Skip to main content Skip to main content
Integrative Psychiatry

Mental Health and Fatty Acids by Mary Rondeau, ND, RH(AHG)

By November 13, 2020No Comments
Mental Health and Fatty Acids by Mary Rondeau

Fatty acids, lipids, fats…whatever term you use, these macronutrients get a lot of attention for their influence on cardiovascular health, and rightly so! But they don’t receive nearly enough credit for their role in mental health. There is a growing body of scientific research that demonstrates how fatty acids can influence mood and mental health.

Saturated vs Monounsaturated Fatty Acids and Mood

The Mediterranean diet has long been touted as beneficial for cardiovascular health, but more recently, evidence shows that it is valuable for mental health as well. A 2013 study found that substituting dietary saturated fat (palmitic acid) with monounsaturated fat (oleic acid) is associated with positive changes in mood, as well as increased physical activity and resting energy expenditure. The study compared a high palmitic acid diet – more common in Western/Standard American Diets (SAD) – to a high oleic acid diet – typical of traditional diets like Mediterranean – and concluded that replacement of dietary PA with OA appears to affect behavior, specifically reducing anger and increasing physical activity.

The Role of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Mental Health

Research on omega-3 FA supplementation has shown great promise for mood disorders, including effective augmentation for bipolar disorder and major depression, and effective treatment for attention and focus. Interestingly, there is an inverse correlation between fish consumption and depression worldwide; while this is not causative evidence, it suggests the high omega-3 content in fish has a positive effect on mood.

Several different omega-3s exist, but most of the research focuses on alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA comes from plant foods, whereas EPA and DHA come from animal foods. ALA can be converted into EPA and then to DHA, but the conversion (which occurs primarily in the liver) is very limited, with reported rates of less than 15%. Therefore, consuming EPA and DHA directly from foods and/or dietary supplements is the most efficient way to increase levels of these fatty acids in the body.

Food Sources of Omega-3s

The American Psychiatric Association recommends consumption of at least 1 gram daily for all patients with psychiatric disorders. While supplementation can correct a deficiency more quickly than consumption of foods high in omega-3s, long-term supplementation may not be necessary. Ongoing maintenance of the recommended daily intake can be attained with consumption of wholesome, omega-3 rich foods. Great animal sources of EPA/DHA include cold-water fish and seafood, as well as grass fed/pastured eggs, meat and dairy. For example, a 4-ounce portion of wild Atlantic salmon contains approximately 2 grams of DHA/EPA, a 4-ounce portion of Rainbow trout provides approximately 1 gram, and 2 pastured egg yolks contain roughly 0.3 grams (the egg yolks contain the omega-3 fats, not the whites).

Plant sources of ALA include chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and pecans, plus greens like purslane* and algae. One tablespoon of flaxseeds** contains approximately 2 grams of ALA and 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of walnuts contains roughly 0.75 grams.

So how much should someone consume to get enough omega-3s in their diet? A general guideline is approximately 3-4 servings of animal sources per week, plus a daily serving of plant sources. For vegetarians/vegans, 2 daily servings of plant sources should suffice.

5 Dietary Takeaways for Diet and Depression

Based on the science, it seems prudent to educate patients on simple dietary changes that can positively influence mental health. The following takeaways are useful guidelines for clinicians and patients alike:

  1. Follow a traditional diet (Japanese, Norwegian, Mediterranean) – the primary tenants are similar in that they include whole foods with higher oleic acid and omega-3 content that the SAD
  2. Emphasize foods rich in omega-3 FAs (Animal sources: cold-water fatty fish, seafood, grass-feed/pastured beef, eggs and dairy. Plant sources: chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, pecans, purslane, and algae)
  3. Include fruits, veggies, nuts/seeds, legumes, whole grains
  4. Replace unhealthy, nutrient-poor food with wholesome, nutrient-dense food
  5. Limit intake of fast food and commercially prepared baked goods and sweets

*Not familiar with purslane? It is an annual herb-like succulent that’s similar to sprouts with a flavor comparable to arugula.

** A note about flaxseeds, because the outer hull of the seed is very difficult to digest, it is generally recommended that you grind the whole flaxseed to get the greatest nutritional benefit.  

Written by

Mary Rondeau, ND, RH(AHG)



Frederick Barrett is a cognitive neuroscientist with training in behavioral pharmacology, and the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Dr. Barrett has been conducting psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins University since 2013, and his research in healthy participants and in patients with mood and substance use disorders focuses on the psychological and neurological mechanisms underlying the enduring therapeutic and other effects of psychedelic drugs. In 2017, he received an NIH “R03” grant as Principal Investigator to investigate biological mechanisms of psilocybin effects, the first federally funded research since the 1970s administering a classic psychedelic to people with psychedelic effects as the primary focus. He has developed measures of subjective effects of psychedelic drugs, and has also published first-in-human studies characterizing the acute and enduring effects of psilocybin on the brain. He is currently leading clinical trials to investigate the use of psilocybin to treat patients with major depressive disorder and co-occurring alcohol use disorder, and he is leading a number of ongoing studies aimed at better understanding the psychological, biological, and neural mechanisms underlying therapeutic efficacy of psychedelic drugs.

Will Van Derveer, MD is co-founder of Integrative Psychiatry Institute (IPI), along with friend and colleague Keith Kurlander, MA. He co-created IPI as an expression of what he stands for. First, that anyone can heal, and second that we medical providers must embrace our own healing journeys in order to fully command our potency as healers.

Dr. Van Derveer spent the last 20 years innovating and testing a comprehensive approach to addressing psychiatric challenges which transcends the conventional model he learned in medical school at Vanderbilt University and residency at University of Colorado, while deeply engaging his own healing path.

He founded the Integrative Psychiatric Healing Center in in 2001 in Boulder, CO, where he currently practices. Dr. Van Derveer regards unresolved emotional trauma as the most significant root cause of psychiatric symptoms in integrative psychiatry practice, along with gut issues, hormone imbalances, inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, and other functional medicine challenges. He is trained in Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, Internal Family Systems, and other psychotherapy techniques. His current clinical passion is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which he mentors interested doctors in providing. An avid meditator, he has been a meditation instructor since 2004.

For the past several years Dr. Van Derveer has taught psychiatrists and other psychiatric providers integrative psychiatry in a number of settings, including course directing the CU psychiatry residents’ course as well as with Scott Shannon and Janet Settle at the Psychiatry MasterClass. In addition to his clinical work and teaching, he was co-investigator in 2016 a Phase II randomized clinical trial, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He continues to support this protocol, now in a Phase III clinical trial under break-through designation by FDA.

Dr. Van Derveer is a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine (ABoIHM) since 2013, and he was board certified in the first wave of diplomates of the new American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABIM) in 2016.