Skip to content

The Role of Nutrition for Reducing Violence in Indian Country

January 2, 2015

Indian Country experiences high rates of violence. Poverty levels are high. Sources of good foods are scarce. Walk into a store in Village Alaska and you are inundated with the soda, chips, candy, refined grain products (cereals) and sugar intense supplements. By the time they become adults (if they make it that far), children have accumulated substantial nutritional deficits. We see the results every day in the behaviors of our children and young adults, but do not recognize them as a consequence of poor nutrition. Violence, suicide, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, schizophrenia, poor learning ability, and a host of other problems have been linked to poor nutrition. Yet the only nutrition related problems we recognize are health related, such as obesity, diabetes 2, heart disease and related problems. We need to expand our recognition of behavioral problems caused by poor nutrition because there are solutions readily available.

The first nutritional nightmare in Indian Country is sugar. Sugar is everywhere. It’s in soda, pastries, ice cream, breakfast cereals, candy and highly processed foods. Americans eat an average of about 160 pounds of sugar annually, or greater than 600 calories daily. Sugar displaces more important nutrients, and together with refined carbohydrates, leads to an increased insulin response. Most of our health care discussions I Indian Country are about the increase in Diabetes 2, yet it is well proven that excess sugar and insulin also impacts mood, especially emotional types of distress. [i] After two weeks of a low sugar, low carbohydrate diet, tested subjects had less emotional distress. An earlier study found a 44% reduction in antisocial behavior among 1,382 incarcerated juveniles after a dietary change that included less sugar. [ii] And a greater consumption of sugar in Westernized nations is correlated with a “worse outcome of schizophrenia and a greater prevalence of depression.” [iii]

Another source of mood disorders driven by sugar consumption comes from the release of excess glutamate in the brain. Excess insulin production caused by sugar and refined carbohydrates causes a spike in glutamate, which in turn produces side effects such as agitation, depression, anger, anxiety and panic attacks.[iv]

Another deficiency that contributes to both internal (cutting and suicide) and external (domestic and other violence) is Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s), particularly Omega 3. Research by Hibblen, et al., revealed a substantial increase in suicide among military veterans who had deficiencies in Omega 3 (especially DHA)[v] and Vitamin D3.[vi]

Suicide victims are often diagnosed with depression and found with alcohol in their blood during autopsy. Low levels of DHA are implicated in depression as well as in violent behaviors.[vii] Suicide and depression are often linked through research.[viii]

An apparent reason for the effect of low Omega 3 levels on suicide and violence has been explained in terms of an imbalance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 levels in the body. Murder rate increases in Industrialized Countries correlate strongly with the increased use of 12 types of seed oils, all high in Omega 6 (linoleic acid).[ix] Reductions of up to 44% of antisocial and violent behaviors have been observed among incarcerated juveniles and adults supplemented with Omega 3.[x] [xi] [xii]

Special attention to nutrition in children and the behaviors they display in school, particularly aggression and bullying, may improve their chance for success. [xiii] Learning and cognition have improved Developmental Coordination Disorder with Omega 3 supplementation.[xiv]

Even the prevalence of alcohol abuse, which is frequently linked to violence and behavior/mood disorders, can be reduced through nutritional methods. Bill Wilson, a co-founder of Alcoholic Anonymous, spent the last 10 years of his life advocating the use of Vitamin B3 as a benefit to maintenance of sobriety and the reduction of depression.[xv]

Nutrition deficits experienced in Indian Country should become a major initiative. While it has been recognized that Developmental Trauma (Adverse Childhood Experiences) is a serious concern in Indian Country [xvi] [xvii], many of the trauma-induced behaviors may be significantly ameliorated by nutritional interventions. Research on the benefit of nutritional therapy for schizophrenics is well documented. Schizophrenics are at risk for suicide and it is likely that nutritional interventions, along with existing psychotropic medication use in reduced dosages, can help restore function to the brain.

