One treatment that has recently received a great deal of interest lately is fish oil. There is some preliminary evidence to suggest that the omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish and fish oil, including eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), have an antidepressant effect. It has been discovered that mothers selectively transfer DHA to their baby during pregnancy and through the breast milk to support neurological development in the developing child. Thus, child-bearing women may become depleted of DHA, and it has been hypothesized that DHA deficiency may make mothers more vulnerable to depression during the postpartum period.

One study suggested that eating more fish during pregnancy may reduce the risk of postpartum depression. This study indicated that mothers with lower seafood consumption and lower DHA concentrations in breast milk were more likely to develop postpartum depression. Whether or not omega-3 fatty acids are a cure for postpartum depression is far from clear; it appears that supplementing the mother’s diet with the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), after the delivery does not decrease the risk for depression. However, another pilot study did suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful for alleviating symptoms of postpartum depression.

While omega-3 fatty acids may appear to be an attractive option for the treatment of postpartum depression, these studies are preliminary and far from convincing. Furthermore, the federal government has warned women of child-bearing age about eating too much fish because of mercury contamination. Thus, the best treatments for postpartum depression remain psychotherapy and antidepressant medications.

Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD