The epidemic character of depressive disorders has prompted further research into dietary habits that could make an etiological contribution. One clear change in the diet of the population in developed countries has been the replacement of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids by saturated fats and trans-fats as well as by omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, and the members of the -3 and -6 series are crucial for human health. In biochemical processes there is a competition between these two series. A higher dietary intake of omega-6 results in the excessive incorporation of these molecules in the cell membrane with numerous pathological consequences, presumably due to the formation of proinflammatory eicosanoids.

Members of the omega-3 family and their derivatives modulate the inflammatory action. Essential fatty acids play a major role in brain development and brain functioning. The omega-3 series members docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) provide fluidity to the cell membrane, facilitating certain processes including neurotransmission and ion channel flow. It is thought that omega-3 deficiency during the fetal and postnatal period may have a long-term effect at various levels.

Epidemiological studies have demonstrated a positive association between omega-3 deficits and mood disorders. As for treatment, there is convincing evidence that add-on omega-3 fatty acids to standard antidepressant pharmacotherapy results in improved mood. There is no evidence that fatty acid monotherapy has a mood-elevating effect, with a possible exception for childhood depression. There are indications that omega-3 has a prophylactic effect on perinatal depression and has a negative effect on natural killer cell activity and T-lymphocyte function.

These observations need further study in view of the popularity of self-medication.