I have recommended for the past 7 years that the Indian Health Service facilitate intake of new patients and clients with an assessment of health, behavior and nutrition. Treatment follows with nutritional intervention as a priority. The benefits can significant, particularly in the reduction of violent behaviors.

[i] Christensen, Larry; Krietsch, Kelly; White, Beth; Stagner, Brian Impact of a dietary change on emotional distress. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 94(4), Nov 1985, 565-579

[ii] S J Schoenthaler, “Los Angeles Probation Department Diet – Behavior Program – An Empirical Analysis of Six Institutional Settings.” International Journal of Biosocial Research  Volume:5  Issue:1  Dated:(1983)  Pages:88-98 (1983)

[iii] Malcolm Peet, “International variations in the outcome of schizophrenia and the prevalence of depression in relation to national dietary practices: an ecological analysis,” The British Journal of Psychiatry (2004) 184: 404-408. doi: 10.1192/bjp.184.5.404

[iv] Domschke K, Tidow N, Schrempf M, Schwarte K, Klauke B, Reif A, Kersting A, Arolt V, Zwanzger P, Deckert J. Epigenetic signature of panic disorder: a role of glutamate decarboxylase 1 (GAD1) DNA hypomethylation? J.Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2013 Oct 1;46:189-96. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2013.07.014.

[v] Lewis MD, Hibbeln JR, Johnson JE, Lin YH, Hyun DY, Loewke JD., “Suicide deaths of active-duty US military and omega-3 fatty-acid status: a case-control comparison.” J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;72(12):1585-90. doi: 10.4088/JCP.11m06879. Epub 2011 Aug 23.

[vi] John C. Umhau , David T. George, Robert P. Heaney, Michael D. Lewis, Robert J. Ursano, Markus Heilig, Joseph R. Hibbeln, Melanie L. Schwandt. “Low Vitamin D Status and Suicide: A Case-Control Study of Active Duty Military Service Members.” PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e51543. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051543. Epub 2013 Jan 4.

[vii] Horrocks LA, Yeo YK: Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Pharmacol Res 1999; 40(3)211-25.

[viii] Hibbeln JR, et al.: Do plasma polyunsaturates predict hostility and violence? World Rev Nutr Diet 1996; 82:175-86.

[ix] “Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five Western countries, 1961-2000,” Joseph R. Hibbeln, Levi R. C. Nieminen, and William E. M. Lands, Lipids, Vol. 39, No. 12, 2004, 1207-13.

[x] “The effect of docosahexaenoic acid on aggression in young adults: a placebo-controlled double-blind study,” T. Hamazaki, S. Sawazaki, M. Itomura, E. Asoka, Y. Nagao, N. Nishimura, K. Yazawa, T. Kuwamori, and M. Kobayashi, Journal of Clinical Investiga ation, Vol. 97, 1996, pp. 1129-1133.

[xi][xi] C. Iribarren, J. H. Markovitz, D. R. Jacobs, Jr., P. J. Schreiner, M. Daviglus, and J. R. Hibbeln, “Dietary intake of omega-3, omega-6 fatty acids and fish: relationship with hostility in young adults—the CARDIA study,” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 58, No. 1, January 2004, 24-31.

[xii] Schoenthaler, ibid (2003)

[xiii] Liu J, Raine A. “The effect of childhood malnutrition on externalizing behavior.” Curr Opin Pediatr. 2006 Oct;18(5):565-70.

[xiv] Alexandra J. Richardson and Paul Montgomery, “The Oxford-Durham Study: a randomized controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder,” Pediatrics, Vol. 115, No. 5, May 2005, 1360-66.


[xvi] Felitti, V. J., & Anda, R. F. (1997.)The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[xvii] Garner, A.S., Shonkoff, J.P., Siegel, B.S., Dobbins, M.I., Earls, M.F., McGuinn, L., … & Wood, D.L. (2012). Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Role of the Pediatrician: Translating Developmental Science Into Lifelong Health.  Pediatrics, 129 (1), 224-231.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: