Omega-3. This nutrient has hit the nutritional market with a bang. We now know the importance Omega-3 has on the functioning of cells, immunity, heart health, and brain development.
The brain is made up of 60% fat – the fattest organ in the human body! No wonder the brain craves fatty acids. DHA is predominately found in the brain, with smaller amounts of EPA.
Fatty acids make up the cell membranes, aid in binding cells to receptors, preserve cell membrane health, and participates in the communication process between brain cells.
With the prevalence of behavioural and psychological conditions in children, the correlation has been examined between the rise of these conditions, and the decreasing levels of Omega-3 in the blood, while common food products are increasingly high in Omega-6.
More research is undergoing on how bioavailable the different types of Omega-3 are. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are all vital Omega-3s. DHA is at the top for brain development, yet, this fatty acid can be the hardest to come by.
Several studies have revealed that children with low levels of DHA can experience poor reading skills, and comprehending what they read, learn and remember. Whereas, children with good levels of DHA were three to four times more likely to pass the tests they undertook. It is believed by some that there is a direct correlation between deficiencies in Omega-3 and cognitive impairment.
What about behavioural issues?
Researchers theorize that Omega-3 may be useful to help manage behavioural and psychological conditions, as they play a major role in the functioning of neuro-transmitters, including serotonin.
Yes, because of the way Omega-3 works on the brain, it can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, impulsive behaviour, and even aggression. And the increase of EPA and DHA consumption has been linked to possibly reducing social anxiety and shyness.
How Important is Omega-3 for Mothers and Babies?
A mother’s DHA is passed onto her infant during pregnancy, especially during the third trimester, as well as through breast milk. Fifty to sixty milligrams per day of the mother’s DHA stores goes to the foetus. Therefore, it is important that mothers also get enough DHA during and after pregnancy. It is recommended that during pregnancy and breastfeeding to consume around 1,500mg of DHA a week.
Although fish oil is technically the best source of DHA, the exposure to contaminants may not deem it as safe as it used to be. Ensuring you are on a healthy diet, with plenty of ALA fatty acids, and perhaps looking at a DHA supplement may be your best choice.
DHA plays a critical role during pregnancy, and the early stages of childhood for brain and eye development. One could speculate that the natural process of passing along DHA in breast milk alludes to how instinctive our bodies are to grasp what they require.
When levels of Omega-3 are low during pregnancy, it has been linked to impaired development and behaviour scores later in the child’s life. Whereas, when there are higher levels of DHA and Arachidonic acid (ARA -an Omega-6 fatty acid) present, it can assist in improving vocabulary comprehension, vision and hand-eye co-ordination.
Several long-term studies have even shown that infant formulas that contain DHA and ARA could help delay allergies from developing, and protect against allergies in early childhood, as well as developing and improving immune cell distribution.
It has also been said that infants with high levels of Omega-3 have reduced tendencies for food allergies and atopic dermatitis. When feeding an infant, look out for formulas that contain at least 0.35% DHA.
DHA has such a profound effect on brain development that doctors recommend premature babies are fed DHA in order to improve neurodevelopment.
Could the intake of Omega-3 impact those with ADHD?
It appears that children and adults that have been diagnosed with ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – have lower levels of DHA in the blood and brain. As evidence has shown over the years, the western diet is typically low in Omega-3. The relationship between Omega-3 deficiency and the increase of diagnosis of ADHD could point to some rather startling revelations.
Furthermore, those with ADHD have tests results revealing that they have high blood levels of Omega-6.
Research is going even further by looking at the correlation of low levels of Omega-3 and autism spectrum disorder. Some studies have demonstrated that Omega-3 could potentially aid with improving problem behaviours within this disorder.
What should parents take from all this?
Children, adults and animals require a good ratio of Omega-3, 6, and 9. The ideal ratio is 4:1 of Omega-6 to Omega-3. Ideally, children should get around 7-10grams of Omega-6. Starting with 1-3s on around 7g, and increasing up to 10 grams as they get older. Thankfully, the body requires less of Omega-3, with the recommended starting dose on 0.5g for 1-3s, and up to 1-1.2g by early teens.
There is a debate ensuing we need to dramatically reduce the consumption of Omega-6. With some doctors suggesting that it is more important to increase the consumption of Omega-3, rather than reducing Omega-6, as they are both essential.
Parents do not have to do their head in on getting the exact dose in every day. Instead, aim for gradually increasing the overall weekly consumption of all Omega-3 fatty acids through eating fish once or twice a week, and consuming nuts, seeds and free-range meat. Adding oils like flaxseed in dressings, or spooning a teaspoon into a smoothie will provide around 433mg of ALA Omega-3.
What is agreed upon is increasing the intake of Omega-3s, especially DHA, whether by consuming higher amounts of ALA, or by consuming more fish, will have a range of health benefits for immunity, heart, and brain health.