Our brains are 60% fat, of which 20% should be Omega 3 fatty acids. During pregnancy and infancy, insufficient intake of DHA has been shown in countless studies to greatly impact the development of babies’ brains. Electric signals in the brain travel by passing from one brain cell (neuron) to another and they leave one brain cell at the synapse and cross a gap to the next neuron. For this to happen, they need to be able to pass through the cell membranes (the walls that surround them). These membranes consist pretty much entirely of fat. There are ion channels in these membranes that open and close to allow the flow of the electric signals. DHA makes these channels more elastic which makes it easier for the signals to flow.
DHA also plays a critical role in synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses between neurons). Research shows that babies with Omega 3/DHA deficient diets have 50% fewer synapses and a study into the diet of 12,000 pregnant women (published in the Lancet) found that children of those who consumed the least Omega 3 were more likely to score in the lowest quartile on IQ tests.
During the last trimester of pregnancy (week 28 onwards) the foetus’s brain grows by an astonishing 260% so it’s crucial that the mother has adequate DHA intake during this time. After the baby is born, the brain continues to grow rapidly. In the first year of life, it grows by another 175%, and in the second year by 18%. After age 2, changes and growth occur throughout childhood but the total size of the brain only increases by another 21%.
DHA has also been shown to increase brain volume. People with high levels of Omega 3 in their diets have more grey matter, particularly in the area of the brain responsible for happiness. This is a really key area, as people deficient in Omega 3 have depleted dopamine (the happy hormone).
DHA, or lack of, also plays a critical role in post-natal depression. Mothers become depleted as their own DHA is prioritized for the growing baby or breast milk, leaving them low or worse, with postnatal depression. Mothers often reduce the amount of fish they eat during pregnancy due to concerns over mercury when they should in fact be increasing their Omega 3 intake from safe sources.
Can Omega 3 help children at school?
The DOLAB study is one of the most quoted and referred to of recent times and it looked into the effect of Omega 3 on the behaviour, working memory and reading of healthy children aged between 7 and 9. After 6 weeks of taking a DHA supplement, they found that the children with below average reading ability (under the 20th centile) showed significant improvements.
The same group of researchers conducted a separate study into sleep as DHA also influences melatonin production and therefore our sleep patterns. Insomnia is a huge problem for many, and is nearly always either an effect or a cause of mental health problems. A group of children with sleep issues were given 600mg DHA a day for 16 weeks and achieved an extra 46 minutes sleep a night.
Children's mental health and Omega 3
The reasons to ensure children have enough Omega 3 in their diet is also important for their mental health. We don’t often think of children as suffering but statistics from the ONS state that 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder - that is around three children in every class. Between 1 in every 12 children deliberately self-harm and there has been a big increase in the number of young people being admitted to hospital as a result. Over the last ten years this figure has increased by 68%.
Last year, Childline reported a sharp rise in suicidal thoughts among young teenagers. The role of social media and bullying was mentioned as a potential factor, however there was absolutely no reference to the diets these children are eating. If you consider that the average sugar intake for a teenager in the UK is about 16% of their daily caloric needs, and that’s an average so there are a lot of kids eating way more, they have terribly nutrient deficient diets and their brains are literally starved of what they need to be happy and to cope with the stress of being a teenager.
DHA also has a profound effect on our brain’s ability to regulate emotions, make good decisions (important when it comes to self control and substance abuse) and to handle stress and is always the first thing a nutritional therapist will recommend to anyone with mental health issues.
For more on the importance of DHA for babies and during pregnancy, read this article.