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Oily fish boosts reading, spelling, attention

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Children struggling at school could benefit from taking omega fatty acids to help them learn and focus, new research suggests.

Omegas, found most commonly in oily fish, are important for brain health and must be obtained from our diet. There are three types: omega-3, 6 and 9 – and many of us don’t get nearly enough omega-3.

Previous research has found low blood levels of omega-3s, typically caused by not eating enough oily fish such as salmon, are detrimental to learning and behaviour.

Now, a study has concluded omega fatty acids can, among other things, boost reading, spelling and attention among schoolchildren. Young people who benefited the most were those with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and those who were underperforming at school.

Published in the Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences, the study involved researchers pulling together the results from 29 randomised controlled trials – the highest quality evidence available.

These trials, all published in the last five years, had involved giving children supplements containing different amounts of fatty acids such as omega-3s and omega-6s.

Of these, 22 studies involving more than 3,000 children revealed significant benefits for learning, focus and behaviour. What’s all the fuss about fatty acids – and what are they? Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain health and cognition. Low intakes are linked to reduced scores on social behaviour and communication, research published in The Lancet stated.

Average intakes of oily fish, our best dietary source of omega-3, is 18g per week for kids, so just an eighth of a portion of the recommended 140g, according to the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

One type of omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, is essential for brain growth and development in infants and required for maintenance of normal brain function in adults. The human brain is nearly 60 per cent fat and approximately 40 per cent of this is DHA.

High intakes have been shown to enhance learning, while low intakes have been linked to increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and aggressive hostility, according to research published in the journal Pharmacological Research.

Another type of omega-3, called EPA, is anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective. It is thought to play a key role in signalling between brain cells and appears to influence mood and behaviour, according to research published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Low intakes are linked to depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

Study co-author, Dr. Emma Derbyshire, a nutritionist who specialises in children’s diets, worked alongside a researcher at the University of South Wales to make the finding. She said: “Helping children to learn and focus is a central part of education.

“Given that the human brain is around 60 per cent fat, it’s reasonable to assume that the level and type of fats in our bodies will influence brain function and performance.

“Our review clearly showed that improving children’s intakes of omega-3 and certain omega-6 fats had a marked beneficial effect on reading ability, spelling, behaviour and attention.

“Conversely, these fatty acid supplements helped to lower hyperactivity and aggression which would tend to put children in a better frame of mind to learn.”

She added: “The strongest clinical effects for the fatty acids supplements has been shown with Equazen, which has a formulation clinically proven to provide the functional building blocks our brains need after the age of two.

“Therefore, I believe that getting blood fatty acid levels right could be a vital step in providing learning support to children who are struggling at school.”

Last November, a major review of clinical trials concluded that omega fatty acids are an ‘effective and safe treatment’ for children with ADHD.

The condition is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by difficulty maintaining attention, impulsive behaviour and extreme hyperactivity.

For the research, published in the Journal of Lipids, 16 studies were analysed.

They included those where omega fatty acids had been a stand-alone treatment and others where they’d been used alongside prescription drugs.

The majority of the studies (13) reported significant improvements in ADHD symptoms, including reduced hyperactivity and impulsivity, better attention, and improved working and short-term memory, when a fatty acid supplement was taken.


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