Fish Oil and a Lesson in Happiness From Iceland

More

As the days grow shorter, considering the role of omega-3s in keeping everything sunny

fishoilmain 615.jpg
mskogly/flick

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was discovered by Dr. Norman Rosenthal after noticing that his own sluggish mood -- first noticed after moving from sunny South Africa to New York -- improved after exposing himself to bright light. SAD affects about 8 percent of people in wintry New Hampshire but less than 2 percent in Florida. Lack of sunlight may alter sleep-wake cycles by means of nerve signals from the eye to the brain's biological clock (the suprachiasmatic nucleus) with the help of melatonin from the pea-sized pineal gland.

Although Iceland's daylight diminishes, due to their near-arctic latitude, from over 9 hours on October 20 to just over 4 hours in December, its SAD prevalence of less than 4 percent is much lower than that of U.S. or European locations with equivalent levels of seasonal darkness. In fact, Icelanders are among the happiest people in the world -- despite their 2008 financial crisis, volcanic eruptions, and the predominant winter darkness. 

In addition to their helpful social support and encouragement of out-of-the-box lifestyles -- the mayor of the city of Reykjavik, Jon Gnarr, who is also a comedian, as an example -- Icelanders believe that their high consumption of ocean fish and fish oil helps them cope. Oil-rich cold-water fish like salmon, cod, and sardines, fish oil supplements, and some plant-based foods like walnuts contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which research on other mood disorders suggests have an antidepressant effect. We've known for quite a while that eating fish correlates negatively with major depressive disorder.

Omega-3s affect the nervous system in other ways as well, which we're still coming to understand. We do know that nerves in the brain are so sensitive to omega-3 levels that a deficiency leads to problems with learning and memory, and evidence shows supplementation may protect against nerve damage due to trauma or aging. Omega-3s can change the composition of the membranes that surround cells in the brain and blood, and may improve their ability to function. 

It's not just the absolute amount of omega-3s that you take in, but also the amount relative to your levels of omega-6 fatty acids. The risk for depression may increase with a high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids -- found in corn, safflower, and soybean oil, and common in processed foods -- to omega-3s. 

Aside from medical science, Nobel-prize winning Icelandic author Halldor Laxness wrote a book titled The Fish Can Sing (in the English translation), in which he imagines that humble fish, the foundation of Iceland's economy, can "sing like a bird." It might be worth considering that bubbly thought as the days grow shorter.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Robert Lavine

Robert A. Lavine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Virginia, science writer, and recent associate professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In