Most parents understand that success in school leads to success later in life, so they make every effort to ensure their children have a good experience in school. This leads to concerns about how well their child will connect with a new teacher, worry over homework assignments and projects, and anxiety about end of term grades. Parents may dream of a simple solution to give their children an edge in school, when according to Oxford researchers that edge may be found on a dinner plate.
It is well known that long-term dietary choices influence mental health and cognitive function, whether positively or negatively. And previous research suggests that intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids — found in marine life and algae — supports brain health and may help the body clear amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease when taken with vitamin D.(1,2) Omega-3s are vital to reduce ADHD symptoms in children as well. Read all about it in Beating ADHD Naturally. Oxford researchers now suggest that omega-3s may increase concentration and learning ability among school-age children, and therefore their school success.(3)
The brain is composed of approximately 60 percent fat and to function optimally it must have a steady stream of healthy fats from the diet or through supplementation to incorporate into its cell membranes. The brain selectively allows specific fats to enter the brain, namely the omega-3 fat DHA and the omega-6 fat arachidonic acid (AA). Both DHA and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are vital to brain function at the cellular level, reducing inflammation and oxidative damage and supporting brain cell structure and function. Interestingly, while AA is widely distributed throughout the brain, DHA is largely concentrated in the gray matter, where thinking takes place.
Oxford scientists investigated how omega-3 fatty acids influenced the behavior and learning of children in elementary school. Almost 500 children, aged seven to nine years, and from 74 different schools in Oxfordshire were included in the study. Children received 600 mg of DHA from algal oil (algae) or a placebo (taste and color matched corn/soybean oil). The source of DHA will make vegetarians happy being that people often think that the only source of DHA is through marine oil.
Blood samples were taken to determine blood omega-3 levels and parents reported their children’s diet to researchers. What researchers found was that the overwhelming majority — almost 90 percent — of children included in the study did not consume the recommended two portions of fish twice per week to maintain a healthy cardiovascular and immune system. This is not surprising considering many children do not like the taste of fish.
Blood analyses found that only 2.45 percent of total blood fatty acids were long-chain omega-3 fatty acids among children participating in the study, well below the minimum of four percent recommended by leading scientists to maintain optimum cardiovascular health in adults, and significantly lower than the optimal range of 8 to 12 percent.
The study authors found that blood omega-3 fatty acid levels consistently predicted a child’s behaviors and ability to learn. Higher blood levels of omega-3s were strongly associated with fewer behavioral problems, and better reading ability and memory. DHA and EPA are particularly important in young children during growth and development stages when the body uses these key nutrients to support brain structure and function.
This study validates previous studies by the same scientists, showing that higher omega-3 intake improves reading progress and behavior and benefits children with ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and related conditions.(4) Children should be given a minimum of 600 mg of DHA daily based on the study results. Most algal oils provide from 100 to 300 mg per capsule, whereas fish oil provides from 120 to 500 mg DHA per capsule.
(1) McNamara RK, Carlson SE. Role of omega-3 fatty acids in brain development and function: potential implications for the pathogenesis and prevention of psychopathology. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006 Oct-Nov;75(4-5):329-49.
(2) Fiala M, Mizwicki MT. Neuroprotective and immune effects of active forms of vitamin D3 and docosahexaenoic acid in Alzheimer disease patients. Functional Foods in Health and Disease. 2011;1(12):545–554.
(3) Richardson AJ, Burton JR, Sewell RP, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7-9 years: a randomized, controlled trial (the DOLAB Study). PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e43909.
(4) Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, et al. Low blood long chain omega-3 fatty acids in UK children are associated with poor cognitive performance and behavior: a cross-sectional analysis from the DOLAB study. PLoS One. 2013 Jun 24;8(6):e66697.