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June 11, 2024 4 min read

There is a growing interest in utilizing nutritional supplements to ameliorate aggressive and antisocial behavior. This is because historical research indicated that poor nutritional status is a risk factor for externalizing behavior problems(1)

In particular, omega-3 has been hypothesized as one nutritional component that could explain the link between poor nutrition and aggressive/violent behavior, and orrelational research demonstrated that fish consumption is negatively associated with cross-country homicide rates(2)

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods, such as fatty fish, flaxseed, nuts, and olive oil.

The three main omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • - Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • - Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • - Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

ALA is found in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, olive oil, and walnuts. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood.

ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning that your body can’t make it, so you must get it from the foods and beverages you consume. Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but only in very small amounts.

Therefore, getting EPA and DHA from foods and dietary supplements is the only practical way to increase levels of these omega-3 fatty acids in your body(8).

Importantly, research in humans based on randomized controlled trials have argued that omega-3 supplementation can reduce aggression in a wide variety of human populations(3)

A recent meta-analysis examined studies that measured aggression (antisocial/externalizing behavior)(4).

Main Findings

This meta-analysis examined whether omega-3 supplementation can result in a reduction in aggression using three main units of analysis. Analyses from 29 randomized controlled trials were based on 35 independent samples, 29 independent studies, and 19 independent laboratories, encompassing 3918 individuals.  

Overall, results from these 35 independent samples obtained from randomized controlled trials provide substantial evidence that omega-3 supplementation can lead to modest short-term reductions in aggression.

Mechanisms of Action

Why would omega-3 supplementation be expected to reduce aggressive behavior? At one level it is well-known that there is a significant neurobiological basis to aggressive and violent behavior(5).  

It is recognized that omega-3 is a long-chain fatty acid that plays a crucial role in brain structure and function.  It makes up about 35% of the cell membrane, enhancing neurite outgrowth, regulating both neurotransmitter functioning and gene expression and being involved in neurogenesis and nerve cell signaling.  

Omega-3 also lowers inflammatory processes in the brain and performs a major role in cerebral blood flow. Additionally, structural and functional brain imaging studies on humans have documented that omega-3 can upregulate a variety of brain regions, with zero evidence for any detrimental effect(6)

Given the undeniable fact that omega-3 is ubiquitously involved in multiple facets of neuronal biology, it is reasonable to believe that omega-3 supplementation could play a causal role in reducing aggression by upregulating brain mechanisms that may be dysfunctional in such individuals, given the assumption that there is, in part, a neurobiological basis to aggression.

Effects on Reactive-proactive Aggression

Omega-3 supplementation was previously indicated to be more effective for reactive aggression given that this impulsive form of aggression is more associated with brain dysfunction than proactive aggression, particularly with respect to prefrontal dysfunction.  

It is notable that concentrations of Docosahexaenoic (DHA) vary throughout the brain and are at their highest in the prefrontal cortex, which is an area crucial for impulse control and regulation of our emotions.  Higher levels of omega-3 are also associated with increased functional connectivity in the frontal pole and anterior cingulate, areas which in part promote executive functions(7)

In addition, omega-3 has also been shown to enhance executive functions.

Given that reactive-impulsive aggression has been associated with reduced prefrontal glucose metabolism, along with poor executive functions and reduced connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, prefrontal upregulation is a viable explanation for why omega-3 reduces impulsive-aggressive behavior.

Summary

Omega-3 supplementation significantly reduces aggressive behavior in the short-term. This treatment effect of omega-3 applies broadly across a variety of different populations, and cuts across age and gender. Given the enormous economic and psychological cost of aggression and violence in society, even small effects sizes need to be taken seriously.

There is now sufficient evidence to start implementing omega-3 supplementation to reduce aggression in children and adults at a modest level - irrespective of whether the setting is the community, the clinic, or the criminal justice system.

At the very least, omega-3 supplementation should be considered as an adjunct to other interventions, whether they be psychological (e.g. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or pharmacological (e.g. risperidone) in nature, and that caregivers are informed of the potential benefit of omega-3 supplementation.

In addition to reduced aggression, Omega-3's are associated with numerous health benefits like improved heart health, so it's a great thing to incorporate into your diet on a daily basis. When combined with a powerful antioxidant like CoQ10, it can be fantastic way to revolutionize your daily health routine.

You can learn more about the power of CoQ10 here!












References:
    1.    Raine A, Mellingen K, Liu J, et al: Effects of environmental enrichment at ages 3–5 years on schizotypal personality and antisocial behavior at ages 17 and 23 years. American journal of psychiatry 160:1627-1635, 2003
    2.    Hibbeln J: Homicide mortality rates and seafood consumption: A cross-national analysis. World Review of Human Nutrition 88:41-46, 2001
    3.    Raine A, Leung C-C, Singh M, et al: Omega-3 supplementation in young offenders: A randomized, stratified, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group trial. Journal of Experimental Criminology 16:389-405, 2020
    4.    Raine A, and Brodrick, L: Omega-3 supplementation reduces aggressive behavior: A meta-analytic review of randomized controlled trials. Aggression and Violent Behavior Volume 78,, 2024
    5.    Blair RJ: The motivation of aggression: A cognitive neuroscience approach and neurochemical speculations. Motivation Science 8:106, 2022
    6.    McNamara RK, Asch RH, Lindquist DM, et al: Role of polyunsaturated fatty acids in human brain structure and function across the lifespan: An update on neuroimaging findings. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 136:23-34, 2018
    7.    Talukdar T, Zamroziewicz MK, Zwilling CE, et al: Nutrient biomarkers shape individual differences in functional brain connectivity: Evidence from omega‐3 PUFAs. Human brain mapping 40:1887-1897, 2019

    8.    https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/

Dr. Paul Henning

About Dr. Paul

I'm currently an Army officer on active duty with over 15 years of experience and also run my own health and wellness business. The majority of my career in the military has focused on enhancing Warfighter health and performance. I am passionate about helping people enhance all aspects of their lives through health and wellness. Learn more about me