New Urgency Regarding Omega-3s and Behavior Problems
For years, nutrition experts have commented on the extreme importance of adequate omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. These are the essential nutrients found almost exclusively in fish and fish oil. They include two key compounds, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). A third form of fatty acid, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in certain plant foods, such as flaxseed and walnuts.
By definition, our bodies must have essential nutrients to survive and thrive, and they cannot be made in the body. So they must come from the diet, on a more or less regular basis. For most of human history, this was evidently not a problem. But things have changed. Our food supply has shifted away from “natural” farming practices, such as grazing cattle on grass (another source of omega-3s), to factory farming these animals, forcing them to live on grains and other foods.
As a result, virtually every food we eat on a daily basis is directly or indirectly derived from corn or soybeans. Corn and soy are good sources of another family of fatty acids, called omega-6 fatty acids. In contrast to the omega-3s, omega-6s promote inflammation. That’s not a problem when your intake of these essential nutrients is roughly balanced between anti-inflammatory omega-3s and pro-inflammatory omega-6s.
But in much of the Westernized world, people regularly consume virtually nothing but omega-6 fatty acids. And very few, if any, omega-3s. That’s a problem. It means many of us are routinely malnourished, in that we are sorely lacking a particular essential nutrient. Why does it matter? I’ve already noted that omega-3s fight inflammation in the body, while omega-6s help promote it. Inflammation-based diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and many others—are at epidemic proportions in our society. But that’s only half of the problem. Perhaps even worse are the long-term consequences across generations.
Adrian Raine, Jill Portnoy, Jianghong Liu, Tashneem Mahoomed, Joseph R. Hibbeln. Reduction in behavior problems with omega-3 supplementation in children aged 8-16 years: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel-group trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2015; 56 (5): 509 DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12314