Fish Oil and Your Child: A Better Brain for Life

By now the many benefits of fish oil and the essential fatty acids (EFAs) in it are common knowledge; in particular, the importance of specific EFAs, particularly DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) for infants and children is so widely acknowledged that it is now added to infant formula and has been a continuous focus of research  for a couple of decades.  The more we learn about these healthy fish oil fats, though, the more clear it becomes that they aren’t just for the littlest ones: ensuring an abundant supply for you and your child, from the moment you even think about conceiving, during pregnancy and throughout all the childhood years, is an intelligent – and intelligence-enhancing – gift that will keep on giving throughout their lives.

DHA in Pregnancy and after – the gift of a “better brain”

During pregnancy the only source of DHA is the mother’s intake from diet and supplements, and many diets are deficient in this nutrient – daily intake of DHA in U.S. women is estimated at about 50 mg., compared to 600-1200 mg. per day for Japanese women.    Several studies have affirmed the ”essential” nature of this fish oil fat for optimal brain growth and function (and for healthy retinal and vision development): mothers who supplemented their diets with DHA during pregnancy gave birth to children who scored higher on early childhood tests of mental processing and had greater head circumference (a measure of brain development), according to one study;  a 2008 Australian study looked at the effects of fish oil supplementation during pregnancy from 20 weeks to delivery, and found significant improvement in eye-hand coordination (a measure of brain function in young children) for these children at age 2 ½; in a third study, children of mothers who took DHA during pregnancy had better neurologic function at age 5.  Infants of mothers supplemented with DHA were calmer and had better sleep, too.

What’s the link between DHA and your baby’s brain?   During the last three months in the womb and during the first months of infancy, the brain has a “growth spurt”, requiring large amounts of the essential fatty acid DHA for incorporation into its tissues.  The more DHA is available to the child from the mother’s blood supply (in utero) and breast milk, the more the brain can soak up, and the better that brain develops and functions.  For mothers-to-be, a good daily dosage is 600-1200 mg. of DHA (there appears to be no toxicity) from dietary and supplemental sources (enteric-coated formulations can be easier on the digestive tract).

Fish Oil: Brain Food for Every Child

While the connection between DHA and brain development in infancy and early childhood is well documented, a 2011 study demonstrates that even at the age of 11, children whose moms take DHA during pregnancy  perform better on memory function and behavioral tests – pointing to a much more extended beneficial effect than has previously been recognized.  Another significant finding of this study was that those 11-year-olds who had higher blood levels of DHA at the time of testing scored even higher – which suggests that continuing to provide plenty of DHA throughout childhood is a very bright idea.  In my practice, I often prescribe child-oriented formulations which provide DHA in amounts of 100-200 mg. per day.

Mood, Behavior,  the “Alphabet Disorders” and EFAs

Brain health isn’t only about IQ, though; the brain is also the center of feeling and behavior – it’s where we “live” as humans.  The poet John Milton spoke of this most eloquently, in Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”  Too many children’s minds are bleak, unhealthy places where no one should have to live – driven in part by chaotic biochemistry, these beleaguered brains trigger poor behavior and foster emotional climates of chronic anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, mood instability, even rage reactions – an unfortunate recipe for misery in childhood and beyond.  These issues should be the exception in our youngsters but tragically, they are far too commonplace.  Depression, anxiety, dyslexia, OCD, ADD, ADHD, PDDNOS, ASD – there is a growing lexicon of names and acronyms for brain imbalances which, to a greater or lesser degree, have roots in disturbances of biochemistry and metabolism.  An incredible web of interconnection exists between brain centers, stress hormones, neurotransmitters, inflammatory substances and nutritional factors – and EFAs from fish oil are among the most important nutrients for maintaining equilibrium throughout this complex web.  Accumulated research evidence has clearly established the efficacy of fish oil/ EFAs for improving learning, behavior, and social interaction in children with developmental and psychosocial problems.

Supplementing with fish oil is a simple and effective way to begin to heal your child’s brain chemistry.  When prescribing for the vulnerable young groups described above, I may suggest dosages of DHA and its sibling, the anti-inflammatory Omega-3 EPA, which are several times the usual supplemental amounts.

Deficiency Signs

What are some hints that your child is deficient in the Omega-3 fatty acids?  Does s/he have dry skin? Rough elbows?  Even if these signs are only noticeable in winter (when the lubricating effects of the EFAs are most needed), they are telling you that your child’s EFA levels are marginal at best.  Eye irritation, blinking frequently, rubbing the eyes, can all indicate a lack of the lubricating EFAs from fish oil.  Skin problems, from cradle cap to eczema, from seborrheic dermatitis to acne, have a connection to EFA deficiency and warrant supplementation.  Allergies and asthma, similarly, benefit from EFA supplementation and suggest deficiency states.

Does your child have learning, behavioral, developmental or mood issues that may not meet criteria for a specific diagnosis, but are nevertheless limiting his or her potential and negatively affecting your family?  Think EFA deficiency.   And, because the diets & lifestyles which promote such deficiency tend to be familial, think EFAs for the entire family!

Finally, if you really want to get a precise picture of your child’s fatty acid status, testing is available through special laboratories which provide this kind of analysis for naturopathic and other functional medicine physicians.

How to Choose a Fish Oil Product

If there were one supplement I could prescribe for every child, it would be an excellent fish oil, made by a manufacturer using high standards of quality control.  A high-quality fish oil/ EFA supplement will probably cost more than many, but do take care to choose one manufactured in a facility which adheres to pharmaceutical-level production practices; which is third-party assayed for contaminants (mercury, arsenic, cadmium, dioxins, PCBs); and is stabilized with natural antioxidants (such as tocopherol [vitamin E], ascorbyl palmitate [a form of vitamin C], rosemary) to reduce the rate of deterioration in the bottle.  Quality supplements meet or exceed standards for fish oil purity set by IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards), GOED (Global Organization for EPA and DHA), U.S. EPA, and CRN (Council for Responsible Nutrition) organizations.  These products are often molecularly distilled, pharmaceutical-grade, and sustainably sourced; their labels are specific as to the marine animals from which the oils are extracted (eg. salmon, cod, mackerel, calamari, sardines, herring, krill).  A good fish oil supplement can have a slight seafood smell but, in the same way that the fish you buy for dinner can smell cleanly of the ocean but should not smell very “fishy”, it should not smell or taste (or burp) excessively of fish – this suggests rancidity.  And most children’s formulas add natural fruit flavors which make them quite tasty.

Grandma’s tales of being dosed as a child with cod liver oil speak to the long-recognized, powerful benefits of fish oil in many areas of children’s health and growth.  By taking the simple step of adding fish oil supplements to your child’s diet, you are supporting them in becoming the very best they can be.


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