Our mood and behaviors are impacted daily by the foods we consume. From getting the jitters from too much caffeine, to the feeling of calm after a glass of milk or Thanksgiving turkey; there are components in our food that impact our mood. In this respect we are what we eat. The human body can be thought of as a car, when given the right fuel it runs optimally, but with inadequate fuel it might sputter and stall. So it stands to reason there may be better performing nutrients, which impact our mood or behavior, than others. This is true of omega-3 long chain essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are so named essential fatty acids because they cannot be produced by the body and are derived from the foods we eat. These healthy fats (EPA and DHA in particular) are found in the highest amounts in oily fish like salmon, walnuts and ground flax seeds; foods that many people don’t consume on a regular basis. Therefore, those people who consume less of these foods may have lower levels of these essential fats in their blood; those who regularly eat more fish, nuts and seeds will have higher levels and a correlating higher degree of cardio-protection and brain health benefit.
For years, omega-3 fats have been promoted for their cardio-protective benefits, now they are showing promise for their benefits to brain health. Science shows deficiencies in zinc, iron, protein and B vitamins in infancy can cause behavior problems in teenage years – since these nutrients are required for proper brain development. Researchers are now discovering that supplementation with omega-3 fats provides mood-stabilizing and antidepressant benefits, playing an important role in brain development and long-term health (1). Emerging research also reveals omega- 3 fats encourage the growth of neurons in an area of the brain that controls impulsive behavior; having enough of these EFAs may keep violent impulses in check. Supporting the idea that without the essential omega-3 fats the brain works poorly.
In 2004 the National Institutes of Health published a study that found a correlation between the intake in omega-3 fatty acids and lower murder rates (2). Since then, there have been numerous studies reaching the same conclusions. The same author published a paper in 2006 (3) with the following conclusion “clinical studies suggest that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may reduce aggressive, impulsive and depressive behaviors” he went on to say that “omega-3 supplementation would be an important contribution to public health because these nutrients are inexpensive, non-toxic and readily available.”
Across the pond in the UK, The Wellcome Trust (the UK’s biggest independent funder of medical research) is spending $2.8 million on a 2 year study looking at nutrients (including omega-3 fats) and behavior. One thousand offenders from 3 prisons are being recruited, the results of which will be published in two years. Offenders will receive four capsules a day with meals; half will receive the nutrients and half will receive a placebo, or inactive supplements, and their behavior will be monitored by the Prison Service. Neuroscientist, Professor Stein from Oxford University, is the primary researcher on the study and an advocate for brain nutrients. The results from a pilot study in 2002 demonstrated that inmates receiving EFA supplements showed a 37% reduction in anti-social behavior (as measured by assaults and other violations) (4).
Although there is more to antisocial behavior than nutrition alone, micro-nutrients may be an important missing link. Further research needs to be completed before any conclusive statements can be made with regards to the treatment of violence and anti-social behavior. The bottom line is omega-3 fatty acids are an important addition to a healthful diet and while the verdict is still out with regards to behavior and violence, it is certainly food for thought. There are nutritional guidelines for our physical health, so why not nutritional guidelines for our mental health?
1.Kris-Etherton P, Hill A. n-3 Fatty Acids: Food or Supplements? J Am Diet Assoc 2008;108:7, 1125-1130
2.Hibbeln JR, Nieminen LR, Lands W. Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five western countries, 1961-2000. Lipids. 2004;39(12):1207-1213
3.Hibbeln JR, Ferguson TA, Blasbalg TL. Pmega-3 fatty acid deficiencies in neurodevelopment, aggression and autonomic dysregulation: Opportunities for intervention. Int. Rev. of Psych. 2006; 18(2): 107-118
4.Gesch, C.B., Hammond, S.M., Hampson, S.E., Eves, A., Crowder, M.J. Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behavior of young adult prisoners. Randomized, placebo-controlled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry 2002; 181 22-8.