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US military may enlist Omega-3s to boost performance but why wait?

08-Feb-2010
Last updated on 09-Feb-2010 at 13:44 GMT

US military may enlist Omega-3s to boost performance but why wait?

An army marches on its stomach.” This advice, from French military adventurer Napoleon, seems to have impressed the US military which is considering fortifying troops’ rations with omega-3 fatty acids. What is it waiting for?

Discovered 80 years ago, there’s a wealth of science supporting the health benefits of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. From heart health to brain function and from combating depression to safeguarding pregnancy, eye health and cutting the risk of cancers, omega-3’s health benefits seem legion.

The most widely available source of EPA and DHA is oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines. But new sources from krill oil and, for ALA, from vegetables are also becoming popular.

Nutritional armour

Dubbed nutritional armour, omega-3s could enhance significantly battlefield performance, according to many scientists including at least one former US surgeon general, Richard Carmona. Key benefits focus on improving soldiers’ stress resilience and general wellness.

Tellingly, the military applications of omega-3s were explored last December at a conference entitled Nutritional armor for the warfighter: can omega-3s enhance stress resilience, wellness and military performance? staged at the Samueli Institute based in Alexandria, Virginia.

It’s not just combat performance that could be improved by omega-3s. Some military dietitians believe they could help to cut medical bills running into millions of $s.

Omega 3s have been shown to benefit four of the top five ailments or conditions for which troops receive hospital treatment. Those include: Depression, post traumatic stress disorder, surgical complications and, for female soldiers, pregnancy. They are also believed to speed recovery from traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Military planners are particularly concerned about the high rates of suicide and depression together with physical and mental stress associated with combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least 334 members of the military services committed suicide last year compared with 297 killed in Afghanistan and 144 who died in Iraq, according to Department of Defense (DOD) statistics.

So why is the US military so slow to adopt health ingredients that could sharpen military performance and axe millions of $s from its medical bills?

True, the Department of Defense’s Dietary Supplements Committee is talking to scientists at the Samueli Institute and elsewhere about the use of omega-3s. But how much more talk is needed?

Widespread adoption

If the military approved the rapid and widespread adoption of omega-3 fortification, how many lives broken by depression could be mended more quickly? How many suicides avoided? How many taxpayers’ $ are wasted on medical treatment that could be saved?

The path ahead is clear: The US military should fortify active service personnel’s rations with omega 3s as soon as possible. To achieve that would require the removal of a directive that prevents the distribution of pharmaceuticals or wellness products via the military food supply. But that would be a small price to pay in order to achieve a great good.

It is a decision growing numbers of US military personnel are making for themselves. Increasing numbers are taking omega-3 supplements to benefit their health. Their example should be heeded by their masters in the Pentagon and others. The British military, for example, has no plans to consider using omega-3s.

Meanwhile, if omega-3s can deliver such stunning benefits on the battlefield and in the hospital ward, what other health supplements could be enlisted?

Topping the list for investigation should be prebiotic and probiotics. How much longer can military planners and others fail to act on the wealth of scientific evidence?

It’s not recorded whether Napoleon liked oily fish. But, if he suspected their military benefits, he would not have been slow to use them. Who knows - the battle of Waterloo, won – only just – by British and Prussian allies, may have had a different outcome.

Mike Stones writes about health ingredients, food and farming.

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