What Are You Feeding the Fishes?

October 17, 2017
Anna Jankowska, LCPC

By Anna Jankowska, MA, CEAP, SAP, LCPC

Anna Jankowska is a mental health, addiction, and substance abuse counselor with over 17 years of experience and has specialized training and skill in working with individuals, groups and communities to improve mental health outcomes. NPI number: 1598843526

Did you know that the U.S. is the third largest consumer of fish and shellfish behind China and Japan?  This amounts to a total of 4.8 billion pounds of seafood, or approximately 15.8 pounds of fish and shellfish consumed per person (both wild-caught and farmed), according to the latest data collected by NOAA, in 2009 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017).  Seemingly unrelated, did you know that the use of antidepressants in the US rose by 65% from 1999-2002 and 2011-14?  What would you say if you were told that this also lead to an increase in waste, and those antidepressant molecules are finding their way in the natural environment (Henriques, 2017)?

Per a recent article from the International Business Times, Americans are taking so many antidepressants they're accumulating in fish brains in the wild ten different species of fish in the Great Lakes have been found to have detectable levels of human antidepressants in their brains, including the active ingredients of Prozac, Zoloft and Sarafem.  The article notes that outdated sewage treatment plants may be contributing to the scale of the problem, as they focus on removing nitrogen, phosphorus and dissolved carbons while there are many other chemicals are not prioritized.  These unaddressed chemicals are finding their way into and accumulating in fish brains after having received a cocktail of drugs 24 hours a day.  This can be made worse in cases of accidents when untreated sewage flow into local rivers.  To top it off, the effects of the drugs on fish aren’t fully known, though it did appear that antidepressants can affect the feeding behavior of fish or their survival instincts (Henriques, 2017).

You may now be wondering if you can be affected by drugs in the fish. You may find assurance in knowing that the total amount of medication in an eight-ounce piece of fish would be far too low to affect a person who ate it.  A recent U.S. News article on Fish Exposed to Wastewater Absorb Many Medications Meant for People, John Sumpter, a professor with Brunel University London who has conducted research on the effects of pharmaceuticals on fish for more than two decades notes that the greatest potential concern is the possibility that antibiotics in the environment are leading to enhanced resistance in microorganisms and that this resistance transfers to human pathogens.  This may be a concern as antibiotic resistance is growing since it could render our available drug treatments ineffective.  It’s also worth noting that contaminated fish contain minute amounts of pharmaceuticals compared to the amount that is in just one pill of any pharmaceutical (Esposito, 2017).

Diet and nutrition have been found to be important factors affecting mental health and the development of psychiatric disorders.  Considering that mental health is an important aspect of maintaining optimal health, it is important to consider one’s diet.  To maintain the best mental health, balanced meals on a regular basis are important, including nutrients such as omega-3 FAs, antioxidants, niacin, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 (Lim et al, 2016).  While the news about fish can initially sound rather surprising, there are still many health benefits to consuming fish, amongst which are being high on nutritional content, assisting in lowering risk of heart attack and strokes and even help treat depression.  For a full list, check out: 11 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Eating Fish (Leech, 2015).  In spite of what it looks like at a glance, maybe don’t rule out fish for dinner just yet.  However, something else to think about may be how the drugs get to the fish in the first place, and what else we’re putting into our bodies.


Esposito, L (2017, August 2). Fish Exposed to Wastewater Absorb Many Medications Meant for People. Retrieved from

Henriques, M. (2017, September 1). Americans are taking so many antidepressants they're accumulating in fish brains in the wild. Retrieved from https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/americans-are-taking-so-many-antidepressants-theyre-accumulating-fish-brains-wild-1637622

Leech, J. (2015, May 24). 11 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Eating Fish. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-health-benefits-of-fish#section1

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2017). Basic Questions about Aquaculture. Retrieved from: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/aquaculture/faqs/faq_aq_101.html#11whatkinds.  Washington, DC: Author.

Lim, S.Y., Kim, E.J., Kim, A, Lee, H. J., Choi, H.J., Yang, H.J. (2016, July 26).  Nutritional Factors Affecting Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4967717/

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