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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Think About It: Children & Adolescents NEED Omega-3 Fatty Acids

By Michael McBurney

Adolescent depression has been associated with low DHA and EPA concentrations in red blood cells (RBC). Because brains are still developing during adolescence and DHA is an important component of cell membranes, research in animal models finds that maintaining sufficient DHA concentrations throughout adolescence increases resiliency to emotional stressors.

Ooi and colleagues hypothesized that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation would increase RBC fatty acid concentrations and improve behavioral measures in children and adolescents diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Forty-one individuals (7-18y) with ASD were supplements with 840 mg docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), 192 mg eicospaentaenoic acid (EPA), 66 mg ararchidonic acid (AA), 144 mg γ-linolenic acid (LA), and 60 mg vitamin E twice daily for 12 weeks.  RBC percentage EPA+DHA increased from 2.78% to 3.82%.  Positive changes in RBC omega-3 concentrations were associated with decreases in severity of autism mannerisms and increases in social awareness. The study is limited by a lack control (statistical comparisons were pre- vs post-intervention) and the small number of subjects.

It is important to realize that these adolescents fell within the 5th percentile of 1,153 similarly aged American children. Increasing their omega-3 index to 3.8% only brought them within the 25-50th percentile range. Their omega-3 index was still at the low end.

Among 1,301 Australian adolescents (13-15y), the mean omega-3 index was 4.9% although individuals did range from 1.4 to 8.4%. Harris and colleagues report children have lower RBC omega-3 concentrations than older adults in the US.

Low omega-3 levels have been found in children with ADHD and omega-3 supplementation appears to create modest improvements in symptoms. An increased RBC omega-3 index is associated with cardiovascular health in adults.

Low RBC omega-3 concentrations cannot be optimal for developing brains or longterm heart health.

Main Citation

Ooi YP, Weng S-J, Jang LY, Low L, Seah J, Teo S, Ang RP, Lim CG, Liew A, Fung DS, Sung M. Omega-3 fatty acids in the management of autism spectrum disorders: findings from an open-label pilot study in Singapore. 2015 EJCN doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2015.28

Other Citations

Pottala JV, Talley JA, Churchill SW, Lynch DA, von Schacky C, Harris WS. Red blood cell fatty acids are associated with depression in a case-control study of adolescents. 2012 PLEFA doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2012.03.002

Weiser MJ, Wynalda K, Salem Jr N, Butt CM. Dietary DHA during development affects depression-like behaviors and biomarkers that emerge after puberty in adolescent rats. 2014 J Lip Res doi: 10.1194/jlr.M055558

O’Sullivan TA, Ambrosini GL, Mori TA, Beilin LJ, Oddy WH. Omega-3 index correlates with healthier food consumption in adolescents and with reduced cardiovascular disease risk factors in adolescent boys. 2010 Lipids doi: 10.1007/s11745-010-3499-8

Harris WS, Pottala JV, Lacey SM, Vasan RS, Larson MG, Robins SJ. Clinical correlates and heritability of erythrocyte eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid content in the Framingham Heart Study. 2012 Atheroscler doi: 10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2012.05.030

Harris WS, Pottala JV, Varvel SA, Borowski JJ, Ward JN, McConnell JP. Erythrocyte omega-3 fatty acids increase and linoleic acid decreases with age: Observations from 160,000 patients. 2013 PLEFA doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2012.12.004

Hawkey E, Nigg JT. Omega-3 fatty acid and ADHD: Blood level analysis and meta-analytic extension of supplementation trials. 2014 Clin Psychol Rev doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2014.05.005