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Soldiers' Omega-3 Test Targets Suicide Risk
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by Craig Weatherby

We just returned from an omega-3 conference organized by the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). 
The keynote speaker at the awards dinner was Capt. Joe Hibbeln, M.D. of NIH, a leading researcher into the psychological effects of omega-3 fats from fish.
We’ll file a full conference report soon, but his talk, titled “Omega-3 Intake in the U.S. Military” was an inspiring highlight… and well-timed.
Dr. Hibbeln’s speech coincided with news that the first-ever trial testing omega-3 fish oil among combat-zone troops is underway, with the clinical portion already complete.
The two-month study involves some 250 volunteers among the U.S. Army personnel at three bases in northern Iraq, who’ve served in Iraq for various lengths of time performing a variety of functions, from infantry to aviation.
The goal is to test the effects, if any, of short-term omega-3 supplementation on signs of depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)… overlapping conditions that seriously damage many soldiers and raise suicide risks.
It’s being led by Lt. Colonel Daniel Johnston, M.D., Brigade Surgeon for the U.S. Army’s Enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade.
This important, albeit preliminary, clinical trial will end on February 26, 2011 and the results will be published in May of 2011.
Hopes are high for results that will prompt bigger trials
Despite the relatively small size and short duration of the study, it won’t be too surprising if the outcome is positive.
An evidence review by the American Psychiatric Association concluded that omega-3s probably help deter and alleviate depression/anxiety and bipolar disorders (see “Top Psych Panel Says Omega-3s Deter Depression, Bipolar Disorder”).
And teams that included Dr. Hibbeln found that people with low levels of omega-3s were substantially more likely to commit suicide (Sublette ME et al. 2006; Hallahan B et al. 2007).
The U.S. Army recently awarded Dr. Hibbeln and Col. Mike Lewis, M.D., M.P.H., a grant to conduct a "case-control" study that compares omega-3 levels in blood samples taken from 800 combat-zone troops  who’ve committed suicide with the omega-3 levels in 800 randomly selected combat-zone soldiers who match the suicide cases in terms of age, sex, and rank.
Results of the analysis are expected by September of 2011 ... we will report the findings when they're published.
Army study was inspired by “Nutritional Armor” conference
Dr. Johnston came up with the idea after attending a conference called Nutritional Armor for the War Fighter, which led him to analyze soldiers’ diets and find very low omega-3 intake levels.
As he told an Army journalist, “Low levels of omega-3 fish oil in the diet is linked to mood disorders, and this study is designed to gain data that may help future Soldiers” (Hale R 2010).
Like Dr. Johnston, we attended the 2009 Department of Defense-hosted Nutritional Armor gathering, which was organized by Dr. Hibbeln to inform military health pros about the potential benefits of omega-3 fish fats.
(For our report on that landmark event, see “Soldiers and Omega-3s: Pentagon Pitched on Benefits”.)
In a statement last fall, Dr. Johnston detailed the extent of the problem:

“Current reports suggest that the percentage of subjects meeting screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is about 20 percent after duty in Iraq and more than 10 percent after duty in Afghanistan; this is nearly three times the estimated prevalence in the general population.”
According to the U.S. Defense Health Board, 1,100 servicemen and women committed suicide from 2005 to 2009… one every day-and-a-half. This rate continued to rise in 2010 and the Department of Defense has pledged $50 million for research that will follow more than 90,000 soldiers to identify risk factors for suicide.
During that time, service personnel suffered psychological injuries in combat zones that will cost the nation (and mentally wounded soldiers) an estimated $6 billion in treatment and lost work.
As Dr. Johnston wrote, “Consequently, successful strategies that protect against combat stress reactivity will be a critical and timely way to reduce the personal, financial and manpower costs associated with long term military combat operations.”
Study fits with Army effort to deter psychological damage
The study can be seen as part of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which seeks to reinforce soldiers’ mental resilience.
The participating soldiers have been randomly assigned to take either omega-3 fish oil capsules (2.52 grams of EPA + DHA daily) or placebo capsules containing corn oil.
A blood analysis was performed at the outset of the trial and will be repeated at its close.
The volunteers will take a set of psychological tests, and the results among the fish oil group will be compared to the results among the placebo group.
Dr. Johnston’s hypothesis is that soldiers taking the omega-3 supplements will exhibit sharper cognitive performance, better mood, and fewer and milder combat symptoms (anxiety, depression, and PTSD).
As he said, “The Army will determine what, if any, applications there are of the research. It is possible that an agency within the Army would look at supplementing soldiers with omega-3 fish oil capsules as a type of ‘immunization’ and resilience technique for mood disorders” (Hale R 2010).
We’ll let you know how it turns out when the findings are published in the spring.
  • Hale R. Nutrient may enhance Soldiers' performance. WWW.ARMY.MIL. Sept, 28, 2010. Accessed at
  • Hallahan B, Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Garland MR. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in patients with recurrent self-harm. Single-centre double-blind randomised controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry. 2007 Feb;190:118-22.
  • Huan M, Hamazaki K, Sun Y, Itomura M, Liu H, Kang W, Watanabe S, Terasawa K, Hamazaki T. Suicide attempt and n-3 fatty acid levels in red blood cells: a case control study in China. Biol Psychiatry. 2004 Oct 1;56(7):490-6.
  • Patton M. Army doctor studies benefits of fish oil. Stars and Stripes. December 3, 2010. Accessed at
  • Hibbeln JR. Depression, suicide and deficiencies of omega-3 essential fatty acids in modern diets. World Rev Nutr Diet. 2009;99:17-30. Epub 2009 Jan 9. Review. No abstract available.
  • Sublette ME, Hibbeln JR, Galfalvy H, Oquendo MA, Mann JJ. Omega-3 polyunsaturated essential fatty acid status as a predictor of future suicide risk. Am J Psychiatry. 2006 Jun;163(6):1100-2.
  • Tanskanen A, Hibbeln JR, Hintikka J, Haatainen K, Honkalampi K, Viinamäki H. Fish consumption, depression, and suicidality in a general population. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2001 May;58(5):512-3.
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