Human brains depend heavily on a specific omega-3 fat for basic functions.
That omega-3 fatty acid – called DHA – is the dominant fat in human brain and eye cells.
We cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, so we have to get DHA from seafood or supplements.
The brain also needs omega-6 fatty acids, but the average American gets far too many, mostly from cheap vegetable oils and prepared or packaged foods made with them.
In contrast, most Americans – including expectant and nursing mothers – don't get enough omega-3 fatty acids.
This matters, because for optimal brain development, children need adequate levels of omega-3 DHA from conception through birth and beyond.
Sadly, American mothers trail the world when it comes the levels of omega-3 DHA in their bodies, which determines the levels in their breast milk (Brenna JT et al. 2007; Lassek WD, Gaulin SJ 2013).
Now, the same team behind that research has published an even more striking study that strongly links mothers' omega-3 levels to childrens' brain performance.
Breast milk omega-3 levels seen as the dominant factor in kids' brain power
We are what we eat, and a new study suggests that this applies to the effects of mothers' omega-3 intake on their babies' brain power.
Omega-3s for moms, infants, and children: How much?
In response to our questions, here is what famed pediatrician William Sears, M.D., told us about the proper intake of omega-3s by mothers and children.
- “...experts attending a 2005 workshop recommended at least 300 mg [of omega-3s] a day for pregnant and nursing mothers (most mothers get only 20-25% of this amount, unless they take omega-3 fish oil supplements). In our medical practice we have mothers take at least 500 mg of DHA per day during pregnancy and lactation.”
- “The recommendation for infants is at least 200mg of DHA per day, which is the dosage added to infant formulas."
- “Practically speaking, infants under one year old receive their omega-3s through mother's milk or fortified formula, but it is perfectly safe and perhaps even beneficial for infants to be given extra fish oil at a dose of around 300 mg a day* of DHA. I stress DHA rather than EPA because DHA is the main brain-growth omega 3.”
*NOTE: There are as yet no official omega-3 intake recommendations for children over two years of age, so please consult your pediatrician.
Researchers from UC Santa Barbara and the University of Pittsburgh compared the fat profiles of breast milk from women in over two dozen countries with their children's academic performance (Lassek WD, Gaulin SJ 2014).
Strikingly, the amount of omega-3 DHA in a mother's milk was the single strongest predictor of test performance.
The amount of omega-3 DHA in mothers' milk evenoutweighed national income and the number of dollars spent per pupil in schools.
Specifically, omega-3 DHA levels in breast milk accounted for about 20 percent of the differences in test scores among countries.
On the other hand, the amount of omega-6 fat in mother's milk — from cheap vegetable oils such as corn and soy — predicted lower test scores.
When the amounts of omega-3 DHA and omega-6 LA — the most heavily consumed omega-6 fat — in breast milk were considered together, they explained nearly half of the differences in test scores.
And, in countries where mother's diets contain more omega-6 – like the U.S. – the beneficial effects of omega-3 DHA seem to be reduced.
Breast milk in the USA is among the world's worst in terms of its omega-3/6 balance … but American children perform somewhat better than expected based on this factor, probably because of this country's generally high level of education and affluence.
“Human intelligence has a physical basis in the huge size of our brains — some seven times larger than would be expected for a mammal with our body size,” said Steven Gaulin, UCSB professor of anthropology and co-author of the paper (UCSB 2014).
“Since there is never a free lunch, those big brains need lots of extra building materials — most importantly, they need omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. Omega-6 fats, however, undermine the effects of DHA and seem to be bad for brains.”
America's excessive omega-6 intake hurts kids' brains
For their study, Dr. Gaulin and co-author William D. Lassek, M.D., examined the omega-3 DHA and omega-6 LA content of women's breast milk in 50 countries.
As in earlier studies, they found that American women's breast milk had among the lowest levels of DHA.
The academic test results came from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which administers standardized tests in 58 nations.
In total, the researchers found information about both breast milk and test scores for 28 of the 58 countries. Gaulin and Lassek averaged children's scores on three PISA tests — math, science, and reading ability — as the measure of overall brain performance.
“Looking at those 28 countries, the DHA content of breast milk was the single best predictor of math test performance,” Gaulin said.
The second best indicator was the amount of omega-6, with higher levels in mothers' breast milk linked to lower test scores.
“Considering the benefits of omega-3 and the detriment of omega-6, we can get pretty darn close to explaining half the difference in scores between countries,” Gaulin noted.
When DHA and LA are considered together, Gaulin added, they are twice as effective at predicting test scores as either is alone.
