New Science Links Food and Happiness

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "Captain of the Happier Meal," May/June 2010

Joe Hibbeln, M.D., believes our diet is making us depressed, addicted and violent. He thinks he’s found a simple solution.

"I believe in Joe Hibbeln 's work, it should be actively promoted. A UK study by Nick Fisher of the effects of a one- month high Omega-3 diet on a prison population showed mood improvement. The charismatic wit and humour of both Nick and...

Hibbeln likes these recommendations. He mentions them often. He also mentions the people who call, thanking him for his dedicated work. He played me a voicemail from a colleague whose sister’s severe, treatment-resistant depression improved significantly after she began taking omega-3 supplements at the suggestion of her psychopharmacologist, who happened to be a big follower of Hibbeln’s work.

I asked if he gets that a lot. “There are certainly people who have suffered from debilitating depression for 20 years, despite having gone through every reasonable pharmacological therapy,” he says, leaning forward. “They take the omega-3s at high levels (2 to 3 grams per day), and suddenly their brain is freed.”

Healthy fats make happy brain chemicals

Hibbeln explains that omega-3 fats help keep the membranes surrounding brain cells supple. This flexibility is important because the proteins that stick in the membrane need to twist to do their jobs, which include helping brain cells communicate. Studies suggest that omega-3s also may improve mental health by altering concentrations of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters—specifically dopamine and serotonin—perhaps by switching “on” or “off” genes that regulate these chemicals. Low levels of serotonin are linked with depression, aggression and suicidal tendencies, while dopamine is a “reward” chemical that the brain releases in response to pleasurable experiences, such as eating or having sex—or taking drugs like cocaine. Depletion of dopamine as a result of low omega-3 levels could cause an addict to seek more and more drugs to get high, worsening the addiction, says Hibbeln.

In 2003, Hibbeln and colleagues looked at omega-3 levels in 38 cocaine addicts in a rehabilitation clinic. Some kicked their addiction; others relapsed after discharge. Hibbeln found that those who relapsed had lower levels of omega-3s in their blood. Whether they recovered or relapsed, addicts with aggressive tendencies also had lower omega-3s. Hibbeln followed up with a controlled trial in 2008, and found that giving omega-3s to substance abusers made them less angry and anxious.

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