Many people use omega-3 supplements or consume fish regularly to help keep their brains healthy. But these essential fatty acids are even more important right at the beginning of life. Developing fetuses need omega-3s to form the neurons and other tissues that make up a healthy brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which come from eating fish or taking fish oil supplements, play a key role in our brain’s functions and structure. They are involved in neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, as well as in the day-to-day functions of brain cells (Dyall 2015).
Our brains rely on omega-3s from the get-go. When an infant is developing, omega-3s are necessary to ensure the brain grows properly. Animal studies of omega-3s show they play a vital role early on in everything from how our brain cells function to our vision. And studies show that a lack of omega-3s early in life can put a child at higher risk for poor brain development (Innis 2008).
When our brains don’t form properly, it leaves us open to a wide array of issues. Though the connections between omega-3s during development and later cognitive issues are still being studied, there is emerging evidence for a link to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a pervasive developmental disorder.
The evidence is still preliminary, but it’s another sign that getting enough of these critical fatty acids at all stages of life is a requirement for a healthy brain.
ADHD and the Brain
The symptoms of ADHD are characterized by an inability to focus, restlessness, impulsiveness, and disorganization. It’s most common in children, though symptoms can persist into adulthood. In 2016, some 5.4 million children or around 8.5 percent had ADHD — though that was based on parent responses to a survey asking if their child had ever been diagnosed with the condition, and not directly on clinical diagnoses (Danielson et al. 2016).
Having ADHD puts children at risk of a range of harms, from poor school performance to difficulty socializing, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And while there are medications that can help the treatment of ADHD symptoms, they often have side effects.
It’s still not totally clear what causes ADHD. It’s likely an interplay between genetic, environmental, and other factors. But researchers have turned up one potential culprit that could increase the risk of the disorder: an imbalance of essential fatty acids during development. “Essential” in this context means obtainable only from diet.
For Fatty Acids, Balance is Key
Some studies have discovered that children with ADHD also have higher ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are important for our health, but only in moderation. Excess intake of omega-6s, which can happen when the diet includes too much seed oil, can increase inflammation throughout our bodies, and could play a role in obesity and heart disease. Our diets should ideally contain roughly equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but Western diets today often contain 15 times as many omega-6s (Patterson et al. 2012).
The connection has led scientists to question whether a lack of omega-3s (or surplus of omega-6s) early on in life might be one factor leading to ADHD. In one study, a team of researchers in Spain used blood samples from umbilical cords to test levels of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in fetuses. Then they followed up four and seven years later to see how the kids were doing. Based on teacher and parent reports of ADHD symptoms, researchers reported a small association between an increased omega-6/omega-3 ratio and symptoms of ADHD seven years later (Lopez-Vicente et al. 2019).
More work is needed to fully understand whether a lack of omega-3s could play a role in the onset of ADHD, but this study does suggest a link might exist. Ensuring that Mom gets a healthy balance of omega-6s to omega-3s (by taking fish oil supplements or eating more fish, for example) could, therefore, be one step toward preventing ADHD.
Omega-3s Vital for Brain Development
Other studies have suggested more broadly that keeping the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in proper balance during pregnancy helps set kids up for success down the road. One study found that more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s were associated with better mental and psychomotor development at six months old (Kim et al. 2017). And other work points out that low levels of omega-3s are linked to poorer neural development (Innis 2008).
There’s also some evidence that omega-3 supplements could help children with ADHD after they’re born. Studies have found that giving children with ADHD omega-3 supplements helped improve their attention spans and decreased symptoms such as restlessness and impulsiveness (Agostini et al. 2017). But other studies have found that giving kids omega-3 supplements had no effect on symptoms. Ultimately, it’s too soon to say if omega-3s are a helpful treatment for children who already have the disorder (Agostini et al. 2017).
Whether or not omega-3s help children with ADHD, there are still plenty of reasons that we should make sure we all get enough of them. The brain benefits of omega-3s extend far beyond ADHD. Omega-3s are associated with decreased incidence of depression and bipolar disorder, as well as with lowered risk of dementia (Dyall 2015) (Sublette et al. 2011). And omega-3s are also important for heart health, helping to keep blood pressure in check and maintaining healthy levels of triglycerides. (Read more: Study Suggests Fish Oil Therapy Could Prevent 70,000 Heart Attacks and Strokes.)
You can make sure you get enough omega-3s, and tip your balance of fatty acids back in the right direction, by eating plenty of fish, the best natural source of these vital compounds. Wild-caught salmon is one of the best options for getting your healthful quota of omega-3 fatty acids. And fish oil supplements are another healthy way of delivering omega-3s to your body.
We try to take care of our bodies, but our brains are just as important. The old adage that fish is brain food isn’t just a saying — nutrients like omega-3s are truly the foundation of our gray matter’s health.
Agostoni C, Nobile M, Ciappolino V, et al. The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Developmental Psychopathology: A Systematic Review on Early Psychosis, Autism, and ADHD. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2017;18(12):2608. doi:10.3390/ijms18122608
Danielson ML, Bitsko RH, Ghandour RM, Holbrook JR, Kogan MD, Blumberg SJ. Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2016. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. 2018;47(2):199-212. doi:10.1080/15374416.2017.1417860
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López-Vicente M, Ribas Fitó N, Vilor-Tejedor N, et al. Prenatal Omega-6:Omega-3 Ratio and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms. The Journal of Pediatrics. 2019;209:204-211.e4. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2019.02.022
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