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Omega-3 Fats Improve Attention, Behavior, and Intelligence

by Randall Neustaedter OMD


Excerpt from Child Health Guide, North Atlantic Books, 2005

Several studies have demonstrated that children with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their bloodstream have significantly more behavioral problems, temper tantrums, and learning, health, and sleep problems than do those children with high proportions of those fatty acids (Mitchell et al., 1987; Stevens et al., 1996). In a similar study, fifty-three children with ADHD had significantly lower proportions of key fatty acids (AA, EPA, and DHA) in their blood than did forty-three control subjects. Children with lower omega-3 levels had lower behavioral assessment scores (Conners’ Parent Rating Scale) and teacher scores of academic abilities (Stevens et al., 1995). The researchers speculated that an inefficient conversion of polyunsaturated fatty acids to AA and DHA may have been a significant factor in the lower levels of those fats in ADHD children.

In one study, researchers showed that children with ADHD were breastfed less often as infants than were the control children. They assume that the high levels of DHA in breast milk could be responsible for better performance later in life since infants are inefficient at converting polyunsaturated fats from other sources into the valuable omega-3 fat DHA that is essential for brain development. Even the duration of breastfeeding has been associated with higher intelligence and higher academic achievement in later childhood, and with higher levels of high school attainment (Horwood and Fergusson, 1998). A study published in 2002 also showed a significant association between intelligence levels in adults and the duration of their breastfeeding as infants (Mortensen et al., 2002).

The take-home message from these reports is to breastfeed your children and maintain adequate levels of DHA throughout childhood to encourage the best potential for successful academic performance and to reduce the possibility of learning and behavior problems.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should take a DHA-containing omega-3 supplement to ensure adequate levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in breast milk and adequate brain development in their babies. The DHA content of most American women’s breast milk is lower than that in milk from women in other countries, and the DHA content of a woman’s breast milk correlates with her dietary intake of DHA. Vegetarian women have the lowest levels of DHA in their breast milk (Fidler et al., 2000). When women supplement their diets with DHA in the form of fish oil, high-DHA eggs, or a DHA-containing algae capsule, the content of DHA in their breast milk increases. The increase in breast milk DHA also translates into higher DHA levels in infants (Jensen et al., 2000). In another study, infants whose mothers took fish oil supplements during pregnancy also had higher blood levels of DHA at birth than a control group that did not take a supplement (Connor et al., 1996).

It is difficult for children to get enough omega-3 fats from their diets once they are no longer breastfeeding. Children need to have supplements of omega-3 fats. The best sources of the omega-3 fats are cod liver oil (1 teaspoon per 50 pounds of body weight), fish oil capsules (containing 250 mg of DHA for children over 7 years old), and DHA supplements derived from algae (Neuromins). Chicken, eggs, and beef are also sources of omega-3 fats if the animals eat green plants and not just grains. Therefore, only cage-free chickens that eat green plants or algae and pasture-fed cattle are reliable sources. Small fish (anchovies, herring, and sardines) are another good source of omega-3 fats, but larger fish (tuna, shark, swordfish, mackerel, and salmon) may be contaminated with mercury and harmful pesticides. Children should not eat these larger ocean fish or farmed fish.