Most adults struggle to include enough Omega-3 in their diet, and it can be even harder for children. So in this article, I guide you through the world of Omega-3 from what it is, why it’s so vital and how to spot signs of deficiency, through to how to choose the right one for your family.
To keep our brains sharp and our mood happy, we all need a very special oil called Omega-3. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid which is needed for developing our central nervous system and our brain health as well as playing a role in keeping inflammation at bay. Omega 3 also plays a role in supporting a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Since most modern-day diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression can stem from chronic inflammation and poor gut health, we need to focus on eating enough Omega-3 for our bodies and minds.
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Whilst you are pregnant and during the rapid growth of your baby’s first year of life, essential fatty acids, especially Omega-3, are needed to develop strong eyes, nerve tissue and a healthy brain. Toddlers and young children also benefit from getting plenty of Omega-3. With too little, their cognition and learning can be affected.
There are also several studies that show a clear benefit for older children and young adults who take Omega-3 supplements, including better cognitive performance and behaviour, improved reading, better attention and less hyperactivity, and even better sleep.
It can help with the maturation of the central nervous system and this helps with self-regulation as well as emotional regulation. Since Omega-3 helps to develop the nervous system, it may even be useful for bed-wetters. Research has also shown that Omega-3 supplementation has helped to reduce the number of wet nights amongst 7-15-year-olds who take an Omega-3 supplement in combination with vitamin D.
What Is Omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are known as essential fatty acids, as they contain essential nutrients that can only come from the diet and cannot be manufactured by the body. Having enough Omega-3 can also offset the negative impact of eating too many saturated fats. So, it is essential to our nutritional needs and should be part of our daily diet.
There are three types of Omega-3 fats:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), found in foods of animal origin, including fish oils. It has been found to assist with hyperactivity, anxiety and depression.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in foods of animal origin, including fish oils. It is vital for the developing brain and thus really important in pregnancy and childhood.
- Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), found in plant-based foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds and green vegetables. It can be hard for the body to convert ALA into the DHA and EPA forms needed by the brain.
Omega-3 in the form of oily fish is a particularly important nutrient for the whole family, but can you hand on heart say that you are eating oily fish 2-3 times per week? I hardly ever see oily fish on school menus and most parents struggle to give their kids fish at supper time regularly. This is why extra effort is needed by parents to include Omega-3 rich foods in everyone’s diet on a weekly basis, such as smoked salmon, salmon fish cakes, mackerel pate or sardines on toast. If you have a family of fish-dodgers, then this is where organic milk and omega-3 rich eggs, grass-fed red meat, walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds as well as fish oil supplements can be helpful instead. Marine Algae omega 3 supplements are now available for vegetarians, vegans and those people who are allergic to fin fish.
Why Do Some People Need More Omega-3 Than Others?
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you particularly need to sustain optimum levels of Omega-3 to support your health and your baby’s health. This ensures that when your baby is born, your little one has the right stores of fatty acids for the development of healthy eyes and nerve tissues and are part of the building blocks to the brain. Studies have also shown that optimising Omega-3 during the the fourth trimester may also help prevent post-natal depression.
Males often find it harder to convert ALA to useable omega-3. It is also suspected that children (and adults alike) with allergies, eczema and learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD might find this conversion even harder and they may need to consume more than the average person. So you should rely on a direct source of DHA and EPA, predominantly found in oily fish and fish oil supplements to ensure you and your kiddies maintain an optimum omega-3 level.
Does it need to be fishy?
If you can only eat plant-based forms of Omega-3 due to a fish allergy or your family is vegan or vegetarian, then there are some environmental and lifestyle factors you should also consider to support your body in maximising this conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA:
- Limit caffeine, found in some chocolate, sports drinks and green tea as well as coffee and tea.
- Avoid eating too many seed oils (corn oil, soya oil, sunflower oil and most rapeseed oil) and trans or hydrogenated fats. These are prevalent in many ultra-processed convenience foods such as crisps.
- Ensure there are no vitamin deficiencies. Vitamins B1, B3, B6 and C are all needed to convert ALA into DHA and EPA as well as optimal levels of zinc, magnesium and manganese.
- Avoid stress as much as possible as this too can impair efficient conversion levels.
What Are The Signs of Omega-3 Deficiency?
