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Can Fish Oil Keep Cain from Killing Abel?
4/24/2006
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by Craig Weatherby


You’re probably familiar with this all-too-common form of journalistic jive. A newspaper article’s headline poses a provocative medical question, but the ensuing piece ends with an ambiguous conclusion that leaves its readers feeling thoroughly frustrated.


Earlier this month The New York Times published just such an irritating thought-provoker titled “Does Eating Salmon Lower the Murder Rate?”


Key Points

  • The New York Times posed a question for which science already has an answer: it is highly likely that omega-3s curb rates of aggression, violence, and murder.

  • Recent research suggests that the excess of omega-6 fats in American diets may be as violence-provoking as its deficiency of omega-3s.

The piece was penned by a history teacher at the University of Georgia named Stephen Mihm, who teased his readers with tidbits of the considerable evidence indicating that imbalanced fatty acid nutrition increases people’s tendencies toward anger, hostility, and violence.


The research paper that led Mr. Mihm to write his piece was one published in 2001 by psychiatrist Joseph Hibbeln, M.D. Dr. Hibbeln is a senior clinical investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and leading researcher in the field of fatty acids and behavior, who we spoke with and heard lecture at last year’s Seafood & Health conference.


The conclusion of Dr. Hibbeln’s 2001 data analysis—titled "Seafood Consumption and Homicide Mortality"—confirmed the suspected correlation between higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids (from fish) and reduced murder rates.


One wonders why the headline on the New York Times article sought to raise doubts, when virtually all of the considerable amount of available evidence supports the hypothesis that dietary omega-3s curb violence—including murder—by making people happier and calmer.


The answer seems to be that the purpose of the article was to allow the author to philosophize. Mr. Mihm poses a question: “What would it mean if we found a clear link between diet and violent behavior?” And he goes on to provide this answer: “To start with, it might challenge the notion that violence is a product of free will … there's something that many people may find unnerving about the idea of curing violent behavior by changing what people eat. It threatens to let criminals evade responsibility for their actions.”


While mildly interesting in the abstract, Mr. Mihm’s philosophical musings distract attention from the benefits that would accrue were society to act on what we already know for a virtual certainty: that angry, violent individuals and the people whose minds and bodies they harm would be much better off if people ate more fish and fish oil. (And, as we will discuss, they'd benefit from eating less cheap, processed food and corn-fed, factory-farmed fish and livestock.)


The implication of Mr. Mihm’s “clear link” question is that we lack sufficient evidence of such a link. In fact, we have more than enough evidence to prompt a public campaign to ensure that children and adolescents get ample amounts of omega-3s in their diets.


For example, Mr. Mihm cites a Finnish study in which prisoners convicted of violent crimes were found to suffer lower tissue levels of omega-3 fatty acids than ordinary, healthy subjects. As he notes, quoting the researchers, “Omega-3s foster the growth of neurons in the brain's frontal cortex, the bit of gray matter that controls impulsive behavior. Having enough of these fatty acids may keep violent impulses in check. Violent criminals may not be the only ones who would benefit from more fatty acids in their diet. In a recent double-blind trial, when omega-3's were given to people with a history of substance abuse, the symptoms of "anger" fell by 50 percent.”


We reported on that very substance-abusers study last month (see “Feel-Good Findings”), and if you would like to review more of the evidence that bears on the rhetorical question posed by the Times’ headline, read another of our previous articles: “Omega-3s Enhance Mood and Brain Speed”.


Omega-6 excess seen as bad as omega-3 shortages

Lost in the Times article’s pursuit of abstract moral questions were the intriguing results of a more recent research paper from Dr. Hibbeln, titled “Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five Western countries, 1961-2000” (Hibbeln, 2004).


This population study, which was co-authored by Vital Choice science advisor William E. Lands, Ph.D., found that geographical regions where people report higher-than-average intake of omega-6 fatty acids also report higher-than-average murder rates. Omega-6 fatty acids predominate in most in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, and virtually all fatty acid researchers consider omega-6 fats far too abundant in modern diets.


Why are American diets so dominated by omega-6 fats? One reason is our reliance on corn for so many uses. A new book from Michael Pollan, titled “The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”, documents that fact that Americans are awash in a sea of corn, whose sugary byproducts, refined, inflammatory starches and inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids have wormed their way into almost everything we eat, from soda to steak.


As the Washington Post notes in their review of Pollan’s new book, “Oil underlines Pollan's story about agribusiness, but corn is its focus. American cattle fatten on corn. Corn also feeds poultry, pigs and sheep, even farmed fish. But that's just the beginning. In addition to dairy products from corn-fed cows and eggs from corn-fed chickens, corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup make up key ingredients in prepared foods. … ‘Tell me what you eat,’ said the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, ‘and I will tell you what you are.’ We're corn.”


And that means we’re being over-filled with omega-6 fatty acids, a status which, based on Dr. Hibbeln’s research, may be making us angrier, less patient, and even a bit quicker to attack one another under stress.  Talk about unintended consequences!


