In the last few years I’ve noticed much talk about essential fatty acids, and the reoccurring theme is that Omega 3 is essential for children. Speaking to lots of mothers out there, it’s not easy to get children to eat oily fish, unless it comes in the form of a sticky salmon teriyaki. I really wanted to get to the bottom of why fish oil is so important for brain development, and Bare Biology’s founder Melanie Lawson has written a really interesting piece. If your child has excema, allergies trouble sleeping, difficulty with reading or any behavioural issues, this is well worth a read.
How do you ensure your children’s brain develops properly?
Nothing prepares you for the relentless worry that comes with being a parent. I know because I have three young children and one of my biggest sources of anxiety is their diet. My first child didn’t eat any sugar or processed foods for about the first year and I obsessively worried about her getting enough protein, vegetables and oily fish. My second child turned slightly orange from the amount of sweet potato and carrot I was giving him for the beta-carotene, slightly embarrassing when a paediatrician pointed it out. I just thought he had a bit of a suntan…However, it’s virtually impossible to sustain such strict control over what they eat and by my third child I realized I had to relax a bit. By a bit, I mean a lot. We’re not talking McDonald’s relaxed, but pizza and chocolate digestives relaxed.
Part of being a parent is learning to accept our children as individuals with their own free will and personality, while guiding them to make good choices so they become well functioning and happy adults. Diet wise, it’s really tough – most children would happily live off junk food and we have to strike a balance for their sake and for our sanity. Meal times are often fraught in many households, including ours!
There is one critical thing we should all do as parents though, it’s pretty easy and will arguably have the greatest impact on their overall health. We need to make sure they have enough Omega 3 in their diet. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus particularly on brain health but Omega 3 also plays a vital role in their immune responses, their skin and overall wellbeing.
A brief word on Omega 3
Omega 3 is known as an essential fatty acid, essential means that we need it for our bodies to function properly but we can’t make it on our own – we have to eat it.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in plant foods and supplements including flaxseed, walnuts and chia seeds and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found mostly in oily fish (including mackerel, tuna, salmon, herring, trout and some algae).
Fish convert ALA from the food they eat and deposit it as EPA & DHA in their bodies, we then consume the fatty acids pre-formed and can easily digest them. We only convert very small amounts of ALA and some people can’t convert any, especially if their health is compromised or they have a very poor diet. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, then this is the only option, but if you’re not – oily fish is the most effective form of getting EPA & DHA.
Omega 6 is another essential fatty acid, however we don’t need very much of it and in large quantities it’s pro-inflammatory and blocks the absorption of Omega 3 as they compete for the same conversion enzymes. In other words, you could be eating lots of oily fish but if you’re also eating lots of Omega 6 from vegetable and seed oils (see processed foods or many cooking fats) then you’re cancelling out the goodness.
There’s a sensitive omega-6/omega-3 ratio that controls many delicate biochemical pathways, and when this is unbalanced it’s widely believed to result in accelerating many chronic degenerative diseases.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1; this ratio now ranges from 10:1 to 20:1 (in some cases even higher at 25:1). Before the industrial revolution, with the growth of the modern vegetable oil industry and increased use of grains instead of grass to feed livestock, diets were abundant in seafood and other sources of omega-3 but relatively low in omega-6 seed oils.
The Western diet, particularly the UK and USA, is woefully lacking in oily fish and most people (especially children) are deficient in Omega 3. It’s one of the most important nutrients for health at all stages of life and has been the subject of over 14,000 clinical trials.
How Omega 3 physically affects children’s brains
Our brains are 60% fat, of which 20% should be Omega 3 fatty acids. During pregnancy and infancy, insufficient intake of DHA has been shown in countless studies to greatly impact the development of babies’ brains. Electric signals in the brain travel by passing from one brain cell (neuron) to another and they leave one brain cell at the synapse and cross a gap to the next neuron. For this to happen, they need to be able to pass through the cell membranes (the walls that surround them). These membranes consist pretty much entirely of fat. There are ion channels in these membranes that open and close to allow the flow of the electric signals. DHA makes these channels more elastic which makes it easier for the signals to flow. DHA also plays a critical role in synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses between neurons). Research shows that babies with Omega 3/DHA deficient diets have 50% fewer synapses and a study into the diet of 12,000 pregnant women (published in the Lancet) found that children of those who consumed the least Omega 3 were more likely to score in the lowest quartile on IQ tests.
During the last trimester of pregnancy (week 28 onwards) the foetus’s brain grows by an astonishing 260% so it’s crucial that the mother has adequate DHA intake during this time. After the baby is born, the brain continues to grow rapidly. In the first year of life, it grows by another 175%, and in the second year by 18%. After age 2, changes and growth occur throughout childhood but the total size of the brain only increases by another 21%.
