Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body, relieve symptoms of ADHD, and lower depression – but could they also help curb child aggression and other behavioral problems? To investigate this, psychology researchers at the University of Pennsylvania wondered if changing the brain could make people behave better. Their findings, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, show how a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, naturally found in salmon, tuna, avocado, and seeds, affects a child’s behavior in the short and long term.
“Whichever program you’re using, could adding omega-3s to your treatment be helpful? These [study] suggests this is possible, “the study’s lead author, Adrian Raine, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “We cannot over-simplify the complexity of anti-social behavior. There are many causes. It’s not just the brain. Is it part of the puzzle? I think it is. “
To solve the puzzle, Raine and his research team recruited 290 children between the ages of 11 and 12 and divided them randomly into four groups. One group received omega-3 supplements in the form of juice, multivitamins, and calcium for three months, while the second group did not receive an omega-3 supplement but took part in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A third group took the supplements and participated in the CBT. The last group only received information on how to reduce aggressive behavior. The therapy consisted of weekly one-hour meetings, which alternated individually and together between the child and the parents. At the beginning and at the end of the study, the researchers took blood samples from each participant to determine the omega-3 content.
“The sessions focused on the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors, as well as on practicing alternative measures the children could take to deal with difficult situations rather than reacting to something emotionally,” said study co-author Therese Richmond, the dean of research and innovation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who watched the clinical trials. In her statement, she said, “It helps the child build a toolbox of ways to interact with others. For example, if I am angry, how can I deal with anger that is not physically noticeable? “
“Immediately after three months of omega-3-rich nutritional intervention, we saw a decrease in children’s reporting of their aggressive behavior,” said Richmond. Those who had a combination of CBT and omega-3s and an intervention with only omega-3s reported less aggression compared to the groups who received only CBT or information about aggression. However, at the end of the study, omega-3 fatty acid benefits diminished to mimic the benefits of a CBT-only intervention, and researchers wondered why the benefits would wear off over time. You will need to do more research to understand the underlying neurological factors.
According to the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, CBT is a targeted treatment approach that examines how the child’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors intertwine. Psychotherapists identify problematic behaviors and patterns to enable the child to emotionally relate to a healthier place.
The researchers wanted the children to experience the standard treatment for behavioral problems such as aggression and antisocial tendencies in order to have an effective comparison for the omega-3 diet intervention.
This isn’t the first time omega-3s have been linked to lower levels of aggression. In 2015, Raine and his team studied children aged eight, eleven, and 17 to find out the mechanisms behind behavior improvement. Omega-3 regulates the brain’s neurotransmitters and improves the life of a neuron. However, since the brain does not produce its own omega-3 fatty acids, humans have to look for them through diets or nutritional supplements.
“Diet is a promising option as a protective factor in reducing behavioral problems in children,” said 2015 study co-author Jianghong Liu, associate professor at the School of Nursing at Pennsylvania University. “It’s relatively inexpensive and can be easy to manage.”
Source: Richmond TS, Raine A and Cheney RA et al. Dietary Supplements to Reduce Childhood Aggression: A Randomized, Stratified, Sing-Blind, Factorial Study. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2016.