Are omega-3s the answer to the U.S. Army's suicide crisis?

Are omega-3s the answer to the U.S. Army's suicide crisis?

A new military study on 320 at-risk personnel seeks to find out if omega-3 supplementation can curb depression and suicide attempts among soldiers and veterans. What is the state of the existing science behind omega-3s' brain health benefits?

The U.S. Army will study the effects of omega-3s on depression among soldiers in a new three-year, $10-million trial beginning in 2013. The initial phase of the study will track the effects of daily omega-3 supplementation on 320 at-risk military personnel and veterans in South Carolina. At-risk personnel are defined as those who have spoken about suicide at some point, Ron Acierno, director of the post-traumatic stress disorder clinic of the Veterans Affairs medical center, told Reuters.

Suicide among active duty personnel or veterans has reached nearly epidemic proportions. The Department of Veterans Affairs recorded nearly 18,000 suicide attempts among veterans in 2011, up from about 11,000 in 2009, highlighting the dire need for some sort of intervention.

According to Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA & DHA Omega-3s (GOED), despite the study’s promise, small population sizes and short study durations in existing human trials have held back definitive conclusions about omega-3s’ brain benefits. He said that the population of the proposed military study is large, but certainly not the largest omega-3 human trial on record.

Of note is the medium by which omega-3s are administered. “They’re delivering the omega-3s in a food matrix, in a smoothie form. So the military is looking at ways they can easily deploy into the force.” Certain laws put barriers on the amount and type of pills that the U.S. Military can administer to its soldiers, so food-form supplements are ideal.

Similar omega-3 and nutrition-centered military programs exist globally—in Australia, military personnel have targeted dietary guidelines different from those of citizens, and the British Army has initiatives focused on increasing omega-3 intake, Ismail said.

He also pointed out the significance of the grim details of the trial. The study follows 320 patients and measures omega-3 usage against placebo—so, theoretically, 160 would get omega-3s and 160 would get a daily placebo. After three years, the study’s directors will compare the number of suicides from each group.

“To be able to detect a noticeable difference in suicide rates in a population that small really shows how bad this problem is,” said Ismail.

Can omega-3s really help with depression?

Omega-3 supplements have played a supporting role in cognitive health for some time, but its entrée into mood and depression management is fairly new.

Fish oils accounted for nearly $250 million in sales of supplements targeting mental acuity in 2011, according to Nutrition Business Journal’s 2012 Supplement Business Report. In fact, previous military studies have focused on the effects of omega-3 supplements on soldiers’ cognition and attentiveness in the field.

But brain health is second fiddle to omega-3s’ hegemony over the cardiovascular and general health markets. “The existing studies in brain health have already shown differing results,” Ismail said. “Brain and mental health disorders are much harder to diagnose. And we don’t really know how much omega-3s it takes to have a therapeutic effect on the brain because existing studies are just on mice—you can’t take a brain sample of a living human.”

One recent study from the University of Milan published in Nutrition Journal did show positive results for omega-3 supplementation among elderly, depressed women. Forty-six depressed women aged 66 to 95 were chosen for the placebo-controlled study, with 22 of them allotted a daily intake of 2.5 grams of omega-3s (with a 2:1 EPA-to-DHA ratio) for eight weeks. The trial revealed that Geriatric Depression Scale levels fell substantially for the supplemented group.

Much of this news also comes in the wake of a damning meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which suggested that omega-3s show no evidence of preventing major heart failure.

Nutrition studies are often easy game for debunking, but for this Army depression trial there is an opportunity—maybe even an imperative—to be optimistic.

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