With mood disorders
like depression on the rise, it would be ideal to find deeper answers about where they originate, and why they seem to be growing.
Captain Joseph Hibbeln has taken on the challenge. Acting chief for the Section of Nutritional Neuroscience at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the doctor is best known for his 17 years of ongoing research with the National Institutes of Health regarding the role of omega-3 deficiencies in violence, aggression, and suicide.
In short, he believes mental illness could come from eating too little fish.
We now get up to 20 percent of our calories from soybean and seed oils, which contain lots of omega-6 fatty acids. “And omega-6 fatty acids compete with the omega-3 fatty acids for space in the brain and space in the rest of the body,” Hibbeln explains.
Several things happen to the human brain when it’s short on omega-3s. One set of Hibbeln’s published data from 2007, via a longitudinal study by the University of Bristol that enrolled 14,000 pregnancies in the early 1990s, shows that when pregnant women avoid fish, it makes it 50 percent more likely that their children will have a low verbal IQ at age 8.
His team also published evidence that those children had increased problems with social functioning and peer interactions. And while it didn’t look closely at depression or suicide in the children (who are now nearly 20 years old), the team did find that mothers doubled their risk of postpartum depression (from about 4 percent to 9 percent) if they did not eat sufficient amounts of fish.
“What we believe is going on,” Hibbeln says, “is that the omega-3s are so important for the baby’s brain and developing nervous system that the mothers transport their own omega-3s across the baby’s placenta. If mothers don’t eat fish, their gas tank gets empty.”
Omega-3s are not produced by the human body; they have to be consumed. Supplements are good, though Hibbeln notes that fish also provide important protein and micronutrients. Though omega-3s can be found in certain seeds and nuts, studies show that those omega-3s don’t work the same as the fish-based ones in promoting mental and physical health.
So what, exactly, does this all mean when it comes to kids?
“You wouldn’t willingly let your child become deficient in iodine and get hypothyroidism,” Hibbeln says. “We have an accumulating body of data—and by that I mean 8,000 clinical trials of omega-3 fatty acids in human conditions, and 83,000 studies of omega-3 fatty acids in the basic chemistry side.”
Hibbeln says research shows that omega-3 fatty acids work as antidepressants—in fact, their efficacy is “as good as or better than” classical antidepressants’. And they often work in treatment-resistant depression when other antidepressants have failed.
Critics challenge Hibbeln’s studies, but for him it comes down to one thing: There is no harm in ensuring that your children get 500 to 1,000 milligrams of omega-3s a day. “There’s no harm. The FDA says that this is generally regarded as safe.”
He pauses before continuing. “I think there is abundant harm in deficiency.”
Which omega-3 supplements are best?
Excerpted from the Colorado Springs Independent
(May 27, 2010), where this piece ran alongside Kirsten Akens’ sobering cover story on youth suicides in Colorado.