May 17, 2010
Joe Hibbeln, M.D., believes our diet is making us depressed, addicted and violent. He thinks he’s found a simple solution.
By Rachael Moeller Gorman, EatingWell.com
Joe Hibbeln maneuvers his small blue Mazda 626 around traffic on a wide boulevard in Bethesda, Md.
“How many people,” he shouts over the noise from the open window, “even Miss America, say ‘I want to make the world a happier place’?” He turns the wheel sharply to the left. “Well, I’m doin’ it! I’m zeroing in on a nutritional deficiency that makes the world an unhappy place.”
Hibbeln, a captain in the United States Public Health Service, one of the country’s seven uniformed services (“army of the Surgeon General,” says Hibbeln), is talking about omega-3 fatty acids. He has, in fact, devoted his entire career to studying the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that are best known for their heart-health benefits. He loves them. He loves the fish they come from.
Hibbeln, 49, is average height, with dark, graying hair slightly longer on top and matching bushy eyebrows. His love affair with fats began simply. In a musty autopsy suite at the University of Illinois-Chicago medical school more than 25 years ago, Hibbeln, an aspiring psychiatrist, held a brain for the first time. It was jiggly and white, not what one would expect of a computing juggernaut. “What the heck is this thing made of?” Hibbeln asked. Mostly fat, his instructor replied.
Fascinated by the idea that the most complex organ in our bodies was, in large part, a type of tissue most of us want to get rid of, Hibbeln began scouring the scientific literature to learn more about how the fat comprising the brain influenced its function. He kept encountering the work of Norman Salem, Jr., Ph.D., a neurobiologist who studied docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a particular type of omega-3 fat prevalent in the brain—and in fish. (Fish often consume a lot of omega-3-rich algae or eat other, smaller fish that do.)
During his last year of medical school, Hibbeln reached out to Salem, who told him something that forever changed his career path: Our bodies do not produce DHA or other omega-3s from scratch; we have to get them from food. These words opened up a whole new avenue of inquiry for Hibbeln, and he jumped into researching how the fats we eat (or don’t eat) might change our brain.
He was especially interested in mental illness. He has a family member with mental illness and in 1985, his parents, Raymond and Shirley, helped found the first national support group for families dealing with mental illness, what’s now called the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.
We careen through the streets of Bethesda and finally pull up to a guard station at the National Naval Medical Center, where we are meeting Col. Mike Lewis, M.D., M.P.H., one of Hibbeln’s collaborators, to talk about some new studies. A soldier in dusty fatigues salutes and waves us in. “Sir, very good sir.” Hibbeln returns the salute. Hibbeln tells me that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression in the U.S. military are affecting 20 percent of those who have been deployed. He points to construction vehicles and men in hard hats who swarm around the medical center. “They’re building new treatment facilities to capture this flood of psychiatric distress,” he says. “If I can get the military to change their diet, show that it works to reduce depression and suicide there, then there’s a great potential for societal change.”