To reduce your intake of omega-6 fats, cut back on processed, packaged foods containing omega-6-rich oils (corn, canola, soy, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower), replace conventional, corn-fed raised beef with grass-fed alternatives, and avoid farmed fish in favor of wild. Note: organic beef is not necessarily grass-fed: much of it is “finished” on corn (albeit organic corn) in feed lots, just like regular beef cattle, and therefore are equally high in omega-6 fats


While farmed salmon offer levels of omega-3 fats comparable to those in wild salmon, the farmed fish are also—unlike wild salmon—high in omega-6 fats. As we’ve reported, this unnatural fatty acid profile appears to negate much of the hypothetical cardiovascular benefit of eating farmed fish (see “Farmed Salmon's Diet Yields Unhealthful Cardiovascular Effects”.


Sources

  • Mihm S. “Does Eating Salmon Lower the Murder Rate?” The New York Times, April 16, 2006. Accessed April 22, 2006 at http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F3071EFB35540C758DDDAD0894DE404482
  • Buydens L, Branchey M, Roy A. N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Decrease Feelings of Anger in a Population of Substance Abusers. Neuropsychopharmacology. , 2005;30(1):S87-S88.
  • Buydens-Branchey L, Branchey M, McMakin DL, Hibbeln JR. Polyunsaturated fatty acid status and aggression in cocaine addicts. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2003 Sep 10;71(3):319-23.
  • Colin A, Reggers J, Castronovo V, Ansseau M. [Lipids, depression and suicide] Encephale. 2003 Jan-Feb;29(1):49-58. Review. French.
  • Cott J, Hibbeln JR. Lack of seasonal mood change in Icelanders. Am J Psychiatry. 2001 Feb;158(2):328.
  • Gesch CB, Hammond SM, Hampson SE, Eves A, Crowder MJ. Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners. Randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry. 2002 Jul;181:22-8.
  • Hamazaki T, Sawazaki S, Itomura M, Asaoka E, Nagao Y, Nishimura N, Yazawa K, Kuwamori T, Kobayashi M: The effect of docosahexaenoic acid on aggression in young adults. A placebo-controlled double-blind study. J Clin Invest 1996; 97: 1129-1133.
  • Weidner G, Connor SL, Hollis JF, Connor WE: Improvements in hostility and depression in relation to dietary change and cholesterol lowering. Ann Int Med 1992; 117: 820-823.
  • Hibbeln JR, Linnoila M, Umhau JC, Rawlings R, George DT, Salem N Jr. Essential fatty acids predict metabolites of serotonin and dopamine in cerebrospinal fluid among healthy control subjects, and early- and late-onset alcoholics. Biol Psychiatry 1998; 44: 235-242.
  • Hibbeln JR, Nieminen LR, Lands WE. Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five Western countries, 1961-2000. Lipids. 2004 Dec;39(12):1207-13.
  • Hibbeln JR, Salem N Jr. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and depression: when cholesterol does not satisfy. Am J Clinical Nutr 1995; 62: 1-9.
  • Hibbeln JR, Salem N Jr. Risks of cholesterol-lowering therapies. Biological Psychiatry 1996; 40: 7: 686-687.
  • Hibbeln JR, Umhau JC, George DT, Salem N Jr. Do Plasma Polyunsaturates predict Hostility and Violence? World Rev Nutr Diet 1996; 82: 175-186.
  • Hibbeln JR, Umhau JC, Linnoila M, George DT, Ragan PW, Shoaf SE, Vaughan MR, Rawlings R, Salem N Jr. A replication study of violent and nonviolent subjects: cerebrospinal fluid metabolites of serotonin and dopamine are predicted by plasma essential fatty acids. Biol Psychiatry. 1998 Aug 15;44(4):243-9.
  • Hibbeln JR. Seafood consumption and homicide mortality. A cross-national ecological analysis. World Rev Nutr Diet. 2001;88:41-6.
  •  Iribarren C, Markovitz JH, Jacobs DR, Schreiner PJ, Daviglus M, Hibbeln JR. Dietary intake of n-3, n-6 fatty acids and fish: Relationship with hostility in young adults-the CARDIA study. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jan; 58(1): 24-31.
  • Tanskanen A, Hibbeln JR, Hintikka J, Haatainen K, Honkalampi K, Viinamaki H. Fish consumption, depression, and suicidality in a general population. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2001 May;58(5):512-3. No abstract available.
  • Tanskanen A, Hibbeln JR, Tuomilehto J, Uutela A, Haukkala A, Viinamaki H, Lehtonen J, Vartiainen E. Fish consumption and depressive symptoms in the general population in Finland. Psychiatr Serv. 2001 Apr;52(4):529-31.
  • Virkkunen ME, Horroboin DF, Jenkins DK, Manku MS: Plasma phospholipid essential fatty acids and prostaglandins in alcoholic, habitually violent and impulsive offenders. Biol Psychiatry 1987; 22: 1087-1096.
  • Virkkunen M, Rawlings R, Tokola R, Poland RE, Guidotti A, Nemeroff C, Bissette G, Kalogeras K, Karonen SL, Linnoila M. CSF biochemistries, glucose metabolism, and diurnal activity rhythms in alcoholic, violent offenders, fire setters, and healthy volunteers. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1994 Jan;51(1):20-7.
  • Weidner G, Connor SL, Hollis JF, Connor WE: Improvements in hostility and depression in relation to dietary change and cholesterol lowering. Ann Int Med 1992; 117: 820-823.

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