November 17, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Omega-3 fatty acid supplements and psychotherapy together may be helpful for children ages 8 to 14 with symptoms of depression and a variation of bipolar disorder.

“These are two of the most promising treatments for children with mood disorders other than medication,” said Dr. Mary Fristad, a clinical child psychologist and researcher at the Ohio State University Medical Center who is enrolling participants in the first studies to examine the effects of combined psychotherapy and omega-3 in children. “The modern diet does not provide children much of the essential nutrient omega-3 fatty acids. This adversely affects nerve cell membranes and cell communication, which are needed for an optimally functioning brain.”

Specifically, researchers are examining how the combination of psychotherapy and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are found in foods like wild ocean fish, other seafood, and flaxseed, could improve mood disorder symptoms. Fristad hopes to see reduced irritability and improvements in self-esteem, better eating and sleeping habits, and improved concentration.

Psychotherapy and omega-3 supplements as treatment options for mood disorders have been studied separately in small studies, but this is the first time researchers are studying the combination as a treatment option.

“Medication is an effective form of treatment, but these alternatives might replace or reduce medication dosages with the same benefit, and have fewer side effects,” said Dr. L. Eugene Arnold, an Ohio State University Medical Center child psychiatrist. According to Arnold, who is also a nationally recognized expert in alternative and complementary treatments, the side effects of anti-depressants can cause an increase in suicidal tendencies or thoughts. Medication used to treat bipolar disorder can cause weight gain and lead to metabolic disorders.

Children involved in the study receive either psychotherapy, an omega-3 supplement, both psychotherapy and a supplement, or are placed in a placebo group. Although improvement is expected in all four groups, researchers predict the group receiving both psychotherapy and omega-3 will see the most significant improvement in their symptoms.

In psychotherapy, parents and their children learn how to manage symptoms and regulate emotions. Families also are taught how to navigate the mental health system for support and learn communication skills to help cope with the disorder.

Previous research suggests the need for a balanced diet of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Today’s diet contains 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3, a ratio that Arnold says makes the brain function like a high performance car with low octane gas.

“With omega-6 substituted for omega-3, it will run, but it will not work as well,” said Arnold.

According to Arnold, “In recent years, research has shown an increase in omega-3 fatty acids in the diet has many health benefits. In addition to possibly helping children’s mood disorders, we could be improving general health and helping to prevent cardiovascular, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”

Children are different from adults metabolically and psychologically, and need studies focused on their age group exclusively, says Arnold. Alternative treatments have not previously been studied in children with depression under 12 or bipolar NOS (not otherwise specified) in children under 10. Arnold and Fristad suggest starting children in psychotherapy at a young age may give them the coping strategies they need as an adult.

The studies are funded by the National Institute for Mental Health. A total of 60 children are needed for each study. Half of the children receive therapy and all receive capsules, either Omega-3 or placebo, free of charge, along with careful monitoring and the support needed to continue their treatment.

To learn more, contact the study coordinator at (614) 293-4908 or

# # #

Contact: Gina Bericchia, Medical Center Public Affairs and Media Relations, (614) 293-3737 or

Subscribe. Get just the right amount of health and wellness in your inbox.