Fish Oil - Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids for Healthy Brain Function

Fish Oil - Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids for Healthy Brain Function

ASTE FOR LIFE by Gretchen Vannice - Expert Advice Series: Volume 26

Essential fatty acids (EFAs), especially omega-3s, are fats of special importance in fueling healthy growth and development, particularly in children's brain development and functioning. Research has even shown promising results with omega-3 supplementation in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Conscientious parents try to offset the temptations of "junk" food with its high levels of saturated fats by offering lower fat options and using vegetable oils in salad and cooking. While diets with adequate vegetable oils give the body essential omega-6 fatty acids, they don't provide the important nutrients found in omega-3 EFAs, which are available primarily in coldwater fish and fish oils, walnuts, and seeds (flax, hemp, and pumpkin).

Growing concerns about the health of some fish today, especially mercury contamination, may make it difficult to include it often in the diet. Add to that the notoriously fussy appetites of many children and adults, including those with ADHD, and it can be hard to get all the right nutrition through foods alone.

Omega-3 EFA's

The imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids EFAs can be crucial for some children. Researchers are coming to understand that omega-3 deficiencies play a special role in behavioral disorders, as they are specifically implicated in maintaining central nervous system function. These deficiencies also affect neurotransmitters, peptides, hormones, and a variety of cognitive processes in the brain.

Two functionally important omega-3 fatty acids include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). They help maintain cell membrane structure and are important in maintaining central nervous system function. EPA and DHA are also required for cellular hormone regulation, which is involved in almost every biologically significant process in the body. The most prevalent fat in the brain and nervous system, DHA is particularly important for brain health.

Children with ADHD

In 1995, researchers from the Department of Food and Nutrition at Purdue University compared 53 children with ADHD to 43 children without this condition. Those with ADHD had significantly lower concentrations of EPA and DHA essential fatty acids in their blood plasma levels. An earlier study also showed that hyper-active children had lower levels of DHA. Equally important, these researchers found that children with low levels of omega-3 EFAs exhibited a greater number of behavior problems, temper tantrums, sleep problems, and learning problems than their peers. They also had more health problems. Some researchers believe that children with attention deficits are less efficient in converting fats in the diet to the active omega-3 constituents, EPA and DHA.

Of additional interest is a 2003 pilot study by some of the same Purdue-based researchers. This looked at the effects of EFA supplementation given to 50 children diagnosed with ADHD who also showed symptoms associated with essential fatty acid deficiency. (These symptoms include excessive thirst, frequent urination, dry skin and hair, dandruff, and brittle nails, among others.) The children were randomly divided into two groups, one group taking fish oil capsules and the other taking olive oil capsules. Most (8O percent) of the children were taking prescription medication for their condition. At the end of this pilot study, the fish oil group showed substantially increased levels of EPA and DHA essential fatty acids. What's more, the fish oil group demonstrated significant improvements in oppositional defiant behavior and attention.

In another recent study, British researchers reported similar results with 41 children who had ADHD - related symptoms. Results of this 12-week study showed that the EFA supplementation reduced a wide range of ADHD - related symptoms in these children, including psychosomatic issues, anxiety/shyness, and cognitive problems. No adverse side effects were associated with supplementation.

Complementary Medicine

Supplementing with fish oil essential fatty acids is not the entire solution for ADHD, but research shows that it can play an important part. Providing children-particularly those with attention deficits-a consistent, reliable source of omega-3 fatty acids appears to be an efficient and effective way to support healthy brain development, communication, and learning.

Good sources of EPA and DHA essential fatty acids such as those found in fish oil have other health benefits. In adults, adequate amounts are known to reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke, reduce the incidence of depression, and possibly lower the incidence of Alzheimer's.

Selected Sources

  • "EFA Supplementation in Children with Inattention, Hyperactivity, and Other Disruptive Behaviors" by L. Stevens et al., Lipids, 2003
  • "Essential Fatty Acid Metabolism in Boys with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder" by L. J. Stevens et al., Am I Clin Nutr, 1995
  • "Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder" by J. R. Burgess et al. Am J Win Nutr, 2000
  • "A Randomized Double Blind, Placebo-controlled Study of the Effects of Supplementation with Highly Unsaturated Fatty Acids on ADHD-related Symptoms in Children with Specific Learning Disabilities" by A. J. Richardson and B. K Puri, Prog in Neuro-Psychopham & Rio Psychiatry, 2002
  • "What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish," USHHS, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 3/04

Gretchen Vannice, MS, RD, is a health educator and former natural products retail manager. She has contributed to scientific journals (Bone and Journal of the American Dietetic Association), popular health magazines, and nutrition curricula. 

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