Omega-3 fatty acids provide a type of fat vital to normal brain development in unborn babies and infants. There is also evidence linking low levels of essential fatty acids with ADHD and dyslexia.
Looking specifically at the mental well being of children, it seems that problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and similar problems are on the increase in western society. It is now estimated that 3–5% of school-age Americans suffer from ADHD and 10% in the US and UK suffer from dyslexia to some extent. A link between these problems and essential fatty acids was suggested some 15 years ago.
Research indicates a sub-clinical deficiency of DHA is the key in ADHD, and DHA deficiency has also been linked with dyslexia and dyspraxia. Dr Alexandra Richardson of the University Laboratory of Physiology, Oxford, is at the forefront of this area of study. A typical example is her work is a school-based study. 41 Dyslexic children with ADHD features were given either fish oil (with some evening primrose oil) or placebo for three months. The children receiving supplement showed significant reductions in a range of ADHD symptoms, particularly cognitive problems. In a second stage, the placebo group were switched to the supplement, without their knowledge. After three months, they showed similar improvements.
In a review of evidence to date, published in 2004, Richardson concluded the current evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids, and EPA in particular, may be of benefit in the management of common neurodevelopmental conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. She also reported that a similar rationale exists for fatty acid treatment in autistic spectrum disorders.
As the FAO indicates on its web site, fish is much more than an alternative source of animal protein. Fish oils in fatty fish are the richest source of a type of fat that is vital to normal brain development in unborn babies and in infants. Without adequate amounts of these fatty acids, normal brain development does not take place. Again, the evidence to support this assessment of the importance of omega-3 fatty acids is accumulating.
Investigators in Dundee in the UK studied the effect of DHA on the problem solving capabilities of infants. For a period of four months 23 children were fed infant formula (baby milk) supplemented with DHA (0.15–0.25g/100g fat in the formula) and 21 were fed the formula without. At the end of the trial, the children, then aged ten months, were given a problem to solve. This involved removing a barrier and cover to find a toy. The DHA group solved the problem faster and more often than their non-DHA counterparts.
In Norway, investigators have shown that benefits in IQ ratings, relating to DHA during later pregnancy and lactation, are still present at four years of age.
Other work has demonstrated enhanced sleep patterns suggesting greater maturity of the central nervous system in infants whose mothers had higher DHA levels during pregnancy. Visual function also has clearly been related to DHA levels in pregnancy.
In 2007, a European Union committee recommended that pregnant women and nursing mothers should ensure a daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids, notably DHA, as found in fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel. The committee, the Perinatal Lipid Nutrition Group, and the Early Nutrition Programming Project found that women who included DHA in their diet had healthier pregnancies, their children had higher birth weights and they experienced fewer premature births. The benefits extended beyond birth in brain and eye development. Also in 2007, a group of professors of obstetrics and doctors of nutrition from across the United States recommended pregnant women “eat at least 12 ounces of seafood a week.”