US Army medical research in Iraq could help to stop hundreds of service personnel committing suicide and save billions of dollars if it proves the theory that supplementing soldiers’ diets with omega-3 improves their mental health and stress resilience.
The two-month double blind placebo study is being conducted by Dr. Daniel Johnston, US Army Lieutenant Colonel and Brigade Surgeon for the enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade deployed in Iraq.
Speaking exclusively to NutraIngredientsUSA from the Taji Warrior Resiliency Center, Camp Taji, where Dr. Johnston said: “The fatty acids found in fish have been around for thousands of years and have enormous evolutionary, scientific and biblical historical significance.
“Over the last twenty to thirty years, scientists have unlocked many of their powerful health benefits through high quality research, and now we must look to see if military soldier resilience especially in a deployed environment could also be improved and that is what I have undertaken here. ”
EPA/DHA fish oil
The study aims to determine whether taking omega-3 EPA/DHA fish oil daily (2.52 grams) for eight weeks will improve soldier mood and perceived stress compared with a placebo treatment of omega-6 corn oil. Mood and perceived stress will be assessed by cognitive and stress resilience metrics.
Conducted at Camp Taji and Camp Diamondback at Mosul in northern Iraq, the trial, which will run until 26 February 2011, includes soldiers who have served in Iraq for various lengths of time performing a variety of functions from infantry to aviation.
Omega-3 finger stick blood analysis was organized at the outset of the trial and will be repeated at its close.
“Depending on the results of this research and future research, omega-3 EPA/DHA may be a candidate for a type of “immunization approach” for depression and other mood disorders when a soldier deploys to an omega-3 deficient and mentally and emotionally strenuous environment,” said Dr Johnston.
“I know first hand the stress of deploying and it is considerable. It may also be something to benefit their military performance if indeed cognitive function is enhanced increasing mission success, safety, and efficiency as a type of nutritional armor protecting and optimizing the inside."
In addition to suicide prevention, supplementing soldiers’ diets with omega-3s may speed recovery from traumatic brain injury and improve the cockpit skills of aircrew, he added.
Stress-related disorders are among the most prevalent and expensive medical consequences of participation in military operations, according to Dr Johnston.
Post traumatic stress disorder
In a statement last Fall in support of the forthcoming research project, Dr Johnston wrote: “Current reports suggest that the percentage of subjects meeting screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is about 20% after duty in Iraq and more than 10% after duty in Afghanistan; this is nearly three times the estimated prevalence in the general population.”
Psychological stress injuries suffered in combat zones are estimated to cost the nation up to $6 billion.
“Consequently, successful strategies that protect against combat stress reactivity will be a critical and timely way to reduce the personal, financial and manpower costs associated with long term military combat operations,” wrote Dr Johnston.
Results of the study are expected to be published in May 2011.
Meanwhile, US military personnel are continuing to take their own lives in shocking numbers.
Between 2005 to 2009, 1,100 servicemen and women committed suicide representing one suicide every day-and-a-half, according to a report the Defense Health Board. During that time the Army's suicide rate doubled.
About 1.9m US service men and women have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dr Johnston said: “The impact of nutrition on health, performance and mission success cannot be overlooked anymore than the quality of fuel can be overlooked that we put in our Blackhawks.”