This article is reprinted by permission of Australia's Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) and FISH Magazine.
Joe Hibbeln, M.D., believes the increasing trend towards pathological behavior in modern society, such as violent crime, could in part be solved by eating more fish.
It might sound a bit radical but he makes a persuasive argument, which he delivered in a keynote speech at the 2010 International Seafood and Health Conference in Melbourne.
Dr. Hibbeln explains how the historical role of fish in our diets has been displaced by a sharp rise in vegetable oils, which form the basis of most junk food in industrialized western societies. He thinks that this dietary imbalance, centered on seeds oils at the expense of fish, could be a contributing factor in rising rates of diagnosed mental illness.
Acting chief of nutritional neurosciences at the Laboratory of Membrane Biophysics and
Biochemistry, Joe Hibbeln has devoted his 25- year career to researching how the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3s) found in fish influence brain function, and ultimately wellbeing, in human society.
His work investigating how nutritional deficiencies caused by inadequate seafood consumption may increase the risk of major psychiatric disorders, such as depression and other affective disorders, is supported by more than a decade of clinical and basic research.
This research reveals that major changes in the essential fatty acid composition of the food supply in industrialized countries closely correlate with a rise in homicide, suicide and deteriorating social cohesion.
He demonstrated statistically how a “123,000-fold increase of the omega-6 linoleic acid from the soy and linseed oil contained in most junk foods” has coincided with a spike in pathological behaviors since the 1960s. “What was considered to be pathological behavior in a small percentage of the population in the 1930s is now regarded as the norm.”
Essentially, he says that something simply had to give as a result of this overwhelming dietary shift that has seen the annual per capita intake of omega-6-rich oils among Americans jump from five to 29 kilograms. Along with a corresponding decline in the consumption of omega-3 fats containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), Joe Hibbeln says it is brain health that has suffered.
He says the negative effects brought about by the dwindling role of fish in modern diets might stem from the brain’s evolutionary reliance on EPA and DHA. Both the human brain and fish are largely composed of DHA. Fish ultimately obtain this fat from algae, and so too humans must source this omega-3 fat prevalent in the brain from food – with fish providing the richest concentrations.
In one test of this theory, a fish cocktail pill resulted in a 37 per cent reduction in new convictions for felony-level violent offenses. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recently gave credence to Joe Hibbeln’s theory by recommending that patients with most psychiatric illnesses consume at least one gram of EPA and DHA per day or consume three fish meals per week.
Studies by Joe Hibbeln in 2004 showed that an increased rate of homicide matched the rise in linoleic acid consumption between 1961 and 1999, and was also reflected in escalating rates of suicide over this period.
Fish consumption was also shown to have significant health consequences for pregnant women and their developing children. Despite the APA endorsement, Joe Hibbeln’s research is contradicted by 2004 US Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advice. This encourages pregnant women to limit their fish consumption to avoid trace amounts of methyl-mercury said to result in neurotoxicity (nerve tissue damage).
But Joe Hibbeln says the advisory recommending no more than 340 grams of fish per week does more harm than good, heightening the negative effects it was designed to prevent.
“Deficiency damage outweighs the harm caused by mercury poisoning,” he said, adding that people could lose up to six IQ points from inadequate seafood consumption, but were likely to lose only a fraction of an IQ point from mercury poisoning.
A 2007 study by Joe Hibbeln assessed the harm resulting from inadequate intake of the nutrients found in fish among 11,875 women and their infants participating in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.
He says its findings demonstrate how insufficient seafood intake has translated into “an increased risk of children with suboptimal verbal IQ, fine motor development, communications development, social development at the age of three years and impaired pro-social development at the age of seven years.”
Aside from impairing the brain development of a fetus, an ecological study conducted by Joe Hibbeln in 2002 also found that the risk of postnatal depression was 50 times greater in countries, such as the US, that consume low levels of fish, compared with countries, such as Japan, with high fish consumption levels.
Joe Hibbeln’s body of observational work, and in particular a 1998 study comparing rates of fish consumption with depression in western countries, suggests that the incidence of mental illness could well be being aggravated by modern fish-deficient diets.
Though he mostly works from an office in Bethesda, Maryland, Joe Hibbeln works closely with the US military on mental health problems. “Suicide rates in the US military doubled between 2005 and 2008,” he says.
This trend is driving Joe Hibbeln to further substantiate his research into links between mental health and the altered modern diet. He hopes to clarify uncertainties about how EPA and DHA relatively contribute to brain function with a more significant, multi-centre trial that will include a greater number of subjects suffering from major depression and affective disorders.
He also intends to further explore the neurobiology of depression, homicide and suicide. This testing would seek to discover whether insufficient input of EPA and DHA reduces human functions activated by serotonin and markers of serotonin levels, which have been linked to self-harm, suicide and aggression.
Joe Hibbeln’s investigation of whether it is possible to correct some of the social disruptions affecting society by eating fish will continue as well. This will involve working with other specialists in nutritional neuroscience to overcome difficulties with the methods used to prove the theory that major psychiatric disorders may be largely, although not solely, attributable to diets lacking omega-3 fats.
Among these researchers is Michael Crawford, one of the world’s most eminent researchers into brain function and nutrition based in London, UK, who was also a keynote speaker at the conference themed ‘Seafood: benefiting health and wellbeing’.
Michael Crawford reiterated Joe Hibbeln’s research findings, emphasizing the importance of consuming fish for brain function. “Unless we prioritize brain nutrition, we will become a race of morons. The future health and intelligence of humanity is at stake, and it’s the most serious threat of our times,” Michael Crawford says.
He also notes the UK cost of mental illness in 2007 was 77 billion pounds, which is more than the combined costs of heart disease and cancers. But Joe Hibbeln is optimistic that western society can “reawaken” to the nutritional benefits of fish. “Celebrate the omega-3s,” he urges.