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Soldiers and Omega-3s: Pentagon Pitched on Benefits
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Vital Choice hears top researchers present compelling evidence in favor of providing omega-3s to soldiers for mental and physical benefits

by Craig Weatherby and Randy Hartnell

Last month, we attended a unique conference, convened to present armed forces officers with evidence in favor of adding omega-3s to soldiers’ diets.

This was a very timely conference, given the recent rise in suicide rates among service people serving in war zones, and those who’ve returned from combat areas.

Historically, the suicide rate has been lower in the military than among civilians. In 2008 that pattern was reversed, with the suicide rate in the Army exceeding the age-adjusted rate in the civilian population (20.2 out of 100,000 vs. 19.2)the highest rate since the Army began keeping records in 1980.

The invitation-only eventtitled “Nutritional Armor for the Warfighter”was intended for uniformed and civilian Defense Department personnel with responsibility for soldiers’ health and/or influence within the Pentagon.

It was jointly organized by top researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and scientists from the Samueli Institute: a non-profit organization experienced in both integrative medicine and military medical research.
Captain Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., and Bernadette P. Marriott, Ph.D., of the NIAAA invited leading fatty acid researchers from around the world to answer the question posed in the conference subtitle: “Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Enhance Stress Resilience, Wellness, and Military Performance?”

Dr. Hibbeln is a leading researcher into the mental effects of omega-3s, and is chief of outpatient psychiatric services at the NIAAA’s own clinic. (He invited us to attend because of our ongoing attempts to provide accurate omega-3 information to our newsletter readers. Vital Choice was represented by founder and president Randy Hartnell.

This was a remarkable event both because of the stellar nature of the scientific presentations by world-renowned researchers like Vital Choice advisor William E.M. Lands, Ph.D., and because the keynote was give by former U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., FACS.

Rather than attempt to summarize two days of proceedings, we urge you to view video clips of selected presentations.

Below, we’ve provided links to the videos showing all of the presentations in Day 1 and Day 2, along with the start times of the most compelling talks so you can go straight to those.

Surgeon General Carmona on omega-3s for soldiers

We’d like to note some of the key comments made by Surgeon General Carmona during his keynote address.

Dr. Carmona noted that while the military uses cutting edge technology in every other realm, and U.S. Special Forces are very nutritionally savvy, with web sites devoted to the subject, the standard MRE (meals-ready-to-eat) field ration does not reflect the latest nutritional knowledge.

These were some of the comments by former Surgeon General Carmona:
  • “I thought I had all the answers until I talked to Joe Hibbeln … he showed me how he had been able to correlate low levels of omega-3s to depression suicide, and a whole bunch of other mental health problems.”
  • “Obviously this is not the magic bullet … but it is an extraordinarily important component of comprehensive soldier health, fitness, and wellness that needs to be incorporated as quickly as possible, and we cannot afford to wait another decade or two before this knowledge percolates through the [Pentagon bureaucracy] pipeline.”
  • “In the last quarter century and especially the last decade, there has been a very compelling accumulation of scientific evidence base for the consideration of the use of omega-3 fatty acids and possibly enhancing other foods with omega-3s.”
  • “The current uptake of omega-3s in military diets is probably subpar. Soldiers may be at increased risk from stress and physical or mental injury because of this dietary insufficiency. Our troops have need for this nutrition armor, for they are tactical athletes.”

Dr. Carmona went on to note that while omega-3s linked to better mood and reduced tendency toward violent or impulsive behavior, strong evidence indicates that omega-3s reduce the effects of traumatic brain injury and enhance surgical outcomes. As he said, “… the idea of IV [intravenous] omega-3s in the field at time of injury … certainly has merit.”

Viewing the conference videos: Our suggestions

“Nutritional Armor for the Warfighter” constituted a master class on the subject of omega-3s and health, including the gross imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the average American’s – and U.S. soldier’s – diet.

The start times for each talk are shown as they appear in video players … hour, minutes, and seconds separated by colons (for example, 1:04:30 means 1 hour, 4 minutes, 30 seconds).

