By Dr. Mercola
Suicide deaths in the U.S. military have escalated to record numbers. Since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, more than 1,100 soldiers have taken their lives, including a record 301 last year alone. In July 2011, the Army reported 32 soldiers had committed suicide, which is the highest monthly suicide toll yet reported.
Military troops are not machines, and in the face of so much repeated trauma and mental anguish it's easy to understand how a person's mental health could break down. But this deterioration is certainly not helped by an epidemic deficiency of omega-3 fats, as National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) researchers recently revealed.
Is a Lack of Omega-3 Fats Contributing to Soldier Suicides?
In analyzing a sample of suicide deaths among U.S. military personnel on active duty between 2002 and 2008, researchers found that suicide risk was greatest among individuals with the lowest levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fat concentrated in your brain.
Your brain is actually 60 percent DHA, which is why whether you're trying to address depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or any other mental health problem getting enough animal-based omega-3 fat is essential.
Suicide is unfortunately an all too common complication of depression with about 30,000 people dying every year in the U.S. alone.Low DHA levels have been linked to this condition. Studies have shown that as DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, another omega-3 fat) levels rise, depressive symptoms drop. Dr. Stoll, a Harvard psychiatrist, was one of the early leaders in compiling the evidence supporting the use of animal-based omega-3 fats for the treatment of depression. He wrote an excellent book that details his experience in this area called The Omega-3 Connection.
Not getting enough omega-3 fats is known to change the levels and functioning of both serotonin and dopamine (which plays a role in feelings of pleasure), as well as compromise the blood-brain barrier, which normally protects your brain from unwanted matter gaining access. Omega-3 deficiency can also decrease normal blood flow to your brain, an interesting finding given that studies show people with depression have compromised blood flow to a number of brain regions.
Finally, omega-3 deficiency also causes a 35 percent reduction in brain phosphatidylserine (PS) levels, which is relevant considering that PS has documented antidepressant activity in humans.
ALL Military Personnel Found Deficient in Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 deficiency is extremely common among those in the United States; it's even been named the sixth biggest killer of Americans. So it's not surprising that the NIAAA researchers found all the service members had low omega-3 levels, and suicide risk was greatest among those with the lowest DHA levels. Army Col. (Dr.) Michael D. Lewis, lead author of the study, said in a press release:
"We were surprised to find just how low the levels of omega-3 fatty acids were in the entire sample. There still was a significant suicide risk when we stratified the population. When we compared the 1,400 samples with the lowest levels of DHA to the remaining 200, there was a 62 percent increased risk that the samples were from a documented suicide."
U.S. Public Health Service Capt. (Dr.) Joseph Hibbeln, corresponding author, continued:
"Our findings add to an extensive body of research that points to a fundamental role for DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids in protecting against mental health problems and suicide risks. For example a previous placebo-controlled trial demonstrated that 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day reduced suicidal thinking by 45 percent, along with depression and anxiety scores among individuals with recurrent self-harm."
He adds that in a prior study they found 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."
By simply supplementing with an animal-based omega-3 fat, many service members may get the extra nutritional support they need to stay in control of their mental health when under the extreme stress of combat.
Why Animal-Based Omega-3?
There are both plant and animal sources for omega-3 fats, and there are differences between them. All have different ratios of three important omega-3 fatty acids—ALA, EPA and DHA. DHA is the most important for your brain. EPA is also required by your brain, but in smaller amounts.
Plant-based omega-3 sources like flax, hemp and chia seeds are high in ALA, but low in EPA and DHA. Although ALA is an essential nutrient, the key point to remember is that the conversion of ALA to the far more essential EPA and DHA is typically quite inhibited by impaired delta 6 desaturase, an enzyme necessary for you to convert the ALA into the longer chain EPA and DHA. Because of this, it is important to include animal-based sources of omega-3 fats, such as krill oil, in your diet, and this supplement regimen would likely be incredibly useful for those in the military, as it is for the majority of Americans.
Does the Military Know Omega-3s Work Better than Antidepressants?
Omega-3 fats have actually been found to work just as well as antidepressants in preventing the signs of depression, but without any of the side effects. I can also attest to this, as throughout my years of medical practice many of my patients were able to eliminate their antidepressants once they started taking omega-3 fats.
This is an important distinction, because for the first time in history a sizable number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to cope. This is a really bad idea and is likely part of the reason why the military is seeing such a dramatic upswing in suicide rates, as antidepressants have been linked to suicide in young adults aged 18-24, which is the prime age range of these combat troops.
Is it a coincidence that nearly 40 percent of Army suicide victims in 2006 and 2007 took psychotropic drugs, including antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft, as Time magazine reported?
Not in my opinion.
The military needs to seriously examine the facts and start administering high-quality omega-3 fats instead of antidepressants before any more soldiers needlessly take their own lives. They should also be investing heavily in other factors that could bolster soldiers' mental health, such as getting enough sunlight exposure, unlimited access to experienced crisis counselors, and an environment conducive to sound sleep as much as possible. Sleep and depression are so intimately linked that a sleep disorder is actually part of the definition of the symptom complex that gives the label depression.
If You or Someone You Love Has Just Returned From Military Duty ...
Please make sure to take steps to help heal the emotional wounds. Left untended, emotional trauma like the experience of battle can lead to serious health problems down the road -- anything from depression and suicide to heart attacks and cancer is possible. Learning to address your stress is imperative both for mental and physical health in the long term. Exercise is very helpful for this aspect. Other common stress reduction tools with a high success rate include prayer, meditation and yoga, for example.
Be sure you are also on the lookout for signs that your loved one may be contemplating suicide, and always trust your gut feelings. If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, consult a professional for help. If you believe your loved one is in imminent danger, take him or her to the nearest Emergency Department or call the police for help.
There are also national suicide hotlines. The main National Suicide Hotline is 800-SUICIDE or 800-273-TALK.