Fish oil can be helpful in maintaining brain health at any point in life. Because different health concerns require different amounts of fish oil taken with different complementary nutritional supplements, I'll dive right into my recommendations for the use of fish oil for brain health.
Fish Oil for Treating ADHD in Children
How does fish oil help the brain in children? Low levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids, especially DHA, have long been associated with ADHD in children. Children whose mothers consumed more DHA during pregnancy not only are less likely to develop ADHD, they are more likely to speak fluently, show eye-hand coordination, and exert emotional control at age 7. But what if your child has ADHD? How do you use fish oil in treatment? The best evidence suggests that fish oil for kids who have ADHD works better when it is given with magnesium and zinc. A study of 810 children aged 5 to 12 in Germany found that taking this combination of supplements for 12 weeks:
- "Cured" about 30% of children who had been diagnosed with ADHD, or at least caused enough improvement that the children were no longer diagnosed as having ADHD,
- "Cured" about 70% of children who had been diagnosed with hyperactivity/impulsivity, at least enough that they no longer were diagnosed as as suffering hyperactivity/impulsivity,
- Reduced the number of children described as "loners,"
- Helped about 40% of children in the study fall asleep more rapidly and about 40% stay asleep longer during the night,
- With adverse reactions (nausea, diarrhea) in less than 2% of children in the study.
The researchers defined these measurements much more precisely than I am quoting them here. What I hope to convey is that these supplements can be extremely helpful, but they are not likely to be a cure-all. And the German researchers noted that without the magnesium and zinc supplementation, there probably would not be any improvement in sleep.
Many supplements marketed to parents of children with ADHD, such as Berry Calm Kids, don't contain magnesium and zinc. What are the right amounts of supplements for children with ADHD? For ADHD, you should give an omega 3's from an animal source. DHA (which is the only omega-3 essential fatty acid in microalgae supplements) does not work without EPA (found only in fish and krill oil). The amounts of essential fatty acids in krill oil are very low, so a chewable fish oil supplement for kids is best. It needs to provide at least:
- 200 mg of EPA,
- 20 mg of DHA,
- 40 mg of magnesium, and
- 2.5 mg of zinc
per day. If you happen to live in the European Union, you can get this exact combination from the children's chewable product called ESPRICO, which is made by Engelhard Arzneimittel GmBH & Co.KG. If you don't live in the EU, you should use:
- 8 Nordic Naturals Children's DHA Chewable Softgels (doubling the recommended dosage) and
- 1 Flintstone's Complete for children over 4.
This combination comes as close to ESPRICO as is possible without giving too much of some other ingredients in the Flintstone's formula. Don't give these supplements to children who are not at least 5 years of age. Start with one Nordic Naturals chewable a day and slowly increase to 8 as you are sure the product is not causing any stomach upset for your child. Other combinations may also work, and as we find them, they will be noted in the blog. DHA-only supplements, however, get fewer results in children who have ADHD.
DHA for Brain Development in Children
There also have been studies of essential fatty acids for the prevention of ADHD. While the essential fatty acid EPA seems to be important for treating ADHD, the essential fatty acid DHA seems to be important for preventing ADHD.
Dutch scientists tested umbilical cord blood of 300 babies for DHA content. They then followed the development of these children for 7 years. The children who had been exposed to the highest levels of DHA in the womb had the greatest verbal skills at age 7. They did not have higher IQs, but they tended to speak in longer sentences and to be more able to carry on conversations. They were less easily distracted from activities in which they chose to participate, and they had greater eye-hand coordination, making it easier to catch a ball or tie shoes. There were not enough children in the study to show that DHA "prevents" ADHD, but there is strong indication that it is probably helpful.
The least expensive source of DHA for expectant mothers is a high-DHA fish oil like xtend Life. There are also vegan DHA products, and special DHA products for women during pregnancy, but they cost about 5 times as much per dose. A daily dose of 600 mg of DHA is likely to be enough to make a difference, although there is no "recommended daily allowance" backed up by the scientific literature.
Fish Oil and Alzheimer's
It is really hard to devise a nutritional program to support people who have Alzheimer's. If you give someone who has Alzheimer's a product that causes stomach upset, then you have to deal with bathroom issues.
If you help a person with Alzheimer's get enough mobility back to leave the house but not enough focus back to come back home, then you can create a worse personal condition while improving symptoms of the disease. Keeping in mind that "improving" symptoms does not necessarily result in better quality of life, there have been three studies that found that the DHA component of fish oil can be helpful during the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
People who have Alzheimer's disease and the APO?-4 gene don't usually respond to fish oil, but people who have Alzheimer's and don't have the gene may show some improvement. A typical effective dose is 2,000 of DHA per day. more information on fish oil for Alzheimer.
Fish Oil and Anxiety
Fish oil with the antioxidant astaxanthin seems to prevent damage to the forebrain in lab animals. The implication of these studies is that fish oil with astaxanthin (such as the Xtend-Life Premium and Ultra fish oils) would prevent anxiety in humans. That proposition has not been formally tested, but I would consider their products worth a try if anxiety is a concern.
Fish Oil and Bipolar Disorder
People who have bipolar disorder usually have unusually high numbers of receptors for the neurochemical acetylcholine. These receptors are activated by vanadium, and "calmed" by vitamin C. The amount of vitamin C needed to make a difference in the manic phase of bipolar disorder is relatively high-about 3 grams (3,000 mg) in a single dose. Vanadium supplements, of course, would aggravate the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are essential for neurons that transmit signals that control emotions. Omega-3 essential fatty acids in a daily dose of about 2,000 mg a day may help reduce depression, but you need a brand that is much higher in EPA than in DHA. This means a high-DHA brand like Xtend-Life is not best for people who have bipolar disorder. A product like Omega-Brite would be more appropriate. Find out more about fish oil and bipolar disorder.
Fish Oil and Major Depression
The supplement 5-HTP is likely to be much more helpful for major depression than fish oil. The kind of fish that helps major depression is high in EPA (like the Omega-Brite mentioned above). However, for major depression, more is not necessarily better. Taking 1500 to 2000 mg of EPA a day helps lift depressive symptoms, but taking more than 3000 mg of EPA usually makes them worse. A detailed discussion of fish oil for depression is here.
Fish Oil and Schizophrenia
The really useful supplement in most cases of schizophrenia is glycine. Taking 30 to 60 grams, not milligrams, of glycine every day sometimes relieves social withdrawal, apathy, and emotional flatness in schizophrenics who are otherwise controlled by medication. Fish oil may also help, but the essential fatty acid that is needed is EPA, not DHA. When schizophrenics take DHA, it cancels out the benefits of EPA. About 1,500 mg of EPA a day is optimal.
Fish Oil and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
I'll get right to the point: Fish oil doesn't help obsessive compulsive disorder. However, St. John's wort sometimes get better results than Paxil (paroxetine) or Prozac (fluoxetine). Don't take St. John's wort at the same time you take a prescription selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), as the combination may cause mania. I have read about 500 scientific studies on this topic, but here is a list of articles where you can start if you would like to read the science. I am happy to discuss any of these articles in the Comments Box.
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