The pre- and teenage years, commonly referred to as adolescence, can be characterized by growing pains (physical and emotional), raging hormones (moving from puppy love to serious crushes to first love), and cringe-worthy responses to dad-jokes and mom-hugs, and worse, still, the constant battles actively challenging parental authority.
There’s also anger and anxiety, stress and peer pressure, and a lack of self-confidence and self-worth. To quote Dickens slightly out of context, it is the best of times and the worst of times, for both parents and their adolescents.
Many adolescents also face concentration, attention and memory challenges. If your adolescent is having trouble focusing, you’re not alone. In today’s blog, we’ll talk about some of the science that shows how omega-3 fatty acids may actually help the teenage brain.
Does DHA Help Brain Development?
We know that a well-balanced diet, rich in nutrients, low in refined sugar and saturated and trans fats, plays an important role in good health. When it comes specifically to omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) fatty acids, there are over 40,000 published studies, a complex library of benefits and emerging benefits in areas like heart health, brain health, eye health, pregnancy, fetal development, fighting inflammation and more.
The sheer number of studies places these nutrients among the most-researched nutrients of all.
Omega-3 EPA and DHA are lifelong nutrients, important during all stages of life, and in the case of DHA, starting with the fetus. This study states that DHA is crucial for the structure and development of the growing fetal brain, starting in utero. The authors point out that it is the placental supply of DHA transferred from the mother-to-be to the growing fetus that is especially critical for the fetus’ growing brain during the third trimester. Further, the authors remind us that a low level of DHA in the brain is later associated with brain issues such as learning difficulties and dementia.
While DHA has been thought to be the most important component of omega-3 fatty acids when it comes to brain health and children, this study advised that both DHA and EPA are important in developing brain (and nerve) cells, with some research confirming that these fatty acids are important for children in all stages, including pre-birth and post-birth. The fetus (and then the baby) relies on the mother’s diet to fulfill its need for omega-3 EPA and DHA during the pregnancy and lactation periods. And here’s a fun fact: DHA makes up over 90% of omega-3s and 10-20% of total lipids in the brain.
Does DHA Help Kids Focus?
A recent study of adolescents published this past August in the European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry journal found that higher dietary DHA levels were associated with better attention performance in typically developing adolescents. According to the study results, the cognitive benefits from DHA for this cohort were specifically associated with selective and sustained attention, as well as detecting and resolving conflict.
The study also looked at comparison data for the plant-based form of omega-3 fatty-acids—alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In contrast to the results for DHA, dietary ALA was not associated with better attention performance. However, the researchers observed that higher levels of red blood cell ALA seemed to have a beneficial impact on impulsivity—e.g., the higher the level of ALA in red blood cells, the lower the impulsivity.
The cross-sectional, observational study utilized baseline data from the Walnuts Smart Snack Dietary Intervention Trial, a randomized controlled trial of over 700 healthy adolescents from Barcelona, Spain.
According to this article reporting on the newly published study, the researchers used a standard computer test—the Attention Network Test (ANT)—to assess the attention-function performance, measuring specific attention goals, conflict response and impulsivity.
They also used data from blood drawn in the original clinical trial ending up with a subset of 332 subjects in the present study, those with fully available data on blood omega-3 status and neuropsychological tests. The Omega-3 Index (O3I) was used to determine omega-3 blood status.
The Omega-3 Index is a testing methodology that measures fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in red blood cell membranes. William S. Harris, Ph.D., president and founder of the Fatty Acid Research Institute (FARI), and founder of OmegaQuant, is also the co-inventor of the Omega-3 Index. Widely used by the scientific community for commercial and academic research, the Omega-3 Index has been used as the standard measure of omega-3 status in more than 200 clinical studies.
Should I Give My Kids DHA? A Test Can Help You Decide.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you are also aware that consumers can order an at-home Omega-3 Index test, which uses a simple finger prick, to collect blood. The test is then sent back to OmegaQuant to analyze the Omega-3 EPA and DHA status in red blood cells, and the report is returned to the customer with the results, interpretation, and advice on how to improve those blood levels, if needed.
If your adolescent is having trouble with attention or focus, it’s worth having a discussion with your doctor about whether your child is consuming enough omega-3s.
Back to the current study. One reason this study is so important, the authors explained, is that studies of DHA on healthy adolescents and attention-function are scarce, noting that most of the studies in this area have either been conducted on younger children (10 years or under), or on those adolescents with ADHD, or in combination with EPA.
As for ALA, the authors explained that the nutrient has received even less scientific attention in this population in studying attention function. One possibility for ALA being all but ignored, is, according to the researchers because “ALA has long been believed to merely act indirectly via marginal conversion to DHA.”
