Omega-3 Supplementation Improves Behavior Problems in Children
Antisocial personality disorder is a mental disorder in which the individual often lacks empathy and tends to be callous, cynical, and contemptuous of feelings, rights, and sufferings of others. Poor nutritional status during pregnancy has been linked to the development of antisocial personality disorder in adulthood.1 Poor nutrition is a possible risk factor for the development of antisocial behavior due to its negative impact on brain structure and function, which has been found to be a risk factor for the disorder.
Omega-3 fats have been found to enhance dorsolateral prefrontal functioning, an area of the brain impaired in antisocial individuals.2,3 Due to the positive effects of omega-3 fatty acids on brain structure and function, studies have been undertaken in adults and children for a number of mental disorders. Notably, a number of studies have found positive results of omega-3 supplementation in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
A recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers found that six months of high-dose omega-3 supplementation (1000 mg of omega-3 composed of 300 mg DHA, 200 md EPA, 400 mg ALA, and 100 mg DPA) administered in fruit juice reduced behavior problems in children and adolescents six months after supplementation stopped as reported by the parents.4 Specifically, parents reported a reduction in both externalizing (toward others) and internalizing (toward self) behaviors. The positive benefits of omega-3 supplementation continued through six months after supplementation was stopped.
“The potential clinical promise is that these nutrients can shift the distribution of behavior problems to a lower level in the general population and that more severe behavioral problems that are significant risk factors for serious adult violence and psychopathology may be ameliorated,” noted the researchers.
Interestingly, the researchers also measured antisocial behaviors in the parents themselves and found that those parents of children taking the omega-3 supplementation showed significant reductions in their own antisocial behavior. This improvement positively affected the children’s behavior. This reciprocity effect had not previously been studied for omega-3 supplementation.
The higher dosage and longer term nature of the positive effects found in this study are good news, although replication of the findings is necessary. Antisocial personality disorder is a difficult condition to treat, and the improvement in callous-unemotional traits found in this study, along with improvements in behavior, is notable.
The findings in this study provide further support for the use of omega-3 oils in the diet before, during, and after pregnancy, as well as throughout life. Today it is easy to monitor omega-6 and omega-3 levels with a simple finger stick blood test in order to maintain levels that stay in a healthy safe range. Research has shown that elevated omega-6 to omega-3 ratios (above 2.5–4:1)5 will promote inflammation throughout the body, so it is not surprising it would affect the brain and behavior. It would be interesting to test all people with antisocial personality disorders to see how much this imbalance contributes to their problem. What a different world we could see by balancing these essential fatty acids, not unlike diabetics must do with their sugar levels.
- Neugebauer R, Hoek HW, and Susser E, “Prenatal exposure to wartime famine and development of antisocial personality disorder in early adulthood.” JAMA. 1999 Aug 4;282(5):455-62.
- McNamara RK and Carlson SE, “Role of omega-3 fatty acids in brain development and function: potential implications for the pathogenesis and prevention of psychopathology.” Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006 Oct-Nov;75(4-5):329-49.
- Fairchild G, Passamonti L, Hurford G, et al., “Brain structure abnormalities in early-onset and adolescent-onset conduct disorder.” Am J Psychiatry. 2011 Jun;168(6):624-33.
- Raine A, Portnoy J, Liu J, et al., “Reduction in behavior problems with omega-3 supplementation in children aged 8-16 years: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel-group trial.” J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2014 Aug 22.
- Simopoulos AP, “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.” Biomed Pharmacother. 2002 Oct;56(8):365-79.