DHA has also been shown to increase brain volume. People with high levels of Omega 3 in their diets have more grey matter, particularly in the area of the brain responsible for happiness. This is a really key area, as people deficient in Omega 3 have depleted dopamine (the happy hormone).
DHA, or lack of, also plays a critical role in post-natal depression. Mothers become depleted as their own DHA is prioritized for the growing baby or breast milk, leaving them low or worse, with postnatal depression. Mothers often reduce the amount of fish they eat during pregnancy due to concerns over mercury when they should in fact be increasing their Omega 3 intake from safe sources.
Do you dream of your child being Oxbridge material?
The DOLAB study is one of the most quoted and referred to of recent times and it looked into the effect of Omega 3 on the behaviour, working memory and reading of healthy children aged between 7 and 9. After 6 weeks of taking a DHA supplement, they found that the children with below average reading ability (under the 20th centile) showed significant improvements.
The same group of researchers conducted a separate study into sleep as DHA also influences melatonin production and therefore our sleep patterns. Insomnia is a huge problem for many, and is nearly always either an effect or a cause of mental health problems. A group of children with sleep issues were given 600mg DHA a day for 16 weeks and achieved an extra 46 minutes sleep a night.
An epidemic of mental health & neurological illnesses
The reasons to ensure children have enough Omega 3 in their diet is also important for their mental health. We don’t often think of children as suffering but statistics from the ONS state that 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 – 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around three children in every class. Between 1 in every 12 children deliberately self-harm and there has been a big increase in the number of young people being admitted to hospital as a result. Over the last ten years this figure has increased by 68%.
In October, Childline reported a sharp rise in suicidal thoughts among young teenagers. The role of social media and bullying was mentioned as a potential factor, however there was absolutely no reference to the diets these children are eating. If you consider that the average sugar intake for a teenager in the UK is about 16% of their daily caloric needs, and that’s an average so there are a lot of kids eating way more, they have terribly nutrient deficient diets and their brains are literally starved of what they need to be happy and to cope with the stress of being a teenager. This is what we need to work on, it’s madness that a fundamental driver of children’s happiness is totally overlooked by health professionals.
DHA has a profound effect on our brain’s ability to regulate emotions, make good decisions (important when it comes to self control and substance abuse) and to handle stress and is always the first thing a nutritional therapist will recommend to anyone with mental health issues.
How can you tell if your child has Omega 3 deficiency?
One way to find out is by doing a blood test, there are finger prick tests available for around £50 or you can go to a registered nutritional therapist who would arrange a larger sample to be taken with a needle. There are other tests which can be done to ascertain Omega 6 levels and also any issues with fat metabolism. However, unless your child is particularly ill or you have a serious concern this is probably too intrusive and unnecessary. Often the best way to tell is to give your child a good quality, high DHA supplement and track changes over a few months.
You can also make a pretty good guess as to whether your child doesn’t have enough Omega 3 based on the following:
How often does your child eat oily fish? The average weekly intake for the majority of children in the UK is really negligible. Those fish fingers with added Omega 3 don’t really count unfortunately!
Does your child eat a lot of processed foods or foods that are likely to contain high levels of Omega 6 fats, such as crisps, biscuits or chocolate bars?
A really telltale sign is the little bumps on the back of the arms (keratosis pilaris) and many parents report that these vanish after a few weeks of Omega 3 supplementation. Other pointers include:
- Eczema, other skin conditions, dandruff and itchy scalps.
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty with reading
- Behavioural issues such as hyperactivity, aggression, outbursts and a general lack of calm
Ways to increase Omega 3 in your children’s diet without a supplement
- Smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels or smoked salmon with eggs, or anything!
- Smoked mackerel pate as a dip – just whizz up a pack of fresh smoked mackerel with a tub of cottage cheese, some lemon juice and black pepper.
- Lots of anchovies on their pizza or give them boquerones, the little fresh anchovies you get in tapas bars in Spain. Forman & Son do excellent ones.
- Tomato pasta with flakes of tinned sardine and lots of parmesan.
A note on tuna: only fresh tuna contains good levels of Omega 3, tinned tuna sadly contains next to none as it’s lost during the canning process.
It would also be wise to cut right back on sources of Omega 6 where possible, so look for biscuits that are made with butter (ideally organic) or make home made cakes with butter. Give them popcorn made with olive oil or butter at home rather than crisps. Don’t cook with any sunflower oil at home and avoid any foods that contain ‘vegetable fat’.
About the Author
Melanie Lawson is the founder of Bare Biology Omega 3 and launched Super Hero, an Omega 3 for children, with the highest concentration of DHA and purity on the market.