Food Supplements

Just when you think you've got it all covered before the school term starts - new bag, kids' clothes, new geometry set - you see a headline that tells you that to really boost your children's brain power what you should have put in your shopping basket is fish oil.

Omega 3 and 6

Research into the benefits of fish oils on brain function has been going on for some years now, and the results are encouraging. It is know already that Omega3s and another group of essential fatty acids, Omega 6s, have an impact on the prevention of heart disease, and can also be shown to lift the mood of patients with depression and bi-polar disorder. There has been an increasing move towards treating ADHD and concentration issues in children with fish oils also.

Where are Omega Oils Found?

Omega oils are found in foods rarely popular in children's lunch boxes, which is why supplementation is so popular with parents. The primary natural source of the Omegas is in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines, as well as in rapeseed. Clearly these will not compete well with fish fingers, although in fact some clever marketing strategist have already started adding Omegas to popular brands of fish fingers, which shows that attention is turning towards the child health benefits of essential fatty acids.

The Experiment

The largest trial to date with Omegas was undertaken in a Durham Primary school in 2005, by Dr Alex Richardson, senior research fellow in physiology at Mansfield College, Oxford, and Madeleine Portwood, a special educational psychologist for Durham LEA. Originally intended to study the effect of fish oils on children with dyspraxia and dyslexia, the results were somewhat surprising. 117 primary school children aged 5-12 were sampled, with half being given Omegas in the form of fish oil combined with evening primrose oil, providing omega-3 and some omega-6 fatty acids; the remaining half were given a placebo which looked identical but contained olive oil. The study ran over three months.


While there was no significant improvement in the children who were struggling with dyspraxia symptoms in terms of their motor function, 40% of the children overall showed significantly better progress in both reading and spelling than the children who had only been receiving the placebo. According to teachers' assessments of children showing concentration and ADHD behaviors there was also a significant improvement. To double check their results the scientists swapped the children with the placebo capsules onto the Omegas. Similar improvements in behavior, reading and spelling were seen, and the original group maintained or improved their progress. Clearly something significant can be learned from experiments like this, and the results seem encouraging. It is still an area that needs further research.

How to Omegas work

It's interesting to know exactly how essentially fatty acids work in the brain, and why they could be so important when it comes to learning and brain health. You will all remember from biology lessons that the brain has to pass electric signals from brain cell to brain cell to get messages through. The point at which the electrical charge leaves one brain cell (or neuron) and jumps to the next is called the synapse. To jump this physical space and enter the next neuron in the chain, the electrical impulse needs to pass through the cell membrane that surrounds each neuron. These cell wall are made of fats, and about 20% of those fats are essentially fatty acids. It is thought that these function to allow greater flexibility in the cell membrane, allowing the microscopic channels to open and close more effectively. If there is not enough of the essential fatty acid to aid this process a substitute is found by the brain, but it is not as effective, meaning electrical impulses in the brain find it harder to move around between brain cells. Some people simply break down Omega 3s more quickly than others, and some of the children who showed the most improvement in the Durham experiment fell into this category.

Getting Oily Fish Into Your Child's Diet

Although more work needs to be done on the effect of fish oils on children's brains, the evidence so far is encouraging enough for many parents to consider supplementing their children's diets with Omegas in one form or another. In the West many of the Omega 3 fatty acids are removed from food by the process of hydrogenation, which extends the shelf life of products. Buying non-hydrogenated products is one way round this. Other than this, all you can do is to try and introduce oily fish to your child's diet as soon as possible. Delicious options for smoked mackerel include a smooth p?t? made with cr?me fraiche, or cream cheese, with a touch of cumin or mustard. On warm toast children seem to enjoy the gentler flavor of this combination. Pilchard pie, made with a tin of pilchards in tomato sauce, well mashed with potatoes goes down a treat. Tuna is a favorite with many children, mixed with mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon juice and a twist of black pepper. By simply adding oily fish to your child's diet once a week, you might find you are doing enough to avoid costly supplementation. Even if it doesn't improve their grade scores it won't be doing any harm at all.