Omega-3s: Australian Prisons Are Sedating Inmates With Fish Oil

Omega-3s have a long history behind bars 

Five Australian prisons are about to become the latest testing grounds for a new trial on a common supplement. This team believes that omega threes, — a group of fatty acids present in fish oils or nuts — could be a simple way to help reduce violent behavior behind bars. It’s an idea that might seem outlandish, but strangely omega-3s have already spent significant time behind bars.

Like a lot of research on vitamins and supplements, the evidence that omega-3s can live up to their reputation is somewhat mixed. They have a reputation for heart health — though a meta-analysis showed that the supplements had little or no effect on deaths from cardiovascular disease. They also have a reputation for brain health, though that too isn’t exactly conclusive.

In this trial, Barbara Meyer, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Wollongong’s School of Medicine, and UOW psychologist Mitch Byrne, Ph.D., intend to investigate another proposed benefit of omega-3 supplements: the idea that they may help curb aggressive behavior. This is a line of inquiry that can be traced back to prison research dating from the early 2000s. Many of these studies show significant and powerful effects of supplements of aggressive behavior, but there are important caveats to consider.

Scientists in Australia are conducting a research on how omega-3 supplements may impact aggressive behavior in prison inmates. 


Vitamins, Supplements and Prison Violence

Meyer and Byrne’s trial, which was first publicized in 2016, is the newest step in a tradition of prison-based nutrition research. Two often cited studies that show effects of supplements on behavior are a 2002 randomized, placebo-controlled trial published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and a 2003 study published in Evidence Based Medicine in on British maximum security prisoners. Both trials were covered by The Guardian and the BBC

In the past, prisons around the world have done trials investigating the effects of diet supplementation on violence. 


The 2002 trial, conducted on 231 prison inmates found that those who took an array of multivitamins — including omega-3 supplements — committed 35.1 percent fewer violent incidents after two weeks of a supplement regimen. The 2003 trial also on 231 inmates noted a 26-percent decrease in “antisocial behavior resulting in disciplinary action” after supplement regimens began.

Both of these trials received funding from Natural Justice, a charitable organization dedicated to advancing scientific research on nutrition and human behavior. The supplements for both trials were also provided by the same two companies: Scotia Pharmaceuticals and Unigred Ltd. However, it’s important to note that, especially the 2002 study has been lauded for its rigorous design.

In contrast a study on prisoners in the Netherlands from 2010, which sought to replicate the findings of both the US and the UK trials. There, they found that violent incidents were reduced by 34 percent. A control group, who didn’t receive supplements saw a 14 percent increase in violent incidents over the same period. They don’t declare any funding sources, but conducted the research in conjunction with The Hague.

Where Does The New Australian Study Fit?

Interestingly, this Australian study also seems to be independent — though they are hyper-focused on Omega-3s. Meyer and Byrne are looking to investigate whether omega-3s specifically will demonstrate effects on behavior — a process which they began in a previous study published in PLOS One. For that study, and this upcoming study, they received working under a grant from the Australian Government.

“In the past, from the pilot study, we’ve identified a relationship between the amount of Omega-3 in a person’s blood and the degree to which they express both aggressive symptoms and ADHD symptoms,” Byrne told the Australian Broadcasting Company “So that relationship has been established and we’re now in the process of an intervention study to see if we can support people’s development and growth.”

The research won’t begin until 2020, but at this early stage, the researchers are optimistic that their findings may add to what earlier studies have hinted at. They hope to recruit 600 inmates in five prisons, and investigate how an omega-3 supplement alone may impact behavior over 16 weeks.

If there really is a demonstrable link between omega-3s and behavior, their trial could go a long way to shedding light on it in an independent way.

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