Gaulin and Lassek considered two economic factors as well:
- Per student expenditures on education.
- Per capita gross domestic product (a measure of average wealth in each nation)
“Each of these factors helps explain some of the differences between nations in test scores, but the fatty acid profile of the average mother's milk in a given country is a better predictor of the average cognitive performance in that country than is either of the conventional socioeconomic measures,” said Gaulin.
From their analysis, the researchers conclude that both economic wellbeing and diet make a difference in cognitive test performance, and children are best off when they have both factors in their favor.
“But if you had to choose one, you should choose the better diet rather than the better economy,” Gaulin said.
The new research follows a 2008 study, which showed that the children of women who had larger amounts of gluteofemoral (buttock and thigh) fat performed better on academic tests than those of mothers with less.
Now, the researchers are looking at diet as the key to brain-building fat, since mothers need to consume these fats in order to pass them on to fetuses and nursing babies.
Study authors decry the impact of America's corn and soy subsidies
Sadly, as Gaulin noted, America's current agribusiness-based diets provide very low levels of DHA — among the lowest in the world.
And as Gaulin said, the average U.S. diet is heavy in omega-6 fats and far too light on the good omega-3s, thanks to two heavily subsidized crops high in omega-6 fats – corn and soybeans.
“Back in the 1960s, in the middle of the cardiovascular disease epidemic, people got the idea that saturated fats were bad and polyunsaturated fats were good,” Gaulin explained.
“That's one reason margarine became so popular. But the polyunsaturated fats that were increased were the ones with omega-6, not omega-3. So our message is that not only is it advisable to increase omega 3 intake, it's highly advisable to decrease omega-6 — the very fats that in the 1960s and '70s we were told we should be eating more of.”
Gaulin added that mayonnaise is, in general, the most omega-6-laden food in the average person's refrigerator.
“If you have too much of one kind – omega-6s – and too little of the other (omega-3s) you're going to end up paying a price cognitively,” he said. The issue is a huge concern for women, Gaulin noted, because “that's where kids' brains come from”.
But he added that it's important for men as well, because they have to take care of the brains their moms gave them.
“Just like a racecar burns up some of its motor oil with every lap, your brain burns up omega-3 and you need to replenish it every day,” he said (UCSB 2014).
The startling results of this study should serve as a wakeup call to American women, obstetricians, and pediatricians … at least we hope so.
- Brenna JT, Varamini B, Jensen RG, Diersen-Schade DA, Boettcher JA, Arterburn LM. Docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid concentrations in human breast milk worldwide. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jun;85(6):1457-64.
- Kuipers RS, Smit EN, van der Meulen J, Janneke Dijck-Brouwer DA, Rudy Boersma E, Muskiet FA. Milk in the island of Chole [Tanzania] is high in lauric, myristic, arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids, and low in linoleic acid reconstructed diet of infants born to our ancestors living in tropical coastal regions. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2007 Apr;76(4):221-33. Epub 2007 Mar 23.
- Lassek WD, Gaulin SJ. Linoleic and docosahexaenoic acids in human milk have opposite relationships with cognitive test performance in a sample of 28 countries. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014 Aug 8. pii: S0952-3278(14)00127-6. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2014.07.017. [Epub ahead of print]
- Lassek WD, Gaulin SJ. Maternal milk DHA content predicts cognitive performance in a sample of 28 nations. Matern Child Nutr. 2013 Jun 25. doi: 10.1111/mcn.12060. [Epub ahead of print] Martin MA,
- Lassek WD, Gaulin SJ, Evans RW, Woo JG, Geraghty SR, Davidson BS, Morrow AL, Kaplan HS, Gurven MD. Fatty acid composition in the mature milk of Bolivian forager-horticulturalists: controlled comparisons with a US sample. Matern Child Nutr. 2012 Jul;8(3):404-418. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-8709.2012.00412.x. Epub 2012 May 24.
- Pickert K. The Man Who Remade Motherhood. TIME magazine. May 21, 2012. Accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2114427,00.html
- UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). Study by UCSB Anthropologists Finds High Levels of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Breast Milk of Amerindian Women as Compared to U.S. Women. June 8, 2012. http://www.ia.ucsb.edu/pa/display.aspx?pkey=2740
- UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). Hold the Mayo: Researchers at UCSB and the University of Pittsburgh use breast milk to show a correlation between dietary fats and academic success. September 9, 2014. Accessed at http://www.news.ucsb.edu/2014/014386/hold-mayo