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Military suicides: Defense officials spending $10 million to learn if fish oil can help

The Department of Defense is hoping that two new weapons – big money and little oil – can curb the rising military suicide rate.

A three-year, $10 million study, to be funded by the Department of Defense and conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina, will test whether omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils can relieve the anxieties and quiet the suicidal thoughts plaguing many combat veterans, one of the lead researchers said Monday.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have long maintained that a diet heavy in omega-3 – common in salmon, anchovies and other oily fish – can elevate happiness.

“The problem is coming to a head with the recognition that in the military, you’re more likely to die by suicide than by enemy combatant – and that’s not acceptable,” said Dr. Ron Acierno, a co-investigator on the project and a professor in the department of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C.

“Omega-3s are among the primary fatty acids in the brain. They cannot be synthesized by the body – which means they have to be eaten (via food, drink or pill form). They’re responsible for neural generation and neural repair – for new neurons to be made and for broken ones to be fixed,” added Acierno, who also serves as the director of the PTSD clinical team at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston.

The participants are veterans or service members who have been referred to a VA mental health treatment program because they are having suicidal thoughts. If the patients agree to join the study, they will be secretly placed in one of two groups. One segment will drink juice-box-sized smoothies high in omega-3. The second will drink placebos.

“Anybody who is showing suicidal ideation is going to be referred for the standard mental health treatment at the VA here in Charleston, which is a best practices site, so the standard treatment here is pretty good,” Acierno said. That means, he added, that military folks in the placebo group will not receive inadequate care. 

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For those former and current service members who receive the omega-3-laced smoothies, they’ll be asked to gulp one in the morning and another at night. All of the study participants then will be tracked over time as researchers interview them and measure, via a scoring system, their suicidal thoughts and intentions – whether they have formed a plan to take their own lives – along with their anxiety levels and cognitive-processing abilities, Acierno said. Any actual attempts by the participants to harm themselves will be immediately treated but that bahavior will become part of the study’s data.

In addition to medical literature accounts that show omega-3 can buoy mental health, the study team is “excited” about the prospects of fish oil serving as something of a solution, Acierno said, because the product carries an “extremely low risk” for side effects. It's also relatively cheap – costing between $12 and $35 retail.

At Target, for example, a bottle of Nature Made Ultra Omega-3 Fish Oil, priced at $11.89, holds 45 softgel pills each containing 1,400 milligrams. Target also sells $44.99 boxes of Coromega orange-flavored squeeze packets that each contain 650 milligrams of omega-3, derived from pharmaceutical-grade fish oil. 

“The potential good versus the potential extraordinarily low risk and low cost make this a type of intervention that can be – if findings are warranted – rolled out extremely fast and on a large scale,” Acierno said.

Bonnie Carroll, a leading expert in military suicides and founder and president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS),  said she has not read or heard about omega-3 as a possible medicinal tool in treating depression or post-traumatic stress. 

"We are very open-minded on any techniques that might be useful," said Carroll, whose organization provides peer-based emotional support for families affected by the death of a loved one serving in the U.S. military. She also was co-chair of the DOD Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide in the Armed Forces. 

Omega-3 has been on under the microscope for more than a year as experts have tried to dissect the high number of military suicides. In August 2011, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggested that certain fish oil components had potent psychiatric benefits and suggested that taking an omega-3 supplement might help service members. That research, performed in part by the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, scanned through the medical records of 800 U.S. service members who took their own lives between 2002 and 2008, comparing those against the health files of 800 active-duty personnel who had not attempted suicide. The scientists found that service members with higher blood amounts of docosahexaenoic acid - an omega-3 fatty acid - were less likely to take their own lives.

Should veterans who have considered suicide begin swallowing omega-3 pills on their own now?

“Buying the omega-3s and taking them is not going to be a problem,” Acierno said. “However, if they do have these types of thoughts or feelings, remember that even the people in this study – even those who are on the placebo – are getting mental health care.

“So we never want to say this is a replacement for evidence-based mental health care," he added. “This is a supplement and one that is easily added. It’s also important that you get the care you need.” 

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