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Study to assess omega-3s' effects on depression

Nov. 17, 2012 - 09:03AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 17, 2012 - 09:03AM  |  
Fish oil is touted to treat heart disease, attention deficit disorder, depression and anxiety. The Veterans Affairs Department, with help from the Pentagon, wants to try to prove whether it prevents suicide or suicidal thoughts.
Fish oil is touted to treat heart disease, attention deficit disorder, depression and anxiety. The Veterans Affairs Department, with help from the Pentagon, wants to try to prove whether it prevents suicide or suicidal thoughts. ()
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Fish oil is touted to treat heart disease, attention deficit disorder, depression and anxiety.

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Fish oil is touted to treat heart disease, attention deficit disorder, depression and anxiety.

The Veterans Affairs Department, with help from the Pentagon, wants to try to prove whether it prevents suicide or suicidal thoughts.

In January, scientists with the National Institutes of Health and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C., will launch a three-year study to determine whether omega-3 fatty acids — a key nutrient found in cold-water fish, nuts and legumes — reduce suicidal thinking, attempts or death.

The $10 million study, funded by the Defense Military Operational Joint Program Committee, builds on NIH-DoD research showing that troops who committed suicide had low levels of omega-3 compared with living troops of similar age, rank and gender.

According to Public Health Service Capt. Joseph Hibbeln of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, countries whose populations eat the least amount of fish have a 50-fold greater risk of depression and a 30-fold greater rate of homicide than nations with high fish consumption.

The fatty acid's potential for preventing suicide is the next logical research question, Hibbeln said. "We have two major aims … whether increasing omega-3 blood levels reduce behaviors such as attempts or risky behavior, and whether there is an improvement in the ratings scales of suicidal thinking."

The 350 volunteers, all identified as being at high risk for suicide, will be split into two groups. One will drink a couple of fish-oil smoothies a day (peach or pomegranate — no mackerel or salmon milkshakes, Hibbeln insists) to raise their omega-3 levels to "Icelandic or Japanese consumption levels."

The others will get placebos. Both will be observed and surveyed, and all will receive traditional mental health care and treatment.

The study will be launched as the military continues to struggle with suicide. This year, 146 active-duty soldier deaths have been attributed to suicide; the Marine Corps has suffered 41, the Navy 54 and the Air Force 57.

Lead researcher Bernadette Marriott told the Armed Forces Press Service the study will give new hope to service members and veterans suffering from depression.

"We're very excited about this and the prospect that such a small change could make a big difference that helps a lot of people," she said.

Omega-3s already are being tested for inclusion in MREs. According to Hibbeln, the Pentagon has a vested interest in studying dietary changes to improve military effectiveness.

The American Psychiatric Association recommends all patients diagnosed with a mental health disorder take at least 1 gram of omega-3s a day.

Hibbeln said taking up to 3 grams a day is safe.

"There's no substitute for good psychiatric care, and that should always come first," he said.

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