New Study Shows Sustained Improvement in Child Behavior with Omega-3 Supplementation
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania reported that daily supplementation of an omega-3 blend improved antisocial and aggressive behavior in children between the ages of eight and sixteen. Furthermore, daily supplementation of an omega-3 blend over a six month period reduced behavioral problems in children both at the end of treatment and for six months thereafter.
It is worth noting this study used a blend of omega-3 for supplementation and not just fish oils, which are high in EPA and DHA. Currently, some individuals (e.g., Dr. Mercola, Dr. Murray) are virtually dogmatic about fish oils as the ONLY legitimate source of omega-3, as if the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in flax and chia seed serves no nutritional benefit. This generalization has led some in the blogosphere to circulate the idea that flax oil is “bad” because of its ALA content, which is categorically incorrect unless it’s rancid.
Historically, flax oil was promoted over fish oils in part because of very low quality, rancid fish oils in capsules that did more harm than good. Now high quality liquid sources are available (e.g., Carlson’s, Nordic Naturals) so more emphasis is being placed on consuming cod liver oil, and for good reason since not everyone converts ALA to EPA and DHA. However, there are also several studies that show ALA consumption is critical for optimal absorption of specifically DHA.
As one might expect, omega-3 supplementation is not about taking one type of omega-3 over another. Omega-3 supplementation is about combining omega-3 into one’s diet, such as eating one tsp of Carlson’s lemon-flavored cod liver with your morning toast with MELT® Organic (which contains 425 mg ALA per serving). Or, grinding one to two tbsp of flax or chia seed and adding it to your favorite yogurt in addition to one tsp of cod liver oil.
Methods and Results
A community sample of 8 to 16 year old children were randomized into a treatment group (100 subjects total) and a placebo-control group (100 subjects total) in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel-group trial. Supplementation consisted of a fruit drink containing 1000 mg/day of an omega-3 blend or a placebo consisting of the same fruit drink without omega-3. The omega-3 blend included 300 mg DHA, 200 mg EPA, 400 mg ALA, and 100 mg of docosapentaenoic acid [DPA]. Treatment lasted for 6 months, and all participants were followed for another 6 months after discontinuation of treatment. Changes in behavior problems were reported by both the child subjects and their caregivers.
Primary outcome measures were externalizing behavior problems that included acting out, being aggressive, and reactive. Secondary outcome measures looked at the impact on internalizing behavior (social withdrawal, feelings of loneliness or guilt, fearfulness, etc.). The children were assessed by the parents and researchers, as well as through a self-assessment questionnaire. The parents also completed a self-assessment questionnaire.
While the children themselves did not report improvement, the parents reported a significant improvement in children’s behavior in the treatment group for all behavioral issues. Specifically, omega-3 supplementation for 6 months resulted in a 41.6% reduction in parent-rated child externalizing behavior compared to the placebo group. This effect persisted 6 months after the treatment period had ended. An even larger reduction of 68.4% was seen for internalizing behavior.
Findings provide evidence that omega-3 supplementation can produce sustained reductions in externalizing and internalizing behavior problems in children between eight and sixteen years old.
Raine A, Portnoy J, Liu J, Mahoomed T, Hibbeln J. 2014. Reduction in behavior problems with omega-3 supplementation in children aged 8-16 years: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel-group trial. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12314. [Epub ahead of print]
Barceló-Coblijn G, Murphy EJ. 2009. Review: Alpha-linolenic acid and its conversion to longer chain n-3 fatty acids: Benefits for human health and a role in maintaining tissue n-3 fatty acid levels. Progress in Lipid Research 48:355–374.