Experiments Strengthen Link Between Fish Oil, Mental Problems
April 18, 2002
BETHESDA, Md. (Cox News Service) -- Infant monkeys fed baby formulas supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids - the ones found in "fish oil" - were stronger and more alert even at less than a week old than monkeys given standard baby formula.
And by the time they were adolescents, those that had been deprived of the special omega-3 baby food were showing signs of physical quirks that have been used to predict with unusual accuracy whether human teenagers will someday be incarcerated.
The experiments were described Wednesday by Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, a researcher at the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, (NIAAA) in a presentation to other NIH scientists.
They are part of a growing body of science indicating links between diets low in omega-3 and such problems as bipolar depression, suicide and post-partum depression in mothers of young infants.
Heart researchers have believed for decades that modern diets low in omega-3, and high in a related group of fatty acids known as omega-6, are associated with increased risk of heart disease.
Evidence that mental and behavioral problems may also stem from omega-3 deficiencies is more recent. But according to Hibbeln, chief of an NIAAA biochemistry laboratory, the evidence is dramatic.
The incidence of major depression is nearly 60 times as great in New Zealand, where the average consumption of seafood per person is about 40 pounds a year, as it is in Japan, where the average person eats nearly 150 pounds of seafood a year.
And post-partum depression, the condition that some blamed for the actions of Andrea Yates, a Houston woman convicted of first-degree murder recently in the drowning deaths of her five children, is 50 times more common in countries with low levels of seafood consumption, scientists have reported.
Harvard researchers gave two groups of persons who had recently been hospitalized with depression diets that were high in omega-3 and omega-6, respectively. The results were so dramatic that after three months, the scientists were directed by a research oversight committee to stop the experiment and allow all the subjects to take omega-3, Hibbeln said.
omega-6 is a typical component of modern human diets that rely heavily on processed foods, grains and grain-fed farm animals. These diets may be deficient in omega-3, which is much more prevalent in wild game, fish and some nuts, he said.
omega-3 seems to be critical to the growth and maintenance of brain cells, especially cell membranes. That is where all-important neurotransmitters bounce between cells, communicating all sorts of messages, including those related to feelings of well-being, Hibbeln said.
When omega-3 is not available, the body uses what it has, typically omega-6, which produces cell membranes less able to manage the traffic of neurotransmitters.
Hibbeln, who was trained as a psychiatrist, sometimes suggests that people supplement their diets with from one to three grams a day of fish oil labeled to show it contains the omega-3 components eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although "cold-water" fish such as tuna and salmon are said to be higher in omega-3, shallow-water fish also is rich in it, he said.
In fact, even farm-raised salmon is higher in omega-3 than beef, because in addition to its grain-based "fish chow," the salmon gets some of the important fatty acid from other food in the water, he added.
Copyright 2002 Cox News Service. All rights reserved.