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Parenting Advice: Is Fish Really “Food for the Brain”?

The old wives tale says that fish is good for your brain, and cod liver oil keeps you healthy. Once again it seems that those old wives were absolutely right!

Although we are all trying to cut down our fat intake, recent research shows that not all fats are bad for you. In fact, many of us are seriously deficient in some very important fats call the essential fatty acids. These oils play such crucial roles in developing the immune system and in brain functioning, that a shortage of them can lead to problems such as poor concentration, hyperactivity, dyslexia, and co-ordination problems. In many cases correcting this deficiency can lead to dramatic improvements in the child’s performance.

There are two main types of EFA’s : the Omega 6 series, which is found in evening primrose and starflower oils, and the Omega 3 series which is found mostly in oily fish (sardines, herring, trout), and also in some nuts. The omega 6 series is involved in the immune system. Many women have found that supplements of evening primrose oil can help with pre-menstrual symptoms.

It is the omega 3 series, however, that is most lacking in modern diets. Of this series there are two oils that are particularly important. One, called DHA, is the building block of the brain, making up as much as 20% of its dry weight. Clearly it is important that the developing brains of unborn and young children get enough of this – and yet they are rarely included in infant feeding formulas.

The other, EPA, is the one that is crucial for brain functioning. To make full use of it we also need to get enough of vitamins B6, C, and zinc. Unfortunately, not only is our diet desperately short of these essential nutrients, some of the processed foods we eat, such as margarine, actually interfere with their use!

If your children are struggling at school, and especially if they show some of the symptoms of EFA deficiency, you may want to think about increasing the amount of omega 3 oils in their diet. The natural way to do this would, of course, be to eat more fish. Unfortunately, it seems that our fish stocks are getting so polluted that this may be rather risky. Perhaps the safer option is to use a high quality supplement. These are not excessively expensive, and are available in all good chemists and health food shops.

So what do you look for?

  • Aim for a daily intake of 1/2 to 1g of EPA . This will normally require a daily total of about 1 – 3g of fish oil. Avoid fish (cod) liver oils – they are too high in vitamin A
  • Also use a general vitamin and mineral supplement, or look for brands that include vitamins B6 (30 mg/day) and zinc (15mg a day) with the oil (e.g. Cardioace).
  • Choose capsules rather than bottles – they keep better. Make sure they include Vitamin E as a preservative.
  • Use a reliable high quality brand, with fish caught in the deep oceans (not farmed).

Take them daily for 3 months. If after that there is no noticeable improvement, then you can stop the experiment. Very occasionally the oils might give some problems with loose bowels but otherwise are quite safe. Obviously if your child has any specific medical conditions, especially problems with metabolism, you would be wise to consult your doctor first.

Dr. Noel Swanson, Consultant Child Psychiatrist and author of The GOOD CHILD Guide, specializes in children's behavioural difficulties and writes a free newsletter for parents. He can be contacted through his website on Expert Parenting Advice.

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