Omega Improvement

1 November 2005

Publication: RIGHT START

It’s natural, it comes in a convenient capsules or liquid, and it seems to work a treat in boosting learning and behaviour. Suzannah Olivier reports on Omega-3s.

It sounds like a movie also-ran. Or maybe a chemical chain reaction. But suddenly the name ‘Omega-3s’ is on everyone’s lips. And that’s because of the crucial role these fatty acids have been found to play in child health. Recent trials in Durham have highlighted the impact that Omega-3s may have on the lives of children with learning difficulties. Around 120 school children aged 6 to 12 with learning and behavioural problems, such as short attention span and co-ordination difficulties, were put on either combined Omega-3 and Omega-6 supplement from Eye-Q, or a placebo.

When they were re-assessed after three months, a 40 per cent improvement was noted in those on the fatty acids. Average reading age rose by 9.5 months and spelling age by 6.6 months. Short-term memory improved and behaviour settled down, with teachers more able to reason with children and fewer playground incidents.

Dr Madeleine Portwood, the senior educational psychologist at Durham LEA who ran the trial says: ‘Previous trials have shown some improvements in behaviour for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but not to the extent we observed. In particular, boys who had been very disruptive in class were able to concentrate for longer without becoming distracted, which obviously has implications for improved learning. I hope that the results of this trial encourage parents, teachers and health professionals to look at the effects of diet on behaviour and learning in children.’

As we went to press, another trial of Omega-3 supplement from Eye-Q with 200 school children was underway. The results were not available at that time, but early anecdotal reports indicated improvements in the children’s learning and behaviour.

What is Omega-3s?

Supplements of ‘good’ fatty acids which may affect children’s ability to learn and behave contain fatty acids from two ‘families’ of fatty acids:• Omega-3s DHA and EPA (from fish oils) and ALA (from plant sources)• Omega-6s GLA and AAThe fish oil Omega-3s is of particular importance. DHA can be thought of as a brain ‘building block’, so it is of special relevance to pregnant women whose babies’ nervous tissue is being built up, and to young children. EPA is more useful for enhancing signalling from one nerve to another in the brain. Many experts believe that our modern-day diet lacks the right amount of ‘good’ fatty acids for health and development.

Why we need supplements

A century or so ago the animals and poultry that provided our meat, milk and eggs were free-ranging and grass-fed. Now, they are generally grain-fed. Grass is a major source of Omega-3s, so changing the animals’ diets to grains means that animals are now poor sources of this nutrient.

To compound matters, fish appears less often on the menu in our homes and, when it does, it tends to be white fish, such as cod, which is not a rich source of Omega-3s.

Finally, we’ve significantly increased our consumption of the ‘bad’ fatty acids which come from sources such as margarines, cooking oils, convenience foods, ready-meals and fast foods. These reduce the effects of the ‘good’ fatty acids in the body.

Debbie Whiteley-Grant heard about Omega-3s from a friend. Her daughter Mollie (now eight) who was in Year 3, had a poor attention span and was not doing as well as she might in reading and writing. She also suffered from mild eczema. Debbie thought that her problems might be to do with the fact that she never ate fish. She introduced Mollie and her younger brother, Jacob (six), to Efalex liquid (which they preferred to the tablets). Now, 18 months later, Debbie reports she has seen a ‘remarkable improvement’ in both their behaviour and concentration.


Right Start asked two readers, who wanted to see if Omega-3 supplement would make any difference to their child’s health, to trial it for two months.

Mum, Becky Child Lillibelle, age four:

Before Lillibelle used to be a bit tired and emotional after school. As an August baby she is one of the younger ones in her class but she enjoys school and wants to do well. Her fish intake was reasonable and she enjoys Omega-3-rich salmon and smoked salmon. However, the white fish and canned tuna she eats are poor sources of Omega-3s.Yum or yuk? No problems swallowing the Efalex supplements and Lillibelle even reminded her mother when Becky forgot to give them to her.After After just two weeks of taking Omega-3 Lillibelle seemed much calmer and this has continued. Becky says, ‘I am not sure if it is greater maturity or the supplements but it does seem like a remarkable coincidence.’

Mum BridgetChild Tommy, age five:

Before Tommy tended to be easily upset at home. He also suffered from night terrors. A cousin of his slept much better after taking Omega-3s so Bridget was keen to try it out on her son. Fish was rarely eaten at home, just some prawns from time to time. Bridget recalls being given cod-liver oil and malt as a child and this made her more aware of the importance of fish oils.

Yum or yuk? Tommy had trouble swallowing the Efalex capsules initially but was quite happy to take some chewy Seven Seas supplements. For a while Bridget cut the Efalex capsules open and added them to yoghurt. Although Tommy was happy, the fishy smell made Bridget feel queasy! After a little perseverance Tommy was happy to swallow the Efalex supplements.

After After two weeks there was a miraculous moment when his behaviour became exemplary and his sleep got into an excellent routine. He got to the end of term feeling less tired. He has also started eating more fish as the awareness of the importance of these fatty acids has become apparent to the whole family.

* Note: it can take three months for children to respond fully to the effects of Omega-3s.

How to boost Omega-3 levels

• Eat more oily fish such as mackerel, herrings, sardines, fresh tuna, pilchards, salmon and anchovies. Shellfish have lower but useful amounts of helpful fatty acids. Two portions weekly of oily fish is a good target to aim for. White fish such as cod and coley are poor sources of Omega-3s. Canned tuna is also a poor source as it is ‘defatted’ during canning.• Include
Omega-3-enriched foods in the diet such as Columbus eggs, orange juice and bread.• Eat other healthy fats as part of your family’s diet to improve the body’s ability to use Omega-3s. Limit convenience and fast foods which are high in hydrogenated fats, and instead choose olive oil, linseed oil, canola (rape) and walnut oil.• For children choose child-formulated supplements. The trials used 560mg EPA, 170mg DHA and 60mg GLA, though this balance might change for future trials. Usually a double dose is needed in the first two to three months, and then you can drop back to a maintenance dose. Allow at least three months to decide if supplements are having an effect.• If capsules are difficult to swallow, try one of the liquid formulations available from Eye-Q or Haliborange.• Cod-liver oil has fallen out of favour for use with children due to the risk of chemical contamination of fish livers (the liver is the organ of chemical detoxification in all animals). Also, liver oils are high in vitamin A and while this is an essential nutrient there is a risk of overdosing. Fish oils (which are made from fish muscle meat or from krill) are better sources of DHA and EPA than cod-liver oil and have an excellent safety record.

The importance of fatty acids

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