Teenagers experiment. By age 15, nearly 30 percent have begun drinking and in those early years they binge (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2020). Binge drinking and prescription drug use have dropped recently — that’s the good news. But vaping is up. Among the kids in the U.S. who develop a substance use disorder, half the time they’re in trouble by age 14 (Darcey and Serafine, 2020).
If your brood consumes omega-3 rich salmon and sardines, you’re in luck. A growing body of research suggests that children need these nutrients to maximize their power to make good choices and resist the pull of addictive drugs.
Omega-3 fatty acids can’t be produced by the body, but must come to us through food. Of the three most important, ALA, DHA and EPA, it is DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, that is the most prominent in the nervous system, especially in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that governs our impulse control and judgment. In other words, the home of the neurons that say I’ve had enough and No way is that guy driving me home, time to call Mom.
DHA levels in the prefrontal cortex build in the first eighteen years of life, and then stabilize. This suggests the nutrient plays a key role in proper development, observes Valerie Darcey, a neuroscientist and dietician who spent six years investigating the connection at Georgetown University (Darcey and Serafine, 2020).
Diets higher in omega-3s are linked to better brain health at all ages. Its plentiful DHA is one of the advantages of breastmilk for babies, for example. Post-weaning, however, very few American children get enough (Sheppard et al., 2018).
What’s most important is the balance of omega-3s and another kind of fatty acid, the omega-6s, abundant in common vegetable oils like corn, canola, and safflower. Like American adults, our kids need more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s.
But for growing children, a poor 3:6 balance early on may put them at a lifetime disadvantage. The development of vision is an example. In infants, DHA rapidly accumulates in the membranes of the retinal rods. Babies who don’t get enough end up with poorer eyesight and sadly, there’s not much we can do about that later. It may be that the same problem has occurred in teens with poor impulse control, Darcey and others argue (Darcey and Serafine, 2020).
The animal evidence
A diet high in both saturated and unsaturated fats but low in omega-3s makes rats and mice more sensitive to drugs that that act on dopamine systems, for example, cocaine (McGuire et al. 2011). But when researchers add fish oil to the daily chow, the effect goes away (Hernandez-Casner, et al., 2019). Fish oil can even reverse the high-omega-6 diet-induced sensitivity in these animals. Cutting dietary omega-6s, which raises the 3:6 ratio, has made mice less likely to binge drink, too (Chen et al., 2019).
The human evidence
Our society may be unintentionally conducting a huge experiment on whether malnourishing kids leads them to drugs, but researchers can’t intentionally do that with humans! Instead, they compare data on diets with various tests of impulsivity and behavior.
The results are consistent. An early study grouped nearly 100 nine-year old boys by their caregivers’ ratings. The most impulsive children also turned out to have the lowest average concentrations of omega-3s in their blood in a form that varies meal to meal (Stevens et al. 1995). In a more recent larger sample of more than 500 children aged 7.5 to 9 years, those who ate at least one fatty fish meal and another fish meal a week tended to get better scores on a Child Behavior Checklist (Gispert-Llaurado et al., 2016).
Darcey led a team that studied 11 to 13-year olds, 87 in all, using several methods. Caregivers rated how often they misbehaved. The children filled out a questionnaire on their diet. They also underwent a brain scan while performing a task that tested their ability to hold back responses, resisting their first impulse. The team applied statistical strategies to weed out the effect of differences in physical maturity and family income, race, intelligence, and weight.
They concluded, as expected, that eating more omega-3s was significantly linked to better behavior reports from caregivers. The brain scans had a touching result: the children who ate fewer omega-3 foods actually performed as well at the impulse-control task, but their brain scans showed more activity, suggesting more effort (Darcy et al., 2019).
We don’t yet know if eating more fish or taking supplements past a certain age will reverse the effects of earlier deprivation, as with the rats so malnourished they became cocaine addicts. Still, if salmon jerky snacks could possibly make it easier for your child to resist teen dangers, is there any reason not to stock up?
Abbott SK, Else PL, Atkins TA, Hulbert AJ. Fatty acid composition of membrane bilayers: importance of diet polyunsaturated fat balance. Biochim Biophys Acta. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbamem.2012.01.011 Published 2012.
Chen C, Schultz J, Haven S, Schuebel K, Hibbeln J. Dietary Lowering of omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Lowered Voluntary Ethanol Binge-drinking in Mice (OR19-02-19). Published June, 2019.
Darcey V, Serafine K. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Vulnerability to Addiction: Reviewing Preclinical and Clinical Evidence. Current Pharmaceutical Design. https://www.current-pharmaceutical-design.com/articles/181471/omega-3-fatty-acids-and-vulnerability-to-addiction-converging-preclinical-and-clinical-evidence. Published 2020.
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Underage Drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/underage-drinking. Published January 27, 2020.
Yakah W, Singh P, Perides G, Brown J, Freedman SD, Martin CR. Developmental accretion of docosahexaenoic acid is independent of fatty acid transporter expression in brain and lung tissues of C57BL/6 and Fat1 mice. J Nutrition http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxz074 Published 2019.