You can move back and forth through the videos by clicking and dragging the tab in the long slider bar at the bottom of standard video player windows.

We’ve underlined the talks we think are of most interest to a general audience, and especially recommend the presentations by Drs. Crawford, Hibbeln, and Lands.

Conference Day 1 Video: Presentations and start times

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0:20:00 – Keynote Address
Richard Carmona, M.D., 17th Surgeon General of the United States (2002-2006), Distinguished Professor, Zuckerman College of Public Health, University of Arizona

1:04:30 - Fundamentals of Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Biochemistry and Health

Sheila Innis, Ph.D., Director, Nutrition Research Program, B.C. Research Institute; Professor, Dept. of Pediatrics, University of British Columbia, Canada

1:12:00Dr. Innis discusses competition between dietary omega-3s and omega-6s

1:43 Omega Fatty Acids and Aggression, Suicide and Psychiatric Distress
Captain Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., Acting Section Chief, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

2:01Dr. Hibbeln summarizes the results of his study in soldiers, showing that lower omega-3 (DHA) levels correlated strongly with higher suicide risk, and that Dr. Michael Crawford compared the lowest measured levels in this study to the omega-3 levels in malnourished Sudanese refugees.

2:10:50Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Stress-Immune Interactions/Wound Healing

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor, S Robert Davis Chair of Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, Division of Health Psychology, Ohio State University College of Medicine

2:43Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Negative Affect and Optimization of Cognitive Functioning in Non-Patient Populations

Mathew Muldoon, M.D. MPH, Associate Professor of Medicine, Director of Clinical Studies, Behavioral Physiology Laboratory, Center for Clinical Pharmacology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

3:16Omega-3s in Human Evolution

Professor Michael Crawford, Ph.D., Institute of Brain Chemistry, London

3:44Neurotrophic Effects of [Omega-3] Docosahexaenoic Acid: DHA provides nutritional armor for brain injuries

Hee Yong Kim, Ph.D. Chief, Laboratory of Molecular Signaling, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

4:16:45Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Physical Performance Optimization

Timothy D. Mickleborough, Ph.D., FACSM Associate Professor, Human Performance and Exercise Biochemistry Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, Indiana University

4:53William E.M. Lands, Ph.D. Volunteer, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, NIH

Dr. Mickleborough asked Dr. Lands to answer an audience question regarding the time it takes to raise omega-3 levels of cell membranes into the optimal range. He says that a diet high in fish oil supplements and/or fatty fish can raise the level of omega-3s in cell membranes from 10% to 20% of HUFAs (highly unsaturated fatty acids) in a few weeks, but to get to the target of 60% of HUFAs takes 5-7 months.

He also noted that the average American has 2000 grams of omega-6s stored in belly fat, and that it can take 12 months to replace enough of those with omega-3s by cutting back on omega-6 intake and raising omega-3 intake.

4:57Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiometabolic Health?

Peter R. Howe, Ph.D. Professor and Director, Nutritional Physiology Research Centre, School of Health Sciences, University of South Australia

5:36:30Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Surgical, Respiratory and Intensive Care Issues

Robert G. Martindale, M.D., Ph.D. Professor and Chief, Division of General Surgery, Medical Director for Hospital Nutrition Services, Division of General Surgery, Oregon Health Science University

6:21:30Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Bleeding, Behavior, and Mood

Tomohito Hamazaki, M.D. Ph.D. Professor, Institute of Natural Medicine, University of Toyama,, Japan

6:51Conclusions from Day 1

Brigadier General Rhonda L. Cornum, Ph.D., M.D. Director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, U.S. Army

Conference Day 2 Video: Presentations and start times

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12:00Dietary Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids Compete in Producing Tissue Compositions and Tissue Responses

William E.M. Lands, Ph.D. Volunteer, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, NIH

Dr. Lands discussed evidence that the omega imbalance (too many omega-6s, not enough omega-3s) is the real underlying cause of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, not excess dietary cholesterol.

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