Omega-3 fatty acids have demonstrated therapeutic or preventive value in
Alzheimer's disease, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and
depression. They might have a suicide-prevention role as well.
The omega-3 fatty acids—which show promise against a range of
psychiatric illnesses and can be obtained by eating fish or taking
supplements—can reduce symptoms in suicidal persons.
So suggest two studies in the February British Journal of
Psychiatry. Both studies were headed by psychiatrist Malcolm Garland,
M.D., who was affiliated with Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, Ireland, when the
studies were conducted. He is now on staff of St. Ita's Hospital in
The researchers took blood samples from both groups and then compared the
levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood of the suicidal group with those in
the control group, taking possibly confounding factors such as social class,
exercise, smoking, or alcohol intake, into consideration. They found that the
levels were significantly lower in the suicidal group.
They also assessed both groups for depression and impulsivity. Not
surprisingly, the suicidal group scored higher on both depression and
impulsivity than the control group did, since depression and impulsivity are
risk factors for suicide. The researchers then looked to see whether there was
any relationship between subjects' depression and impulsivity scores and the
level of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. There was, they found. Low
omega-3 fatty acid levels were significantly and inversely related to high
depression and impulsivity scores.
So it looked as if persons with a paucity of omega-3 fatty acids in their
bodies might be more vulnerable to suicide than persons with higher levels of
the acids and that the mediating factors might be depression and
The researchers then decided to investigate whether giving omega-3 fatty
acid supplements to suicidal individuals keeps them from engaging in
Forty-nine individuals who had tried repeatedly to kill themselves were
randomized to receive either omega-3 fatty acid supplements or a placebo for
12 weeks in addition to standard psychiatric care. Subjects were tested both
at the start of the study and 12 weeks later in six psychological
domains—depression, suicidal ideation, daily stress perception,
impulsivity, aggression, and hostility. Changes in scores over the 12-week
period were calculated for each subject, and score changes the supplement
group experienced were compared with changes registered by the control
By the end of the 12-week period, the group receiving the supplement had
significantly less depression, suicidal ideation, and daily stress perception
than the control group did—especially less depression. Moreover, the gap
between the supplement group's depression scores and the control group's
depression scores widened even more toward the end of the study, suggesting
that the supplement group might have experienced an even more dramatic drop in
depression if it had received supplements for a longer period.
The supplement group's final scores for impulsivity, aggression, and
hostility did not differ, however, from those of the control group, and seven
individuals in the supplement group attempted to harm themselves, just as
seven in the control group did.
Thus, the true value of omega-3 supplementation as a suicide-prevention
tool can be determined only by a large-scale, multicenter, long-term
investigation, Garland and his team concluded.
The studies were partially funded by the Institute of Psychiatry at the
University of Illinois at Chicago. The remaining costs were paid by the
An abstract of “Lipids and Essential Fatty Acids in Patients
Presenting With Self-Harm” is posted at<http://bjp.rcpsych.org/cgi/content/abstract/190/2/112>.
An abstract of “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation in Patients With
Recurrent Self-Harm” is posted at<http://bjp.rcpsych.org/cgi/content/abstract/190/2/118>.▪