In the 1971 sci-fi cult classic The Omega Man, Charlton Heston plays an Army doctor on a desperate mission to save what’s left of humanity after a Sino-Soviet biological war. Unfortunately, to rescue the few survivors, Heston has to fight off infected albino vampire zombies.
Joe Hibbeln, a psychiatrist and biochemist at the U.S. Public Health Service and National Institutes of Health, looks nothing like the cartoonish character Heston plays. But he is known to many in his field and in his Silver Spring neighborhood as “Mr. Omega-3.” And he has dedicated his career to saving humanity—not from vampire zombies, of course, but from processed foods deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.
An internationally recognized authority on nutritional neuroscience, Hibbeln for more than 20 years has linked inadequate essential fatty acids to depression, alcoholism, violence, suicide and impaired brain development. His studies all point to the need for us to cut back on omega-6 fatty acids and step up our intake of omega-3s.
The two polyunsaturated fats compete for space in the brain, and Hibbeln says the nation’s fondness for processed foods packed with omega-6 oils, such as those made from soybeans, safflower and corn, is taking a toll on our mental and physical health. He believes that a lot of emotional distress in modern society might be reversed by returning to the diets of 100 years ago. People used to get about equal amounts of the two fats, Hibbeln says, with omega-3s coming mostly from fish and meals cooked at home without plant-based, cold-pressed oils. Now we take in roughly 10 to 25 times more omega-6.
“I’m convinced,” Hibbeln says, “that many costly diseases of modern civilization may be linked to this dramatic shift in the fats in our food supply.”
With graying black hair and a firm handshake, Hibbeln, 52, presents a neat and trim figure in the black and gold service uniform he wears to work each day. The uniform denotes his status as a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps—a group of more than 6,000 uniformed officers from several federal agencies working to promote public health and disease prevention programs while advancing public health science. Hibbeln says he’s proud to wear the uniform, and calls himself “an officer in the army of the surgeon general,” calling to mind that Charlton Heston character, minus the silly stuff.
A Chicago-area native, Hibbeln joined NIH and the public health service in 1992, after a residency at the UCLA Medical Center. Now acting chief of the Section on Nutritional Neurosciences at NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, he has authored or co-authored more than 100 studies on omega-3s.
At work—he bikes 10 miles each way most days—Hibbeln eats a small can or two of tuna with flatbread for lunch (he keeps the cans in desk drawers, along with tins of sardines and salmon). Another drawer is full of dark chocolate bars (known to improve blood vessel flow), which he offers to guests. He won’t say how many bars he eats himself. “This is a private relationship with my chocolate,” he kids.
Married to forensic neuropsychologist Carole Giunta and the father of three, Hibbeln is such an outspoken advocate for omega-3s in their Woodside Park neighborhood that neighbors call “all the time” for advice about what foods to eat. He also has given talks to the Montgomery County Council and the PTA at Woodlin Elementary, which his kids have attended.
Hibbeln first had an epiphany about fatty acids while in medical school. During a gross anatomy class at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1985, he held a brain for the first time and asked the instructor what it was made of. The reply: mostly fat. In an interview with Eating Well magazine in 2010, Hibbeln recalls being intrigued that the brain consists of a type of tissue that most of us want to eliminate, and he set out to learn more.
His next eureka moment came after he encountered research by noted neurobiologist Norman Salem Jr. at NIH’s Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics in Bethesda, showing that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a specific type of omega-3 fatty acid, is found both in the brain and in fish. (Fish get it from eating omega-3-rich algae or by consuming smaller fish that have ingested it.)
Something Salem said particularly struck him: “DHA is selectively enriched in the brain, but can only be obtained from outside the human body.”
Hibbeln joined Salem’s team at NIH in 1992. He wanted to know: “What are the emotional consequences of deficiencies? What happens if we eat a lot? And what happens if we don’t?”
“I like to navigate the scientific world by asking questions,” he notes wryly.
Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, Hibbeln was always interested in mental health and public service. His father, Raymond, fought for 82 straight days on Okinawa during World War II. His other key role models were his mother, Shirley, a librarian; and his scoutmaster, another World War II vet. Hibbeln became an Eagle Scout in high school in 1976 and remains involved in scouting today.
A member of Hibbeln’s family had a mental illness—he prefers not to say whom—and in 1985 his parents helped start the first national support group for families dealing with mental illness. Based in Chicago, it’s now known as the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.
In 1995, Hibbeln and Salem published a groundbreaking paper theorizing that mental illness could result from an omega-3 deficiency. Their research showed depression and homicide rates increasing in tandem over the past century with the growing intake of omega-6 oils.
Three years later, one of Hibbeln’s teams found that a high level of DHA in the blood was a predictor of a high level of serotonin in cerebrospinal fluid. Serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being. Not long after, the British medical journal The Lancet published Hibbeln’s study showing that the rate of depression in 11 countries was inversely proportional to the amount of fish consumed.
In 2001, Hibbeln’s team published another study showing a correlation between a higher intake of omega-3s and lower murder rates. And in 2004, he collaborated with British researchers at the University of Bristol on a major study of mothers who consumed less seafood than recommended. The study found that the children of those women were more likely to have a low verbal IQ and lag in behavioral and social development.
Four years later, a United Kingdom parliamentary report based heavily on Hibbeln’s work recommended increased omega-3 intake by schoolchildren, pregnant women, patients with major mental disorders and prison populations.
That same year, Salem left NIH after 30 years to work at Martek Biosciences Corp., now DSM Nutritional Lipids, USA, where he is chief scientific officer. Hibbeln remained at NIH to continue carrying the torch on omega-3s.
Throughout his career, Hibbeln’s studies have earned him respect and a slew of awards, including a 1999 U.S. Public Health Service Outstanding Service Medal, the 2006 T.L. Cleave Award from the McCarrison Society for Nutrition and Health in London, and the 2012 Wilhelm Normann Medal from the German Society for Lipid Research—the group’s highest honor, previously awarded to three Nobel prize winners.
“Joe Hibbeln has made many important contributions,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, the S. Robert Davis chair of medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus. “He has shown how important omega-3 intake is across a variety of settings and for a variety of different kinds of people—for major depression, related to violence in certain populations, for postpartum depression, related to homicide rates, related to neuro-developmental outcomes in childhood. It really covers the waterfront.”
More than 30 international scientific bodies and regulatory agencies now recommend increasing omega-3 intake, largely because of Hibbeln’s work. In 2006, his clinical trials contributed to the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to recommend that people suffering major depression consume a daily omega-3 supplement, along with regular medications. The APA said people with other conditions, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, might benefit from a supplement, as well.
Since 2001, the American Heart Association has recommended eating fish, particularly fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, at least twice a week, and has suggested that people with coronary disease get at least a gram a day of omega-3s, preferably from oily fish. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended increasing omega-3 in diets, primarily for its cardiovascular and neurological effects.
“Switching to olive oil or high-oleic oil to nix the omega-6 saves on” the amount of fish one would need to eat, Hibbeln says.