WIESBADEN, Germany - A U.S. Army doctor deployed to Iraq is conducting a study to determine if supplementing deployed soldiers’ diets with fish oil capsules will improve their mood and combat stress symptoms.
Dr. (Lt. Col.) Daniel Johnston came up with the idea after attending a Department of Defense-hosted conference last year where government and private medical organizations discussed the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Johnston is brigade surgeon for the Enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which is currently in Iraq.
At the conference, the Army’s director of the comprehensive soldier fitness program, Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, challenged scientists to perform clinical trials with soldiers to document benefits and justify large-scale nutritional modification.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in coldwater fish, algae, some plants and nut oils.
“We have body armor that protects us on the outside, but nutritional armor, what we put on the inside, is very important as well,” Johnston said.
Approximately 250 soldiers are voluntarily taking part in the study. Half the soldiers will take the fish oil pills, and the other half will take a placebo.
The effects will be measured by baseline psychological tests and blood analysis after the study, which will last 60 days.
Johnston will review the results with Dr. Holden MacRae, a researcher in sports performance and exercise science from Pepperdine University in California, and Capt. Michael Dretsch from the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory at Fort Rucker, Ala.
The military has dedicated most of its resources to reducing combat stress with treatment-focused approaches rather than preventive or proactive measures, Johnston said.
“Proactive approaches need to look at nutritional factors through supplementation that can improve resilience but also performance and health … professional athletes know this and the warfighter deserves studies in their population, on their playing field,” he said.
Researchers have found in some studies that omega-3 fatty acids can lower triglycerides and help prevent heart disease, according the National Institutes of Health website.
While some studies have been encouraging about a potential link between omega-3 and a reduction in depression, a 2005 report online from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services summarizing some findings found no significant relationship between the fatty acids and improved mental health.
Johnston’s hypothesis is that soldiers receiving omega-3 will exhibit significantly higher cognitive performance and better mood state and be more resilient to combat stress compared with the placebo group.
“I’m convinced this is important work that needs to be done, and in the end the science will speak for itself,” Johnston said.