Scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) led by Capt. Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., teamed with researchers at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Md., to analyze a sample of suicide deaths among U.S. military personnel on active duty between 2002 and 2008. The researchers compared levels of omega-3 fatty acids of 800 individuals who committed suicide with those of 800 randomly selected controls — service members who were matched with the suicide cases by age, sex, and rank. They found that all the service members had low omega-3 levels, and that suicide risk was greatest among individuals with the lowest levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the major omega-3 fatty acid concentrated in the brain. The new study is reported online in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, and summarized in a USUHS press release.
Statement of Capt. Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., acting chief, Section of Nutritional Neurosciences, NIAAA Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics:
The findings add to an extensive body of research that points to a fundamental role for DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids in protecting against mental health problems and suicide risks. For example, a previous placebo-controlled trial demonstrated that 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day reduced suicidal thinking by 45 percent as well as depression and anxiety scores among individuals with recurrent self-harm. In a prior study we found that low blood levels of DHA correlated with hyperactivity of brain regions in a pattern that closely resembles the pathology of major depression and suicide risk. While omega-3 fatty acids are generally recommended by the American Psychiatric Association as an adjunctive therapy for mood disorders, more research is needed to establish a definitive role for their use in the stand alone treatment of depression.
The identification of low DHA status as a significant risk factor for suicide deaths should complement ongoing efforts in the U.S. military to study modifiable risk and protective factors related to mental health and suicide among U.S. military personnel. The U.S. military invests a great deal of funds and effort to ensure that its troops receive optimal nutrition, especially in combat and deployment situations. This study presents new information on the potential usefulness of omega-3 fats in reducing risk for suicide and optimizing mental health, which can be taken into account when designing U.S. military diets.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, is the primary U.S. agency for conducting and supporting research on the causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol problems. NIAAA also disseminates research findings to general, professional, and academic audiences. Additional alcohol research information and publications are available at www.niaaa.nih.gov.
About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
Reference: Suicide Deaths of Active-Duty US Military and Omega-3 Fatty-Acid Status: A Case-Control Comparison. Lewis MD, Hibbeln JR, et al. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2011 August 23. [Epub ahead of print]
Relevant web link: NIH Videocast — Nutritional Armor for the Warfighter: Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Enhance Stress Resilience, Wellness, and Military Performance?
NIAAA Press Office