Feeling depressed? Fight back with fish

Two years ago I talked about how one of the many benefits of eating a diet rich in fish is that it can help relieve symptoms of depression.

Indeed, in Japan, they eat fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No kidding. Even their snack foods have some form of fish in them.

And guess what? Japan has a significantly lower rate of depression than we do here in the U.S.

But mainstream medicine is coming to the table late as usual. In fact, they are just now getting around to pooling the evidence that backs up the fish/depression connection.

Earlier this year the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a meta-analysis of 26 studies involving 150,278 participants from around the globe, including Europe, North America, Asia, Oceania, and South America.

The researchers reviewed data that honed in on the amount of fish consumed and risk for depression. And out of the 26 studies they collected, 12 showed a significant protective effect. This study also suggested that combining a high intake of whole foods, such as vegetables and whole grains, along with fish may be associated with a reduced depression risk.

Of course, fish has always been considered a brain food, so this really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. But one thing that does make this study noteworthy is that it looked at consumption of fish as a food. Previous studies typically examined the effects of supplementing with the oils in fish — the omega 3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA. And this alone didn’t always have a relevant effect on reducing depression.

That’s because when it comes to a nutritional approach to healing, nutrients cannot be isolated.

Nutrition is a complex science, and there are many factors that work synergistically to help us thrive. And there are other nutrients in fish that also likely play a role in reducing symptoms of depression. Like vitamin D, for instance.

(And vitamin D is not a stand alone vitamin, either. It works in cooperation with other nutrients — like magnesium, which can be found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach.)

So considering fall is in full swing — and cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder will soon be setting in for many people — now is the perfect time to take advantage of fish’s mood-boosting benefits. Add it to your menu several times a week if you can.

But keep in mind larger fish like tuna, mackerel, and swordfish have the highest levels of mercury. You’re better off with wild-caught, cold-water varieties, like salmon and sardines, because they typically contain the least mercury.

Here are some quick tips when choosing fish:

  • Choose fresh over frozen
  • Fresh fish should not smell fishy. (If it does, this means it’s getting old.)
  • When you can, buy fish whole. You want to make sure it’s been caught recently and stored properly. The eyes should be clear and not cloudy and the gills should be shiny bright red and not brown.
  •  Fillets should be firm to the touch and the flesh should be shiny, not dull.
  • Shellfish should be alive. Oysters should be closed and clams and mussels closed or partly opened. When the shell is partly opened, it should close if you tap it. Also, if you’re buying shellfish in bags, there should be a date of harvest stamped on it — it’s required by law.