The human brain needs omega-3 fatty acids, and according to a study from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in the US, something as simple as a fish oil supplement can help reduce disruptive and violent behavior, a growing problem among children and teenagers. Pedagogical and psychological approaches are not the only solution to stressed and externalizing behavior. It is every bit as important to look at the children’s nutritional status.
Fish oil supplements with omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce disruptive and violent behavior among children, according to a study that is published in the science journal Aggressive Behavior. When the disturbing and violent children calm down it also has a positive impact on their parents and the home will become more peaceful. In addition, the children find it easier to concentrate in school and to interact with other people.
Professor Jill Portnoy from the UMass Lowell’s School of Criminology and Studies in Massachusetts headed the study, which she finds very promising because omega-3 fatty acids improve cerebral health in children and teenagers in many different ways.
Behavior is controlled by social and nutritional factors
The new study is just one of many examples of how Professor Portnoy studies biological and social factors that can explain and predict disturbing and aggressive behavior in children and teenagers. The aim of the study was to find effective ways to intervene before the disturbing and aggressive behavior becomes too violent or turns into criminal behavior.
Portnoy and her work therefore contribute to the discussion about “nature contra nutrition” that looks at whether people, who are aggressive and commit crime, are genetically predisposed or if it is environmental factors that causes them to lose control and engage in criminal conduct.
Portnoy claims that both factors are at play but says that the exact mechanisms have not yet been mapped out. Our biology, our social environment, and our diet interact in a complex way, and different stress conditions and deficiencies may also influence how we think and behave.
Childhood stress and low resting heart rate may lead to aggressive behavior
According to Portnoy, having a low resting heart rate may lead to antisocial and aggressive behavior. She theorizes that low resting heart rate is something you can develop as a child, if you are exposed to frequent or chronic stress. To begin with, the heart rate goes up as a natural reaction to stress. However, if the stress continues and is more or less permanent, the body adapts to it by lowering its resting heart rate as a way of preventing the system from overloading.
The exposure to stress during childhood may also lead to physiological changes of the brain, causing the need for constant stimulation and challenge. This may step up conflicts at home, in school, or other places because of aggressive and impulsive conduct.
Professor Portnoy has studied hundreds of youngsters in Pittsburgh, where she grew up. Working with a team of scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, she found that young people with lower resting heart rates were more prone to sensations, conflicts, and antisocial behavior. This type of behavior is particularly troubling for young people who live in areas or belong to families that starve them of positive input. Therefore, when young people are bored at the same time as lacking nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, it can make their situation even worse.
Fish oil supplements help families cope and prevent crime
Portnoy and her team of scientists conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of children, who showed signs of antisocial and disruptive behavior. One group was given fruit drink with one gram of omega-3, while the other group got the same fruit drink without fish oil. Neither the scientists nor the children and their caregivers knew who got what. All children were instructed to consume their fruit drink for six months. Their caregivers were asked to make a note of each situation with inter-partner and child-directed physical assault and psychological aggression. A specific conflict rating scale was used for a 12-month period to assess the long-term effect of fish oil supplementation.
Caregivers living with children who got fish oil reported a reduction in the number and duration of conflicts with the children. There were also fewer conflicts between the adults. No reduction of conflicts was observed in the group of children that got fruit drink without omega-3.
The study is the first to show that fish oil supplementation given to children can help reduce conflicts at home, even though the adults do not get supplements. The study also shows that fish oil supplements have a positive long-term effect at home because the children calm down, and that has a good impact on the parents.
New ways of preventing externalizing behavior, conflicts, and criminal behavior
Children and teenagers with externalizing behavior are more likely to have conflicts with people around them because they are unable to control their thoughts and emotions. These conflicts happen at home, in kindergarten, at school, and in other places. As the children grow older, the conflicts tend to escalate and become increasingly violent. The subjects may even start bonding with others who have the same type of antisocial behavior. There is a risk that this can have a negative effect on their schooling, leading to such problems as loneliness, criminal conduct, and substance abuse.
Professor Portnoy is particularly interested in those young people who have an antisocial and aggressive behavior, but who are not criminal as such and who have a clean criminal record. If we want these young people to settle down, we must introduce new strategies that reduce their physiological reaction to stress. Healthier diets and fish oil supplements seem to be able to make a notable difference.
Why does the brain and nervous system need more omega-3?
Human and animal brains contain large amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential for the integrity of the neurological network. Omega-3 fatty acids also work together in a biochemical interplay with omega-6 fatty acids, and it is important to ingest the two types of omega-3 in the right balance.
Unfortunately, our modern diets typically contain far too little omega-3, and that can have a negative effect on the brain and the nervous system. Fish oil contains the two omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, that are highly important for the nervous system and for our learning skills, memory, and mood. DHA is the omega-3 fatty acid with the longest chains. Its ability to twist and bend easily in the cell membranes is what makes the membranes flexible so the brain cells work fast. DHA also supports the flow of blood through the brain.
The brain and nervous system are therefore not able to function optimally without sufficient amounts of omega-3, and there are even studies that show how omega-3 supplements have a positive impact on children’s cognitive skills.
Omega-3 content (per 100 grams)
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and supplements
The official dietary guidelines advise us to eat fish several times a week, especially oily fish that is rich in EPA and DHA. Caution should be exercised with predatory fish like tuna and salmon from the Baltic Sea that contain mercury and other heavy metals. Children who dislike the taste of fish or just don’t eat enough of the oily type can take a fish oil supplement as an alternative. The children in the above-mentioned study got one gram of omega-3 daily.
There are various kinds of supplements on the market. Fish oil based on free fatty acids give excellent absorption. Also, make sure that the fish oil supplement is within the official threshold level for peroxide value and environmental toxin content.
Important knowledge about fish oil and its effect
The effect of fish oil with omega-3 fatty acids slowly accumulates before reaching a steady state. After discontinuation, it is still possible to register an effect for 4-10 weeks. Consequently, any recurrence of aggressive behavior or similar symptoms are not likely to show until the patient has been off the supplement for several weeks.
Remember blood sugar-stabilizing meals and get lots of B vitamins
It is important for children to get healthy meals, which help to keep their blood sugar stable. If blood sugar levels fluctuate, it may affect the child’s behavior in a negative direction. Studies have also shown that B vitamins are highly important for the nervous system. In the article below (link), you can read why lack of vitamin B3 increases the risk of aggressive behavior
Jill Portnoy et al. Reductions of intimate partner violence resulting from supplementing children with omega-3 fatty acids: A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel-group trial. Aggressive Behavior 2018
John Protzko el al. How to make a Young Child smarter: Evidence From Database of Pricing Intelligence. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2013
Penberthy. WT. Niacin rescues cannibalistic hamsters. The historical significance of 1940s mandatory niacin enrichment. OMS 2017
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