With regard to DHA, the authors advised that there is a plausible role for dietary DHA in selective and sustained attention and in detecting and resolving stimuli conflict (executive functioning) in attention tasks.
Researchers Urge More Clinical Research for Cause and Effect
The authors cited some limitations of their study, the first-being it was observational in nature, meaning causality could not be inferred. Nor could they exclude the possibility that other factors may have influenced or created the observed benefits.
“Overall, this reinforces the long-known importance of ensuring an adequate DHA accumulation in periods of life when the brain is developing or evolving, adolescence being of paramount importance,” said the study authors.
The authors also suggest that the positive relationship between higher RBC ALA levels and lower impulsivity could have potential clinical relevance because impulsivity is known to be a key factor of several psychiatric disorders, including ADHD and personality disorders. Therefore, they suggest that future research should explore whether supplementing with ALA might have a beneficial effect in those disorders.
So, even as this study shows promise on attention function, especially for DHA, the authors call for more research for both nutrients, conducted in healthy adolescents, including intervention trials which can potentially show a cause and effect, and build on their findings. They reported that “intervention studies are needed to determine the causality of these associations and to further elucidate the effects of omega-3 PUFAs beyond cognitive performance during adolescence.”
Additional Studies in Adolescents on Omega-3s and Cognition
Another observational study, one in which baseline data was also utilized from a larger, double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study, also used the Omega-3 Index methodology to determine the effect of omega-3 status on typically developing adolescents. This study assessed omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive performance, mental well-being and academic achievement scores in adolescents (aged 13-15 years) in the Netherlands.
Regression analyses between the Omega-3 Index and the outcome parameters revealed significant associations with scores in two of the nine studied parameters, leading the authors to note there is a possible indication for a higher information processing speed and less impulsivity in those with a higher Omega-3 Index.
This longitudinal cohort study on 9,260 male adolescents (aged 15 years old) in the western region of Sweden suggested that fish consumption may have a significant impact on cognitive function during adolescence. The subjects were asked to complete an extensive questionnaire with questions on diseases, fish consumption and socioeconomic status.
The data from the 4792 responders were linked with records on subsequent intelligence test performance at age 18 from the Swedish Military Conscription Register (n = 3972). Using multivariate linear models to estimate associations between fish intake and cognitive performance, the researchers adjusted potential confounders. Their results showed a positive association between the number of times the boys ate fish meals each week at age 15 and cognitive performance measured three years later at age 18.
Fish consumption of more than one time per week in comparison to less than once a week was associated with higher stanine scores in combined intelligence, verbal performance and visuospatial performance. Level of education did not influence the association between fish meal frequency and cognitive performance. This led the authors to conclude that “frequent fish intake at age 15 was associated with significantly higher cognitive performance three years later.”
One limitation of the study is that the questionnaire did not distinguish between lean (e.g., sole, cod) and fatty (e.g., salmon, trout) fish. As it’s the fatty fish that are especially known as rich sources for omega-3 and omega-6, the researchers note it would be interesting in future research on adolescents to compare whether fatty fish intake or lean fish (or both) is associated with higher cognitive performance.
Yet another observational Swedish study in 15-year-olds concluded that frequent fish intake among schoolchildren may benefit academic achievement. This study also used a questionnaire asking about socioeconomic conditions, dietary information and more.
Of the 10,837 subjects who originally responded, the researchers obtained data from national registers from 9,448 of those with completed questionnaires. The researchers then applied multiple linear regression models to evaluate the association between fish intake and academic grades, adjusting for confounders such as parents’ education.
The grades were higher in subjects who consumed fish once a week compared to less than once a week, and even higher in subjects consuming fish more than once a week compared with the reference group.
And finally, another observational study, this time in 700 healthy Dutch adolescents (aged 12-18 years) collected fish consumption data, end term grades, scores on the Amsterdam Vocabulary Test, and scores on the Youth Self-Report. The researchers reported the results that associated higher fish intake with more advanced vocabulary and higher end term grades; however, the authors also noted an inverted U-shape association whereby “eating more fish than the described norm seemed no longer beneficial.”
The bottom line: If you’re still not convinced that adolescents need omega-3 fatty acids in general—and DHA in particular—here’s one more thing that the authors of the new study (the first one we discussed in this blog) said: “DHA accrues rapidly in the prefrontal cortex from the perinatal period to the first 18 years of life, with little increase after the second decade of life. This suggests that the adolescent years are a crucial period to ensure adequate accrual of DHA [in that part of the brain].”
It’s certainly food for thought.