If you are worried that your family is not getting enough Omega-3, then your naturopath or nutritional therapist can easily organise a finger prick blood to check their essential fatty acid levels. Other signs to look out for are as follows (most people will experience more than one sign):
- Chicken Skin – raised bumpy skin found on the upper arms, face, legs or torso
- Poor nail health – often brittle, dry or peeling
- Itchy and or watery eyes
- Dry, dull hair or dandruff
- Thirsty all the time
- Frequent urination
- Poor sleep
- Allergies, asthma and eczema
- Poor visual concentration
- Weak working memory
- Poor processing of information
- Attention and focus issues
- Poor coordination and clumsiness
- Anxiety and behavioural issues
- Phobias and night terrors
- Motion sickness
- Mood swings/tantrums
How Do I Choose The Right Fish Oil?
There are a number of factors to consider when selecting the right fish oil for you and your family:
Mercury & Toxins – There is a justifiable worry about heavy metal contamination in fish these days. Some fish contain high amounts of mercury and this can cause havoc on the brain and the neurological system. It is the larger predator fish that seem to test high in mercury, such as tuna, marlin, sea bass, shark and swordfish. Even though tinned tuna seems to be the most popular way to feed children fish, please see this as an occasional, rather than everyday food. Smaller fish such as salmon, trout, herring and anchovy are at much lower risk of mercury toxicity and these should be first choices for your children. Fish oils, like the fish they originate from, can vary vastly in quality. A good fish oil should come from a sustainable and traceable fish source and thus is environmentally sound. The same environmental toxins found in fish (such as PCB’s and mercury) also may accumulate in their oil. Top quality fish oil will usually have been through a process of purification to ensure 100% removal of any unwanted toxins and the manufacturer will probably shout about this on the packaging.
Stability – Another key consideration is the stability of the nutrients stored in the oil as omega-3 is easily damaged during processing. This is why a small amount of vitamin E is added to good quality fish oils. It is important to store fish oils in the fridge once they are opened to keep the oil nice and fresh.
DHA:EPA Balance – You should also consider the right balance of DHA:EPA ratio for your stage of life. For example, look for a DHA-rich fish oil during pregnancy and for the under-5s, and then increase to a higher EPA:DHA ratio as the child gets older. It is also good to consider your child’s specific requirement as DHA tends to speed up the brain whilst EPA slows it down. If you think your child is a slow learner then DHA is probably for them, but if you think that their issue is a racing brain that works too fast, then opt for an EPA-rich fish oil.
Forms – There are also many different forms in which you can buy fish oil supplements including caplets, chewables, capsules and liquid. You will probably know which flavour or form will suit your child best. For little ones, the dose of the liquids is often only 1-2.5ml so this is easy to give on a spoon.or via a medicine syringe. Otherwise, you can hide it in a little bit of fruit puree, smoothie or yoghurt.
As you can see, Omega-3 is one of nature’s super nutrients, and now you know how, you can make it a priority for keeping your family in tip top health.
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- Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. Brenda C Davis
- Metabolism of alpha-linolenic acid in humans. Burdge GC
- Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. Brenda C Davis & Penny M Kris-Etherton
- The Relationship of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) with Learning and Behavior in Healthy Children: A Review. Connye N. Kuratko et al.
- Fatty acids in dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD, can nutrition help? Alex J Richardson.
- Low Blood Long Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids in UK Children Are Associated with Poor Cognitive Performance and Behavior: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from the DOLAB Study. Paul Montgomery et al.
- Docosahexaenoic Acid for Reading, Cognition and Behavior in Children Aged 7–9 Years: A Randomized, Controlled Trial (The DOLAB Study). Alexandra J. Richardson et al.
- Critical appraisal of omega-3 fatty acids in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder treatment. Anja Königs et al.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid and Nutrient Deficits in Adverse Neurodevelopment and Childhood Behaviors. Joseph. R. Hibbelna and Rachel V. Gow
- Fatty acids and sleep in UK children: subjective and pilot objective sleep results from the DOLAB study – a randomized controlled trial. Paul Montgomery et al.
- Effect of vitamin D and omega-3 on nocturnal enuresis of 7-15-year-old children. E, Rahmani, MH Efekhari, MH Fallahzadeh, M Faraouei, SJ Massoumi.