A Pacifist Vitamin

Could a tiny pill keep today's youth out of jail? It might help, according to a recent Oxford University study. Researchers gave 231 maximum-security inmates, aged 18 to 21, daily supplements containing vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids and found that they committed 25 percent fewer offenses while in prison than did a placebo group. The number of serious offenses, such as violence against fellow inmates, dropped by 40 percent in the vitamin group compared with baseline, while the control group saw no crime reduction (British Journal of Psychiatry, 2002, vol. 181, no. 1).

In an earlier study, Stephen Schoenthaler, PhD, associate professor of sociology and coordinator of the Criminal Justice Studies Program at California State University in Stanislaus, California, got similar results when he had 71 residents of a state juvenile treatment facility take vitamin and mineral supplements. In the group receiving supplements, overall violence fell 66 percent from baseline, from 306 incidents to 104. Total AWOL and escape attempts fell 84 percent, from 79 to 13 incidents, and destruction or theft of state property dropped 51 percent, from 49 to 24 incidents (Personal and Individual Differences, 1991, vol. 12, no. 4).

The explanation? Numerous vitamins and other nutrients are essential for the conversion of glucose to energy. When the brain is depleted of its glucose fuel, it can't adequately produce neurotransmitters—substances necessary for controlling mood, thinking, memory, and behavior. For example, one early study found that subjects with slight deficiencies of thiamine, a B vitamin, tended to be aggressive, sensitive to criticism, impulsive, and highly irritable (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1980, vol. 33, no. 2). Researchers later found that iron deficiency was almost twice as common in a group of incarcerated adolescents as among their free peers (Journal of Adolescent Health Care, 1985, vol. 6).

Popping a multivitamin or eating a nutritionally balanced diet is certainly not a magic bullet against violence. Still, these collective findings indicate that nutrients affect mood and behavior—information pertinent for those of us on the outside as well as those behind bars.

—Christine DeOrio