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Soldiers' Smarts Linked to Omega-3s
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The U.S military is finally getting serious about omega-3 research, thanks largely to a campaign by two concerned scientists.
Captain Joe Hibbeln, M.D. – a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health – and fatty acids expert William Lands, Ph.D., rank among the world’s leading omega-3 researchers.
Back in 2009, they organized a conference called Nutritional Armor for the War Fighter, which that put omega-3s on the military’s radar screen … see “Soldiers and Omega-3s: Pentagon Pitched on Benefits”.
Their project to get more omega-3s into military diets was advanced by a landmark study published last year by Dr. Hibbeln and his colleagues.
Dr. Hibbeln’s team compared omega-3 blood levels in 800 troops who’d committed suicide with those of 800 randomly selected service members, who were matched with the suicide cases by age, sex, and rank.
All 1,600 service members had low omega-3 levels, but the lowest levels of omega-3 DHA – the omega-3s proven critical to brain functions and mood health – were more likely to be found among the 800 who’d taken their own lives.
The risk of suicide death was 14 percent higher for every “standard deviation” of lower DHA percentage. (See “Soldiers' Suicide Risk Linked to Omega-3 Lack”.)
To prove that this apparent link between low omega-3 levels and suicide risk was more than a mere statistical correlation, they called for well-designed clinical trials to prove a cause-effect relationship.
That wish starting becoming reality when one of the attendees at the Nutritional Armor for the War Fighter conference – Lt. Colonel Daniel Johnston, M.D. – initiated a clinical trial among Iraq-based soldiers … see “Soldiers' Omega-3 Test Targets Suicide Risk”.
The results of that study – titled “Effects of Omega-3 EPA/DHA for Soldiers at Risk for Mood Disorders” – have not yet been published.
In the meantime, Dr. Johnston – Medical Director for the US Army Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program – has just published a study that provides more evidence of the brain benefits of omega-3s to military personnel.
Army study links omega-3 levels to thinking and decision-making
Dr Johnston and his co-workers studied 78 male personnel from two US military camps, picking men who met all of the study’s inclusion/exclusion criteria (Johnston DT et al. 2012).
Their ages ranged from 20 to 54 years (average age of 31.4 years). The majority (68) were white males, with four African-Americans, one Asian, and five Hispanics.
Their occupational specialties varied, as did the level of education, with over 60 percent having at least some college and only five percent having not completed high school.
Blood samples were taken and used to measure the “Omega-3 Index” … a measure of the percent of omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cells that’s also part of our Vital Omega-3 and 6 HUFA Test™.
(At least eight percent of the fatty acids on your cell membranes should be omega-3s in order to enable optimal cardiovascular health.)
The participants underwent a series of psycho-social and computerized neuro-cognitive tests.
Confirming Dr. Hibbeln’s previous finding, the participants’ average omega-3 index (3.5 percent) was significantly lower than the average level (4.5 percent) found in non-military Americans of the same ages.
As Dr. Johnston’s team wrote, “This relatively low Omega-3 Index [3.5%], given the deployment setting and likely low content of omega-3 fatty acids in the rations, is perhaps not surprising.” (Johnston DT et al. 2012)
The researchers compared the soldiers’ omega-3 levels to their performance on the mental tests, with important results:
  • No link was found between omega-3 levels and scores for anxiety, depression, or sleep.
  • Lower omega-3 levels were strongly linked to poor cognitive flexibility and executive (decision-making) functioning … particularly in the 81 percent of participants who reported to having poor sleep.
  • Participants with poor sleep quality but above-average omega-3 levels seemed to have a “resilience to fatigue” and higher cognitive flexibility and executive function scores, compared with their sleepy peers who had lower omega-3 levels.
Due to the nature of the study, these results are inconclusive, and must be confirmed by a rigorous clinical trial testing the effects of omega-3 supplements in soldiers.
As noted above, Dr. Johnston’s team has already performed such a trial. The results of this randomized, placebo-controlled study are being analyzed and should be published in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.
Dr. Johnston’s group came to the obvious conclusion: “On the basis of our findings and other research, educating Service members to choose foods high in omega-3s and raising the EPA and DHA levels in rations should be considered for general health promotion and possible performance optimization.” (Johnston DT et al. 2012)
We owe our military folks nothing less than the best possible nutrition to help maintain and optimize their mental health and performance.
  • Effects of Omega-3 EPA/DHA for Soldiers at Risk for Mood Disorders. Accessed at
  • Johnston DT, Deuster PA, Harris WS, Macrae H, Dretsch MN. Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and neurocognitive performance in deployed U.S. Service members. Nutr Neurosci. 2012 Jun 28. [Epub ahead of print]
  • von Schacky C, Harris WS. Cardiovascular risk and the omega-3 index. J Cardiovasc Med (Hagerstown). 2007 Sep;8 Suppl 1:S46-9. Review.
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