Fish might as well be called brain food, according to a new study that finds it may have served as a dietary anti-depressant for thousands of people. A research team from the Medical College of Qingdao University in China took a closer look at the potential impact a steady diet of fish could have on a person’s risk of depression. Their findings, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, revealed a clear link between a fish-laden diet and mental health in both men and women.

For the analysis, researchers collected 26 studies published between 2001 and 2014 that included 150,278 participants in order to analyze a large enough pool to determine how a person’s fish consumption related to rates of depression. After looking at all of the results from the select studies, 12 showed a “significant association between fish consumption and depression.” With depression being one of the most common and disabling mental disorders in America, finding ways to curb rates is vital, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In the study, the participants who ate the most fish had an average 17 percent reduction in depression risk compared to those who ate the least amount of fish. When researchers broke down the gender differences, men had a 20 percent lower risk of depression, while women had a 16 percent lower risk. Not only was there a correlation between fish diets and depression, but researchers also believe it could be used as a way to prevent or stave off depression symptoms before they start.  

This isn’t the first time a diet rich in fish has been linked to the brain’s well-being. According to a recent study published in Nature Communications, young people who were at risk for the serious psychiatric condition schizophrenia were able to prevent the disease’s onset by taking fish oil. In a group of 13- to 25-year-olds (the ages when symptoms of schizophrenia first arise), half took fish oil pills and the other half took placebos.

After seven years, researchers found only 10 percent of those who took fish oil pills went on to develop schizophrenia or a related psychiatric disorder. Unfortunately, 40 percent of those who didn’t take the placebo went on to develop the illness.

In another recently published study, a team of scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, narrowed down the most common risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease, an irreversible, and progressive brain disorder known to destroy memory and thinking skills. They determined the nine high-risk factors after examining 300 studies and in doing so also discovered the best way to protect the brain was to eat healthy. The research team recommended following the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fatty fish that are full of omega-3s, like salmon, sardines, and anchovies.

The power of fish is still under investigation until researchers can definitively understand why it plays an effective role in boosting and protecting the brain. But when it comes to depression, researchers believe the omega-3s may alter the brain’s membranes and modify the activity of the neurotransmitters associated with depression, such as dopamine and serotonin. Or it may be all of the high quality protein, vitamins, and minerals the fish provides that helps to keep depression at bay.

"Higher fish consumption may be beneficial in the primary prevention of depression," the study’s authors wrote. "Future studies are needed to further investigate whether this association varies according to the type of fish."

Source: Zhang D, Fang L, and Liu X. Fish consumption and risk of depression: a meta-analysis. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2015.