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Knowing that omega-3 fatty acid consumption is associated with a decrease in aggressive behaviors in adults (even adults in prison – check out this awesome study!), when I was asked about how to handle a very near-and-dear to me child’s aggressive behavior I immediately thought of this crucial nutraceutical. However, being the scientist-practitioner that I am, I had to dig to figure out if there was any evidence to support this theory of mine… So, what did I find?
First I looked into the mechanisms by which omega-3s might help with aggressive behaviors. The idea behind supplementing with omega-3s is to balance the serotonin levels. Low levels of serotonin (that wonderful, feel-good neurotransmitter we all know and love) are widely believed to play a role in aggression, and deficiencies in omega-3s can lead to an overall reduction in serotonin levels in the brain. Thus, if you aren’t getting enough omega-3s in your diet (via food or supplementation), this deficiency could lead to low levels of serotonin, which could then lead to aggressive behavior (or impulsivity, depression, and a slew of other issues… basically, it’s not good).
Anecdotally, parents who use omega-3s, specifically a high-quality fish oil (with a high concentration of EPA and DHA), to help reduce aggressive behaviors in their children will swear by it. But, any scientist knows that in order to know if it’s truly effective it needs to be tested against a placebo. So, I went to the literature. Now, there is not exactly a dearth of information in this area (the big bucks aren’t really in prescribing fish oil instead of a prescription something-or-other), but the studies that were conducted suggest that there is reason to continue analyzing the benefits of fish oil supplementation in children. First, when tested in children with ADHD, fish oil can help to reduce impulsive behavior. Since aggression in children is typically considered to be an impulsive behavior, fish oil was studied further.
I found two separate research projects examining the connection between fish oil consumption and reduced aggression. One study, conducted in 2005 in Japan, looked at 166 children (aged 9-12) who were given either fish-oil enriched food (I know it sounds strange… more on this in a minute), or a placebo supplement. The results of the study suggest that, particularly in girls, fish oil might affect childhood aggression. However, the results weren’t very powerful, and I’m betting this has something to do with the manner in which the children received the fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are very delicate oils, and fortifying foods that are cooked (or will be cooked) is likely to damage the fatty acid, rendering it either useless or even harmful. I’d love to see a study looking at actual fish oil supplementation in children to see if researchers can find stronger evidence of this connection. Another interesting conclusion from this study is that children with diets high in linoleic acid (an omega6 fatty acid; side note: our ancestors likely ate a diet consisting of a 1:1 ratio of omega3:6 fatty acids, while currently most people eat a ratio closer to 10:1 – read more here to learn about why this is problematic) displayed higher levels of hostility and symptoms of ADHD.
Another project, deemed “the first of its kind,” is currently underway in Australia. It looks like they started recruiting in 2009… and because these types of projects take time and energy, the results are yet to be published. In this study, children will actually take fish oil capsules… it’s the first of its kind, and I can’t wait to learn about the results. Of course, I will keep everyone updated. But, in the meantime, supplementing with fish oil won’t hurt.
Adequate Intakes (AI) for Omega-3 Fatty Acids recommends the following dosage for children:
Of course, when selecting a fish oil, you want to be sure that it’s molecularly distilled, has a high concentration of EPA and DHA, and is something that your kids can/will take. If your child cannot swallow pills, have no fear – there are liquid fish oils (with flavors like lemon, orange, and tutti-fruiti to help hide the fishy taste). My health consultant recommends the Pure Fish Oil from Health from the Sun – and LOOK! I found a kid-friendly product from their website (click on the link). Our friends over at Garden Eats even have an amazing smoothie recipe (click on the link) so you can hide the oil in something nourishing that kids will love!
There aren’t many contraindications for fish oil, but you should be aware of the following: 1) fish oil can be a mild anticoagulant, so if there is any chance of a bleeding disorder, do discuss with your doctor; 2) some people are allergic to fish, so check out this blog post to learn more about your options if you (or your child) are allergic; 3) low-quality fish oils likely contain contaminants (like mercury!)and will do more harm than good, especially if you are pregnant or nursing… that’s not to say that you shouldn’t supplement – obviously fish oil is not only good for mom, but very important for the developing baby – so, find a quality, contaminant-free, molecularly distilled product (like the one I’ve recommended above).
Lastly, while diet can play a major role in shaping behavior, if your child is acting aggressively or showing symptoms of ADHD, please don’t hesitate to see a professional (like a child psychologist) who can help intervene on these types of behaviors… a combination of approaches (like various types of dietary and behavioral techniques) is always best when you are dealing with something this serious, and there are many qualified professionals who can help! Please let me know if you’d like a referral.
Keep calm and supplement well.