When you think of health supplements for children, your mind probably turns to vitamins and minerals.
This is understandable, since many of these nutrients are fundamental for normal growth, immunity and development.
Fish oils, meanwhile, tend to be associated with the health regimes of adults – though recent research is shifting the focus to youngsters.
But what benefits can fish oils really bring children – and what’s the best way to keep omega-3 deficiency at bay?
What is Fish Oil?
Fish oil originates from the tissues of oily fish and is a concentrated source of valuable omega-3 fats.
Omega-3s – which among other things can help prevent and treat the inflammation and oxidative stress caused by air pollution – are deemed ‘essential fats’, as our body is unable to manufacture them on its own.
Thus, we must rely on our diet to ensure we meet our recommended quota.
In particular, fish oils are great sources of the polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both of which help maintain normal blood triglyceride levels, normal blood pressure and healthy heart function.
Independently, DHA contributes to normal brain function, while maternal consumption of DHA aids in the normal brain and vision development of the foetus and breastfed infant.
It is for these reasons and others that UK guidelines recommend we eat two portions of fish per week, one of them being oily fish. Of course, some people – pregnant and breastfeeding women, for example – may benefit from higher EPA and DHA, although official guidance advises pregnant women to be wary of over-consuming fish due to toxins.
Fish Oils for the Old, Fish Oils for the Young
Fish oil capsules are most often recommended for adults keen to protect their heart. Indeed, the American Heart Association just this year reinforced this very notion:
‘Omega-3 fish oil supplements prescribed by a healthcare provider may help prevent death from heart disease in patients who recently had a heart attack and may prevent death and hospitalisations in patients with heart failure.’
That statement alone will be enough to convince many that fish oils are best employed by elder citizens – not effervescent children with their whole lives ahead of them.
However, in truth there is a spectrum of benefits associated with EPA and DHA, the primary fatty acids contained within fish oil; and they are not confined to the silver generation.
Where young people are concerned, fish oils can prove instrumental in several areas. Traditional studies point to omega-3 benefits for kids with development disorders such as autism, ADHD or dyspraxia.
One trial of 90 youngsters with newly-diagnosed ADHD found compelling evidence that a combination of omega-3 and omega-6 works almost as well as Ritalin, the drug typically prescribed to treat the condition.
In the study, published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, children were split into three groups: one received Ritalin, another received fish oil containing 558mg EPA, 174mg DHA and 60ml GLA (omega-6), and the third were given a combination of the above. Over the year, all three groups improved significantly.
Doctors were also able to prescribe much lower doses of Ritalin when it was paired with fish oil.
Can Fish Oil Make Your Child Smarter?
Reading ability is clearly related to cleverness. But independent of its ability to improve reading comprehension, does omega-3 intake correlate with IQ? A 2018 study suggests that it might.
Conducted by researchers from Michigan State University and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, it looked at the relationship between omega-3 intake and executive function in children aged 2-6.
Executive function comprises a set of mental skills controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain, including the ability to plan and organise, recall facts, multi-task, pay attention and switch focus.
In essence, the researchers showed that kids with higher whole blood levels of both DHA and total omega-3 were more likely to pass the test, in this case a Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCSS) used to determine executive function.
The results bore out the findings from an earlier study on adults which revealed the same thing: namely that omega intake correlated with better executive function. Thus, the benefits are not reserved for one particular age group.
In a separate trial from 2015, supplementation with fish oil during pregnancy and early childhood correlated with an improvement in the child’s IQ of 3.5 points.
Clearly there is a link between a young person’s omega status and his or her intelligence. Further studies will hopefully demystify the way in which they relate.
Can fish oil make your child smarter? It is difficult to say with certainty, but there is clear evidence to suggest that it could.
Behavioural Improvements from Fish Oil
There is even evidence to suggest that omega-3 fish oils can improve children’s behaviour.
In a 2015 study conducted by the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, it was found that daily omega-3 supplements “improved antisocial and aggressive behaviour in children between the ages of eight and sixteen.”
What’s more, omega-3 supplements taken over a six month timespan reduced behavioural problems in kids both at the end of treatment and for six months thereafter.
The change in behaviour was not insignificant either; based on parent testimony, there was a 41.6% reduction in “child externalising behaviour” (acting out, aggressiveness) compared to the placebo group and an even greater reduction of 68.4% in the “internalising behaviour” category (social withdrawal, feelings of loneliness etc).
The daily dose used was 1g of omega-3 per day, comprising 300mg DHA, 200mg EPA, 400mg alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and 100mg of docosapentaenoic acid (DPA).
But is a Supplement Really Needed?
Some people might wonder whether it’s necessary to give their children fish oil capsules when they can serve fish for dinner instead. Good sources of EPA and DHA include wild-caught salmon, anchovies, mackerel and sardines.
Functional foods have also sprung up in recent years, with some yogurts, specialty egg products and snack foods now containing stable, microencapsulated forms of DHA and EPA.
Assuming your child eats one or two portions of fish per week, they will get the benefit of important omega-3s. Indeed, there are over 500mg of total omega-3s in a can of tuna or a single serving of wild-caught salmon.
What a daily supplement offers is convenience, value for money and peace of mind. Good-quality fish oils for children also derive their omega-3s from sustainable fisheries and non-endangered species.
One such product is QuattrO3 + PS. Manufactured by WHC – creators of UnoCardio 1000, the highest-quality fish oil available – it contains over 90% omega-3 in addition to omega-6 from evening primrose oil and 400 i.u. of vitamin D3.
Statistically, children with ADHD have been found to have significantly lower levels of vitamin D, and the nutrient also helps with immunity and bone strength.
QuattrO3 + PS has been specially formulated for children between the ages of three and 14 and is made to the same exacting standards as other WHC products.
The children’s fish oil is free from gluten and lactose, and has no fish smell. The nutritional value (per two capsules) is 300mg EPA and 204mg DHA.
If your child has trouble swallowing the capsules, simply cut the capsules open and squeeze the contents onto cold foods such as yogurts, pastas, rice or vegetables.
It is clear that both DHA and EPA have a role to play in boosting young minds. Whether you choose to use a supplement, focus on diet or favour a combination of both, assuring your child maintains a healthy omega-3 intake should be a top priority.
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Focusing on 362 children between 7 and 9 years who had failed to pass standardised reading tests, the study showed that daily DHA improved the reading performance of the poorest readers.