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The research you need to know about brain-boosting nutrients

The research you need to know about brain-boosting nutrients

Research-backed supplements alongside healthy foods can have a beneficial effect on the health of children's brains, and their moods. 

All parents hope that their children will reach their full potential. Putting hope aside, the formula for starting kids on the proper path includes nourishing them with healthy foods and supporting their scholastic development—and perhaps giving them one or two research-backed supplements.

Children and early adolescents grow and change rapidly, and they develop best when they receive a steady supply of high-quality nutrients. Yet as simple as that sounds, the reality is that kids today are often surrounded by nutrient-void junk food. This makes it easy for children to develop nutritional imbalances or deficiencies, which often first become evident in the form of poor cognition, low moods and behavioral problems. That’s where certain brain-supporting supplements can be a huge help.

Of all the brain-boosting nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids may be the most critical. “Studies have shown that children with poor cognitive performance and behavior benefit from omega-3s in terms of [attitude] and improved reading and memory,” says Samantha Brody, ND, of the Evergreen Natural Health Center in Portland, Oregon. It’s no wonder, then, that omega-3s are among the top-selling children’s supplements.

Additionally, herbs such as St. John’s wort and Pycnogenol—an antioxidant complex obtained from French maritime pine bark—have also been shown to support children’s cognitive and emotional well-being. Vitamin D is another science-backed nutrient for kids’ brains.

Help parents learn about all of these supplement options for their developing children’s specific cognitive, emotional and behavioral needs.

To enhance learning

For several years now, study after study has stressed the importance of omega-3s for proper brain development, cognition and mood. Researchers in England found that children given eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplements achieved better reading and spelling scores compared with those given placebos. And in a study of malnourished children, EPA and DHA supplements led to improvements in mental processing speed, hand-eye coordination and problem solving. Both EPA and DHA are now available from fish or plant sources, so ask shoppers which they’d prefer to give to their kids.

Two more crucial brain-development supplements are a multivitamin, which can make up for inevitable dietary shortcomings, and vitamin D, which seems to support learning, memory and scholastic achievement.

Dose: Recommend 100 to 200 mg of DHA and 50 to 100 mg of EPA daily. But tell shoppers to tailor the dose to a child’s weight; bigger kids may need the higher dose.


To boost mood and add focus

Here’s another reason to strongly encourage omega-3s: They are key mood enhancers—or normalizers, if you will. Their benefits may be elevated when combined with gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), a plant oil extract. Numerous studies also indicate that St. John’s wort safely relieves symptoms of mild to severe depression in both adults and children. Also recommend vitamin D, especially for kids feeling the wintertime blues.

Dose: For omega-3s, suggest the same as above. For St. John’s wort, recommend 100 to 300 mg three times daily, with the higher dose reserved for older and bigger kids. For vitamin D, suggest 1,000 IU daily.

Combining omega-3s with GLA may help reduce impulsive and hyperactive behavior. So might supplemental Pycnogenol. Some research suggests that low levels of iron and ferritin (an iron-containing protein in the blood) might be an underlying cause of a kid’s struggle to focus. If a shopper suspects iron deficiency in her child—fatigue would be a clue—advise her to ask her doctor to measure the kid’s iron and ferritin levels before supplementing.

Dose: Recommend a higher DHA-EPA ratio, such as 400 mg of DHA to 200 mg of EPA, along with 50 to 100 mg of GLA. For Pycnogenol, suggest about 25 mg per 50 pounds of body weight.


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