Omega-3 acids in fish oil can significantly reduce aggression

Share on Pinterest
Omega-3 supplements may help reduce aggression levels in humans, a new study suggests. Marc Tran/Stocksy
  • Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have found that people who consume omega-3, found in fish, flaxseed and walnuts, are less likely to have aggressive and violent outbursts.
  • Poor nutrition has been cited as linked to aggressive and antisocial behavior, and combining cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with omega-3s into regular diets could be helpful.
  • Adding omega-3 fatty acids to a daily diet is quite easy given the availability of supplements and supermarket products such as edamame, seaweed, flaxseed and anchovies.

Omega-3 fatty acids, a beneficial nutrient found in foods like sardines, salmon, walnuts and chia seeds, may reduce aggressive and violent behavior, according to a new paper published in the journal Aggression and violent behavior.

The paper, written by Professor Adrian Raine of the University of Penn, along with Lia Brodrick of the Perelman School of Medicine, examined 3,918 participants from multiple studies, samples and laboratories between 1996 and 2024.

The meta-analysis found that omega-3 could reduce “reactive aggression,” which is manifested by impulsive responses to provocations, and “proactive aggression,” which is predetermined or “predatory,” as the study says.

Dr. Raine, also a professor of criminology, psychiatry and psychology at Richard Perry University, has spent years studying neurocriminology, aggressive behavior in adults and children, and antisocial behavior. This article used 35 independent samples included in 29 studies from 19 independent laboratories. The results applied broadly across multiple populations, ages and genders.

“The results of this study show that omega-3 supplementation significantly reduces aggressive behavior in the short term, albeit at a modest level,” the paper says. “Given the enormous economic and psychological costs of aggression and violence in society, even small effect sizes must be taken seriously.”

“Omega-3 supplementation has been suggested to benefit a number of psychopathologies, including depression and anxiety, and, more debatably, schizophrenia spectrum disorders. It certainly affects the serotonin system in a beneficial way, but this is not unique in that it also affects other neurotransmitters,” Dr. Raine. Medical news today.

“The challenge we face is to understand exactly how omega-3 affects neurophysiology in a specific way, which benefits mental health,” he said.

It is well known that omega-3 fatty acids have a number of physical health benefits. They help maintain cell structures, can prevent obesity and heart disease, and can reduce inflammation in the body. However, the body is unable to produce them itself, so external supplements or nutritional sources are needed to get them.

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
  • eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

DHA and EPA are mainly present in cold-water oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon, herring and sardines.

Melanie Murphy Richter, a registered dietitian nutritionist and director of communications for the nutrition company Prolon, who was not involved in the study, said Medical news today that omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to their physical benefits, may interact with the brain in multiple ways.

“The presence of omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, may make these vesicle membranes more receptive to the signals that trigger the release of serotonin. Improving this process makes more serotonin available for transfer between neurons in the brain and other parts of the central nervous system (CNS). Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids can influence the expression of certain genes by increasing the functionality of certain enzymes that create the precursor of serotonin, 5-HTP. This can also improve serotonin production,” says Richter.

“Omega-3 fatty acids can wonderfully complement the antidepressant effects of SSRIs by increasing the availability of serotonin in the brain membranes. Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3 fatty acids may also reduce inflammation in the brain, which may help improve SSRI function.”
– Melanie Murphy Richter, RDN

Raine’s article points out that “poor nutritional status is a risk factor for externalizing behavioral problems,” which has led to increased interest in looking at how nutritional supplements can reduce such behavior across society.

It cites several studies to explain that omega-3 could be a bridge between nutritional deficiencies and violent or aggressive behavior, and states that “correlational research has also shown that fish consumption is negatively associated with homicide rates across the country.”

Richter said omega-3 fatty acids can regulate serotonin and mood, which when combined with other treatment options can make a difference in antisocial or aggressive behavior.

For example, if a person’s dysregulated moods and emotions are related to chronic inflammation due to poor diet or other toxic environmental factors, omega-3 supplementation can have a pretty big impact on helping regulate emotional outbursts like road rage. In fact, a study showed that higher levels of Omega-3 status were associated with less aggressive behavior in adult prisoners. Because of its effects on inflammation, Omega-3 can play a big role in reducing irritability and anxiety. The presence of Omega-3 can increase the availability of serotonin release from membranes in the brain, improving overall mood and relaxation,” says Richter.

Omega-3 fatty acids and CBT

“Omega-3 fatty acids can be a wonderful complementary therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Many people have not learned how to acknowledge and process certain emotions, such as anger or rage. CBT can provide practical tips on how to relax, solve problems and detach from certain external circumstances.
– Melanie Murphy Richter, RDN

Raine echoed this sentiment, saying that the combination of therapy and nutritional supplements is extremely promising.

“We’ve done some studies comparing omega-3 with cognitive behavioral therapy and social skills training to reduce aggression, and in some cases we find omega-3 performs better,” says Raine. “But we also found that combining omega-3 with cognitive behavioral therapy can be especially beneficial in reducing aggression. An approach in which omega-3 complements other psychological interventions could therefore be particularly promising.”

Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and anchovies are an easy way to add omega-3s to your diet. Richter noted that chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, seaweed and edamame are also good sources of alpha-linolenic acid.

There are also supplements that can be found in stores or online. Richter recommended vetted brands like Nordic Naturals.

“This brand is one of the best in terms of potency, purity, freshness and clean ingredients. I also love that they have COA certifications and have specialized in Omega-3 fatty acids for years,” she says.

Leave a Comment