking a daily supplement.”

Dr Puri first became intrigued by the function of EPA when studying nutrition, and when he became a psychiatrist and brain imager he could see for himself the benefits of supplementing diet with EPA. It became clear that a lack of EPA in diet may in fact be a major cause of depression. Dr Puri’s work and insights led him to consider the accepted view on the biochemistry of the brain and to think differently. He realised that human beings ate more fish during the period in history when our brains were still developing, and saw that “The trouble today is that many things we eat, along with stress and nicotine, inhibit the body’s own ability to produce [essential fatty acids].”

One 21-year-old man Dr Puri first treated EPA with had suffered from depression for seven years or more, but after taking the supplement for nine months he had a new lease of life. He set up his own business and was planning to travel to the US to study – a significant change had occurred. And not only in his mood, but in his brain itself. A comparison of a brain scan taken before the EPA treatment with one taken after indicated, to Dr Puri’s amazement, that the brain had partially regrown. Depressive patients show low levels of electrical activity in the brain and an actual reduction in the cerebral cortex – this patient showed nerve cell regrowth and a thickening of the greater part of the brain, commonly referred to as the ‘grey matter’. Dr Puri took this as indicative that EPA, with its apparent power to stimulate the brain to make it repair itself, could bring hope to people suffering from a wide variety of conditions.

Omega 3 is found chiefly in oily fish – tuna, fresh salmon, pilchards, sardines and mackerel – but these alone do not provide EPA in sufficient qualities to have this amazing effect on the brain. Supplements, which can be taken alongside antidepressants in complete safety, are necessary to treat depression. It’s not a good idea to stop antidepressants immediately, without a gradual reduction as advised by your GP, as you can suffer severe side effects. You should always consult your GP before embarking on any treatment, however, and should be especially careful with fish oil supplements if you are taking any blood-thinning medication as EPA also thins the blood.

It’s good to find an EPA supplement which contains a lesser quantity of DHA, another Omega 3 fatty acid, as too much of this can lessen the effectiveness of EPA. Patients suffering from mild to moderate depression should take two capsules twice a day with food, while patients with severe depression should take a higher dose after consultation with a specialist. As with antidepressants it’s advised that you continue to take the supplements after the symptoms have gone – in the case of EPA, Dr Puri recommends two capsules a day as a maintenance dose. There are positive side effects of EPA too – patients will find their skin looking fresher and the condition of their hair and nails improving, which can help to give that boost of self-esteem depression sufferers benefit so much from.


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* Charlotte – an undergraduate student in the School of Biosciences – describes her experiences of the BSc Biochemistry degree course and of her time at the University of Birmingham.

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