Give a (Young) Man a Fish

Mood disorders and a lack of omega-3s

| September-October 2010

  • Give a Young Man a Fish Image

    Stephanie Glaros

  • Give a Young Man a Fish Image

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.