Can omega-3 supplements reduce soldier suicide rates?

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Omega-3 fatty acids, Omega-3 fatty acid, Us

Can omega-3 supplements reduce soldier suicide rates?
A new study will examine if omega-3-rich smoothies can reduce the risks of mental illness and suicide among veterans at increased risk for suicidal behaviors.

The study will seek to address an issue that has hit unprecedented numbers in the military. In July 2012, the Army announced that 38 soldiers were presumed dead by suicide that month alone, marking the highest number of recorded suicides since reporting began.

Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in the US among adults 18-65, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“This study represents a novel intervention that could reduce the risk for suicide,” ​said co-principal investigator of the study, Hugh Myrick, MD, from the Medical University of South Carolina.

“If the results are positive, the impact on veterans, our current military personnel, and society will be immeasurable.”

Omega-3 interest

The US Military has a strong interest in the potential health benefits of omega-3 for service members, particularly for the potential cognitive effects for soldiers in active duty.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry​ found that male US military personnel on active-duty between 2002 and 2008 with the lowest levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) were at a 62% increased risk of suicide than counterparts with higher levels.

On the other hand, a recent study led by Dr Dan Johnston from the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness/Performance, Resilience and Enhancement Program, at the Headquarters of the Department of the Army, in Washington, DC found no associations between omega-3 levels and anxiety, depression, or sleep.

However, there were strong associations with cognitive flexibility and executive function, according to findings published in Nutritional Neuroscience​.

The new $10 million three year study is being sponsored by the Military Operational Medicine Joint Program Committee (JPC-5).

Taste and acceptance

The study's principal researcher, Bernadette Marriott, PhD, told us that the project will use Smartfish smoothie boxes from Oslo, Norway.

"The study participants will take either 2 NutriFriend 1100 smoothies​ per day for 6 months or 2 placebo smoothies with no omega-3s. This is a commercial product that is marketed in Europe. We were interested in this product because of its presentation in a very tasty smoothie.

"We are currently using the product in another study and it is very well received in terms of taste with no side effects. Smartfish will produce both the experimental and control products for the study."


Commenting independently on the announcement, Harry Rice, PhD, VP of regulatory and scientific affairs for GOED, told NutraIngredients-USA: “While past research suggests that low serum O-3 may be a risk factor for suicide, causality remains a missing link.

“Low O-3 status is readily reversed via low-cost interventions like food fortification and use of dietary supplements. The benefits of such intervention extend well beyond those associated with mental health.

“Without a doubt, news that this research is being funded is very exciting!”


Capt. Joseph Hibbeln, MD, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics, and a co-investigator on the trial, has long maintained the potential of dietary supplementation with omega-3s to substantially impact mental illness.

“Research conducted in our lab during the last 20 years points to a fundamental role for omega-3 fatty acids in protecting against major depression, substance abuse and other problems,”​ he said.

“Here we hope to be successful in understanding if omega-3 may play a role in reducing risk of severe suicidal behaviors among U.S. military veterans."

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