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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Putting Your Mind to Rest by Optimizing Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Health

By Michael McBurney

By now you will have seen the headlines: Algal DHA Omega-3 Supplementation Improves Sleep Duration in School-Aged Children, Diet Rich in Omega-3s Linked to Better Sleep,  and Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Improve Children’s Sleep Patterns: Study. What is the science behind the story?

The Docosahexaenoic Acid Oxford Learning and Behaviour (DOLAB) study was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (RCT) testing the effect of a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), on reading, working memory, and behavior of healthy children (7-9y). Children who were initially underperforming in reading were randomized to either 600 mg DHA daily or a color/taste matched corn/soybean oil placebo. Significant improvements in reading performance was observed in children whose initial reading performance was ≤20th percentile.

Montgomery and colleagues examined associations between blood fatty acid concentrations and sleep patterns in 395 children. Based on the Child Sleep Habits Questionnaire, 40% of the children experienced clinical-level sleep problems. Sleep disturbances were weakly, but significantly, associated with lower DHA and DHA:arachidonic acid concentrations.

More research is needed to understand the relationship between DHA and sleep patterns. However, many UK children have suboptimal blood levels of key omega-3 fatty acids. Their mean whole blood omega-3 index, % total fatty acids as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and DHA, was 2.45%. While fatty acid ratios determined from red blood cell (RBC) membrane phospholipids are better indicators of long-term dietary fat and fatty acid intake than those measured in whole blood, adults with EPA+DHA levels <2.41% have a significantly greater risk of cardiovascular risk.

Significantly lower RBC membrane phospholipid DHA concentrations  have been reported in children diagnosed with attention- deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) relative to their peers. [Please note that definition of ADHD was updated in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)].

For general nutrition and health, most authorities and scientific bodies are recommending 250-500 mg EPA+DHA daily.

Main Citation

Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Richardson JR. Fatty acids and sleep in UK children: subjective and pilot objective sleep results from the DOLAB study – a randomized controlled trial. 2014 J Sleep Res doi:10.1111/jsr.12135

Other Citations

Richardson AJ, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Montgomery P. Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7-9 years: A randomized, controlled trial (The DOLAB Study). 2012 PLoS One doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043909

Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Sprecklesen TF, Richardson AJ. 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. 2013 PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066697

Arab L. Biomarkers of fat and fatty acid intake. 2003. J Nutr 133:925S-932S

Harris WS, Reid KJ, Sands SA, Spertus JA. Blood omega-3 and trans fatty acids in middle-aged acute coronary syndrome patients. 2007 Am J Cardiol doi: 10.1016/j.amjcard.2006.08.013

Chen J-R, Hsu S-F, Hsu C-D, Hwang L-H, Yang S-C. Dietary patterns and blood fatty acid composition in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in Taiwan. 2004 J Nutr Biochem doi: 10.1016/j.nutbio.2004.01.008