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Omega-3 Fatty Acids Help Brain Development and Learning in Children

The naturopaths at healthyonline always recommend an omega-3 fatty acid supplement is taken before during and after pregnancy, with the most important time's being in the last trimester and the first 3 months of breast feeding. Read on, about some of the latest research on the important of omega-3 and brain development and function.

Omega-3 and its role in brain function and memory

Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known for their ability to protect our heart and joints and there is great interest in the role they may play in preventing the onset of mental health problems and dementia. These essential fats aren’t just important for adults though and there is increasing interest in the role they play in brain development and function in children.

Omega-3 is VITAL for children

Research recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition adds yet more evidence for the importance of omega-3 in childhood. In their study, which involved children between 7 and 9 years of age, researchers found that the higher a child’s intake of omega-3, the better their memory governed by a particular part of the brain known as the hippocampus.

What other benefits can omega-3 fats offer for brain health in childhood?

Brain development in early life

The omega-3 fat DHA is found in our brains and begins to accumulate during the third trimester of pregnancy, continuing until around two years of age. It’s crucial during this early stage in life that young children receive enough of these omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3 content of a woman’s breast milk reflects her intake of these fats, and research shows that women who take omega-3 supplements during breastfeeding have children who score more highly in tests of their cognitive ability aged four.

However, studies show that women choosing a formula feed with added omega-3 are also more likely to have children who have better hand-eye co-ordination, are more attentive, score higher in intelligence tests and are more social. The benefits may be even greater for babies born prematurely, as research indicates that extra omega-3 fats help their brain development to catch up.

Better academic performance

Omega-3 oils may help children’s performance in the classroom too. Research from the UK, which was presented in the journal PlosOne, showed that of the children involved in the study, who were 7 to 9 years with a history of poor reading ability for their age, those with the lowest blood levels of omega-3 performed most poorly in reading tests. These children also displayed poorer short-term memory and more challenging behaviour. Despite this association, the average blood levels of omega-3 were far below that recommended to protect against heart disease in adults, indicating that all children would benefit from increasing their intake of these oils.

Help with ADHD symptoms

For children with learning difficulties, there are yet more reasons to up their intake of omega-3s. The ADHD Association informs us that this learning difficulty, which is characterised by hyperactive behaviour, impulsivity and poor attention, affects as many as 5% of children in New Zealand. While a holistic approach is important for the effective management of ADHD, dietary intake plays an important role, including consumption of omega-3 oils. Studies of fish oil supplements in children with ADHD indeed show promise.

For instance, KwikMed reports on the positive outcome of these studies, where children taking omega-3 supplements saw an improvement in their behaviour, concentration and their ability to learn.

Indeed, the benefits of a nutrient-rich diet, with supplements as needed, is now known to be more beneficial in the treatment of ADHD than dietary restrictions.

The New Zealand Herald covered a piece of research that found avoiding foods high in sugar, those with artificial additives and common food allergens did not help with the symptoms of ADHD, while offering a balanced diet that includes plenty of fish, whole grains, fruit and vegetables is more useful. This recommendation may also benefit children with other learning difficulties, including dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Boosting intake of omega-3s. Are you getting enough?

With potential improvements in brain function that omega-3s offer to children, it’s easy to understand the importance of getting enough of these essential fats, but are our children getting sufficient?

Omega-3 fats are found in greatest quantities in oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring, and while plant sources are available, including walnut, flaxseed and rapeseed oils, these short chain plant fatty acids are not efficiently converted into the long chain fatty acids our body needs.

According to the Ministry of Health, in the latest dietary survey of children aged 2 to 18 intakes of omega-3 fatty acids were not measured, so it is unclear whether their intake of these essential fats is adequate.

However, an article by dietitian Amanda Johnson, published by Seafood New Zealand, advises that if intakes of omega-3 in New Zealand are comparable to those of in Australia, the majority will be achieving under half that recommended.

This is why supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial, particularly for children following a vegetarian diet or who dislike fish.

Jenni Norman
April 2014

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The Naturopathic Team
Ideal Health

Disclaimer: The health information presented here has been written for the New Zealand health consumer. It is of a general nature and is only intended to provide a summary of the subjects covered and is intended to be used for educational and general information purposes only. It is not intended as medical advice or as a means to diagnose, treat, cure or prescribe for any particular condition or disease. You assume all responsibility for the treatment which may be undertaken as a result of the information on this site, or treatment recommended by any other party. While all care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information, no responsibility or liability is accepted, and no person should act in reliance on any statement contained in the information provided. All health ailments should be treated by a qualified health professional.

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