- and improve their cognition and motor skills
According to a large meta-analysis, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids has a positive effect on children by improving their vision, their cognition, and their motor skills. Unfortunately, modern diets provide far too little omega-3. For that reason, health authorities should consider recommending supplements of purified fish oil for pregnant women and children, just like they recommend folic acid, iron, and vitamin D.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for the development of a child’s brain, nervous system, and eyes. Epidemiological studies have shown earlier that pregnant women who consume oily fish that contains the two omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, improve their children’s cognitive development. A group of scientists wanted to take a closer look at that. In their meta-analysis, the researchers reviewed data from 38 scientific studies with a total of 5,541 participants, including mothers, premature babies, and babies delivered at term. The participants in the different studies were given supplements with omega-3 fatty acids or placebo. The scientists compared the children’s cognitive skills and vision until they reached an age of 18 years.
Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the eyes, brain, and intelligence
The scientists measured the children’s cognitive development by means of specific rating scales for mental and psychomotor development and IQ. Their vision was also measured in various ways.
The meta-analysis concluded that omega-3 supplements improve the children’s psychomotor development and their ability to see clearly. The researchers did not observe a significant effect on the children’s IQ later in life, but this conclusion is based on fewer studies and contradicts other studies.
The meta-analysis did not identify any differences with regard to religion, race, modern education, age, or income. Nor did it find any differences linking to the duration of supplementation or the dosage, which can otherwise be determining for the outcome of a study. In fact, an earlier meta-analysis that is published in Perspectives on Psychological Science shows that supplements of omega-3 given to pregnant women and children can improve the children’s IQ by over 3.5 points.
DHA is the omega-3 fatty acid with the most positive effect
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a variety of different forms. Helped by various enzyme processes, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is converted into EPA and DHA. All our cell membranes and a number of different enzyme processes depend on these two omega-3 fatty acids. The brain contains large amounts of EPA and DHA, and they are highly important for learning, memory, and vision.
DHA is the omega-3 fatty acid with the longest chains. Its ability to twist and bend easily in the cell membranes is what helps brain cells work fast. Also, DHA supports the flow of blood through the brain and helps keep the blood-brain-barrier closed to protect the brain tissue against bacteria and toxins. The largest concentration of DHA in the human body is found in the retina. Here, DHA supports processes that enable the brain to receive light signals, which is a precondition for acuity.
EPA is especially important for the immune defense and for preventing inflammation. Many people have difficulty with converting ALA to its active forms (EPA and DHA). The effective conversion may be as little as one percent.
For that reason, the majority of studies of omega-3 fatty acids are conducted with oily fish or fish oil supplements.
Different omega-3 types and their sources
ALA is mainly found in linseed oil, rapeseed oil, walnuts, and chia seeds
How to pregnant women and children get enough omega-3?
Most people fail to get the recommended amount of fish. Recommendations vary, but is essential to consume oily fish that are particularly rich in omega-3. Unfortunately, fish tends to be polluted with mercury and other environmental toxins that may disrupt fetal development. Fish in the top of the food chain are typically the most polluted, which is why one should be cautious with tuna and other predatory fish. No warning are issued for smaller fish and salmon. However, one should try to avoid salmon from the Baltic Sea, as they may contain larger concentrations of heavy metals and other types of pollution. Organic salmon is a good choice.
Pregnant women who dislike the taste of fish or simply don’t eat enough fish can take a supplement of purified, high-quality fish oil in capsules.
Fish oil based on free fatty acids are a good choice, as they are easy to absorb in the digestive system. Make sure to choose a product that is within the safety threshold for peroxide value and content of environmental toxins.
Did you know that you get about one gram of omega-3 from eating a herring fillet and three to four grams from a salmon steak?
Official recommendations should also include fish oil
The health authorities recommend that women take extra folic acid, iron, and vitamin D. If you look at the new meta-analysis and a number of similar studies, pregnant women and children should also try to consume more omega-3, especially from oily fish or from fish oil supplements that are easy to absorb. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), fish oil contributes to the development of a child’s brain and vision. EFSA is the European Union’s independent “watchdog” for food safety and nutritional supplements.
Shulkin M el at. N-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation in Mothers, Preterm Infants, and Term infants and Childhood Psychomotor and Visual Development: A systematic Review and meta-Analysis. The Journal of Nutrition, March 2018
John Protzko el al. How to make a Young Child smarter: Evidence From Database of Ricing Intelligence. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2013
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