Omega-3 fats are selectively concentrated in the brain, which may be why your mother-- correctly, as it turns out--told you that fish was "brain food." And now new research is demonstrating that both depressive and aggressive disorders can be exacerbated by deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acid intake.
Joseph Hibbeln, MD and his team at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism examined dozens of research studies to see if low levels of omega 3s were related to an increased risk for aggressive and depressive behaviors.(1) This is what they wrote in their conclusion: "In human adults and children, clinical studies suggest that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may reduce aggressive, impulsive and depressive behaviors."
Depression and aggression are frequently found together, and one theory is that the common factor is a low level of serotonin, a "feel-good" brain chemical. It's well established that omega 3 supplementation may improve depression, so Hibbeln's team wanted to see if omega-3 might have a positive effect on aggressive behavior as well. Low levels certainly seem to increase the risk for both aggression and hostility. Previous research has demonstrated that hostility and depression scores were reduced by a high fish diet over the course of five years (2) (3) that greater seafood consumption is associated with lower scores on a test of hostility (4) and that compared to controls, a greater number of behavior problems, temper tantrums and sleep problems occur in 6-12 year old boys with lower total omega-3 fatty acid concentrations. And pet lovers take note: a brand new Italian study found that--compared to normal dogs--aggressive dogs had lower levels of the omega 3 DHA(5).
Readers of the Atkins Advantage have heard us extol the benefits of omega-3 fats for a long time, particularly the long-chain fatty acids EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docasahexanoic acid). The health benefits of omega- 3 fats are legion, particularly for the heart. Even the American Heart Association recommends 1 gram a day of EPA + DHA for anyone with cardiovascular disease, and 2-4 grams a day for anyone needing to lower their triglycerides. And omega-3s are one of the most potent anti-inflammatory substances on the planet. You can get plenty of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA by eating fish a few times a week, or by taking fish oil capsules. And it's more than possible kids with behavior and attitude problems just might benefit from omega-3 supplements.
Flax and flaxseeds don't provide EPA and DHA, but they do provide a different omega-3 fatty acid- alpha linolenic acid- which also has health benefits. A good over-the-counter brand is Barlean's Forti-Flax or Barlean's Flaxseed Oil.
1. Hibbeln, et al "Omega 3 fatty acid deficiencies in neurodevelopment, aggression and autonomic dysregulation: Opportunities for intervention
2. Weidner, Connor, Hollis and Connor: "Improvements in hostility and depression in relation to dietary change and cholesterol lowering". Annals of Internal Medicine, 1992, 117, 820-823
3. Hamazakai, Itomura, Huan et al "Effect of omega-3 fatty acid-containing phospholipids on blood catecholamine concentrations in healthy volunteers" Nutrition, 1996, 21, 705-710
4. Iribarren, et al, 1993, Dietary intake of n-3, n-6 fatty acids and fish: Relationship with hostility in young adults- the CARDIA study" European Journal of Clinical nutrition, 58, 24-31
5. Re S, Zanoletti M, Emanuele E. Aggressive dogs are characterized by low omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid status. Vet Res Commun. 2007 Sep 19; [Epub ahead of print]