Fish oil and your child’s brain

child eating fish

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at least 20% of children and adolescents in this country experience a mental health disorder.

One in five! That’s astonishing.

Studies also show that these children are significantly more likely to get involved in violence and crime.

It has to be heartbreaking and scary to discover that your child, or any child, is showing signs of a behavior problem. And the misconception is that they’re “just bad kids,” that need to be better taught how to behave. But research is showing such generalizations are often incorrect.

In a recent investigation where more than 550 children had MRI scans of the brain along with assessments of their behavior, scientists confirmed what they’ve suspected for years:

The brains of children with behavior problems are developing differently than those of children whose behavior is normal, and the differences are visible on MRIs. Additionally, those differences in the brains of the afflicted children are in quite specific and predictable areas of the brain.

So what does this information mean for children with behavioral issues? Medication? Loss of potential? Problems later in life?

Not necessarily.

In fact, a new study suggests that we may have a powerful tool already at our fingertips that not only has the potential to improve the behavior but perhaps play a role in reversing the adverse changes in the brain. That tool is fish oil.

Reduced Behavioral Problems

Conducted by the Departments of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the double-blinded, placebo-controlled study enrolled 200 children, ages 8-16, from the community.

The researchers split them into two groups of 100. They assigned one group to receive an 8-ounce serving of fruit juice every day for six months, and the other group a serving of the same fruit juice to which was added distilled fish oil containing 1,000 mg of EPA + DHA (the omega-3 fatty acids that are critical components of nerve cells and promote nerve connectivity). In case you’re wondering, the distilling process not only concentrates the active ingredients in the fish oil, it also removes any trace of fishy taste, so both drinks tasted the same—like fruit juice.

At the start of the study, the children’s caretakers filled out a questionnaire assessing their child’s behaviors for either outwardly-directed problems (such as aggression, antisocial behaviors, fighting, lying, etc.) or inwardly-directed problems (such as depression, anxiety, self-isolation, cutting, etc.). The daily drinks were stopped six months later. One full year after the study was started (six months after the drinks were stopped), the caretakers repeated the behavioral assessments.

In the placebo group, there were no changes in behavior, but in the treatment group, there was a 42 percent drop in outwardly-directed problem behaviors, and a 62 percent drop in inwardly-directed problem behaviors. Because these strongly significant improvements were long lasting—present six months after the treatment was stopped—researchers believe they occurred not only in the visible behaviors but they fundamentally changed the brain itself.

Fish Oil and the Developing Brain

Since the 1970s, omega-3 fatty acids have been recognized as key components of brain and eye tissue.

It also has long been known that adequate dietary intake of omega-3 is critical for proper brain development during prenatal and postnatal periods up to 2 years of age. However, it is now increasingly being appreciated that this accumulation of omega-3s in the brain doesn’t stop at age 2 but continues up to 18 years of age. This is the same time period as the symptomatic onset of psychiatric and developmental disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity (ADHD), schizophrenia, autism spectrum, and major depressive disorder.

Today it is widely recognized by researchers that a deficiency of omega-3s or incorrect omega-6 to omega-3 ratios in certain brain regions, are associated with improper brain development and structure, and are strongly associated with psychiatric and developmental disorders.

In fact, even the American Psychiatric Association now recommends omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for their likely benefits in addressing a wide range of psychiatric conditions in adults.

Currently there is no uniform agreed upon recommendation for how much fish oil should be given daily to children, but good quality fish oil is now being widely recommended with dosages tailored to the child’s age and presentation.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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