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Study links DHA levels to military suicide risk
Scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism teamed with researchers at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Maryland to analyze a sample of suicide deaths among U.S. military personnel on active duty between 2002 and 2008. The researchers compared levels of omega-3 fatty acids of 800 individuals who committed suicide with those of 800 randomly selected controls — service members who were matched with the suicide cases by age, sex and rank.
They found that all the service members had low omega-3 levels, and that suicide risk was greatest among individuals with the lowest levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the major omega-3 fatty acid concentrated in the brain.
Capt. Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., led the NIAAA team, and full results of the study are being reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
The findings, according to Hibbeln, add to an extensive body of research that points to a fundamental role of DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids in protecting against mental illness problems and suicide risks.
“For example, an previous placebo-controlled trial demonstrated that two grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day reduced suicidal thinking by 45 percent as well as depression and anxiety scores among individuals with recurrent self-harm,” said Hibbeln.
“In a prior study we found that low blood levels of DHA correlated with hyperactivity of brain regions in a pattern that closely resembles the pathology of major depression and suicide risk. While omega-3 fatty acids are generally recommended by the American Psychiatric Association as an adjunctive therapy for mood disorders, more research is needed to establish a definitive role for their use in the stand alone treatment of depression.”
It is believed that the identification of low DHA status as a significant risk factor for suicide deaths should complement ongoing efforts in the U.S. military to study modifiable risk and protective factors related to mental health and suicide among personnel. The study presents new information on the potential usefulness of omega-3 fats in reducing risk for suicide and optimizing mental health, which can be taken into account when designing U.S. military diets.
The question of whether omega-3 fats can enhance stress resilience, wellness and military performance was part of a workshop co-hosted by the Samueli Institute, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the NIAAA and NIH. Presenters at that workshop advocated that such fats may play a role in reducing inflammation, improving blood flow, enhancing immune function, general mood, cholesterol reduction, lessening obesity risk and assisting in the prevention of cancer cell growth.
A videocast of day one of that workshop is embedded below:
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, walnuts, fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna and herring), cloves, oregano, mustard seeds, broccoli, cauliflower, raw tofu, soybeans, shrimp, scallops, winter and summer squash, green leafy vegetables, strawberries, raspberries, and brussel sprouts. Of those foods listed, all except flaxseeds, walnuts, salmon, mackerel and herring require more than a 100 gram portion.
The research is important not only as suicide prevention but due to the fact that psychiatric disorders — mood, substance abuse, anxiety — currently account for four of the top 10 causes for hospital stays among U.S. military personnel.
Most recent suicide data for military personnel — from last year, which included National Guard and reservists — showed an average of 25 soldiers killed themselves each month. Overall, the Army suicide rate has more than doubled since 2004 from 10 per 100,000 to 20 per 100,000 active-duty personnel.