Omega-3 Fatty Acids Help Autistic Children

Healthnotes Newswire (October 5, 2006)—Cod liver oil—many adults remember taking it as kids. These days, parents are giving fish oil to their children because of the evidence that these supplements might enhance brain development and improve learning. A new study suggests that supplementing with these fatty acids might also help autistic children.

Children with autism struggle with varying degrees of social difficulty: their language skills are often severely delayed and their behaviors typically reflect limited and repetitious patterns of thought, motion, and speech (stereotypy). In addition to their communication difficulties, these children are sometimes prone to aggression, tantrums, and self-harming behaviors.

Highly unsaturated fatty acids, such as the omega-3 fatty acids from fish and fish oil, are important for a healthy brain and nervous system. There is increasing evidence that fatty acid deficiencies or imbalances are linked with childhood neurological disorders including attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reading difficulty (dyslexia), developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia), and autism. Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acid supplements have been found to help children with these disorders as well as people with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

In a pilot study, parents of autistic children reported that supplementing with fish oil led to improved sleep, concentration, eye contact, cognitive and motor skills, sociability, and general health in their children. They also noted that their children were less irritable, less aggressive, and less hyperactive.

In a more recent controlled trial, 13 children were randomly assigned to receive 7 grams of fish oil (providing 1,500 mg of omega-3 fatty acids) per day or a placebo. After six weeks, the children who received the fish oil supplement had improved more in inappropriate speech, stereotypy, and hyperactive behaviors such as disobedience, distractibility, and impulsivity than the children in the placebo group.

In the journal Biological Psychiatry, the authors note that the study findings are particularly interesting because they are consistent with three other strong studies on omega-3 supplementation that showed beneficial effects on the behavior of children with developmental-coordination disorder, people with borderline personality disorder, and incarcerated young men. They conclude, “These studies together with our study are suggestive that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in treating aggression and impulsivity.”

Parents of autistic children can give them fish oil supplements, as it appears to promote general good health and might help reduce difficult behaviors. Fish oil supplements are generally well tolerated and cause few side effects.

(Biol Psychiatry 2006 Aug 22; [e-pub ahead of print])

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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