Could Omega-3s Improve Reading Skills?

Can DHA  Help Johnny Read?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Child-Reading-BookIf you are like most parents, you want to do everything you can to assure that your kids have the skills they need to succeed in school, and reading probably tops the list of necessary skills. If your child is reading below their age level, could something as simple as better nutrition improve their reading ability?

Recent studies have shown that the omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, play a very important role in normal brain function – especially memory, focus, concentration, and attention span.

I have shared with you previous studies which have shown that optimal DHA intake in pregnant women plays an important role in the early mental development of their children. On the other end of the age spectrum, studies have shown that optimal omega-3 fatty acid intake in older adults can delay cognitive decline.

I have also shared with you studies showing that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in children with ADD and ADHD significantly reduce their symptoms. What about children without hyperactivity? Could omega-3 fatty acids affect their ability to learn?

Many Children Are Deficient in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The Food and Nutrition Board has not yet set US standards for DHA intake, but the international standard is 200 mg for children 7 years old and older. Unfortunately, cod liver oil is a thing of the past, and foods rich in DHA are not particularly popular with children. Consequently, most children in this country are only getting around 20-40 mg of DHA per day.

And that shows up in their blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids. A recent study in England looked at blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids in 493 seven to nine year olds with below average reading performance who were enrolled in Oxfordshire primary schools (P. Montgomery et al, PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066697).

All of them had low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids (both DHA and EPA), and the blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were directly related to their reading ability. In non-scientific language that simply means that those with the poorest reading abilities had the lowest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

This study is particularly significant because another study by the same group showing that DHA supplementation improved reading skills in underperforming children.

Could Omega-3s Improve Reading Skills?

This study (Richardson et al., PLoS ONE 7: e43909.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043909) looked at 362 normal 7-9 year old children enrolled in mainstream primary schools in Oxfordshire, England.

These children were all reading at significantly below the average for their grade levels. The study excluded children with specific medical difficulties that might affect their ability to read, children who were already taking medications expected to affect behavior or learning, children for whom English was not their first language, and children who were already eating fish more than twice a week or taking omega-3 supplements.

The children were given either supplements containing 600 mg of DHA per day or a placebo containing corn and soybean oil. At the end of 16 weeks the children were rescored on a standardized reading test.

Reading-ScoresThe results were quite interesting. When the scientists looked at children reading in the lower third of their class, the affect of DHA on their ability to read was non-significant. However, when they looked at the children who were performing in the bottom 20% of their class with respect to reading, DHA supplementation resulted in a 20% improvement in their reading score. And when they looked at children in the bottom 10% of their class with respect to reading, DHA supplementation resulted in a 50% increase in reading scores. These changes were highly significant.

To put this in perspective, the children performing in the bottom 20% of their class improved their reading efficiency by around 0.8 months with respect to their normal reading age, and the children in the bottom 10% of their class improved their reading efficiency by around 1.9 months with respect to their normal reading age.

Strengths and Weaknesses of The Studies

 

On The Minus Side:

  • First and foremost we must remember that nutrition is only one of many factors that can affect reading performance in children. You shouldn’t think of DHA as a magic bullet that will cure your child’s reading problems by itself.
  • This is a single pair of studies that need to be replicated.
  • This study does not establish the optimal dose of DHA needed to improve reading in underperforming children. Until dose response studies have been done we don’t know whether 600 mg is needed or whether simply making sure that the children reach the recommended 200 mg per day of DHA would be sufficient.

On The Plus Side:

  • Both of these were very well controlled studies, and they complemented each other perfectly.  One study showed that students with the poorest reading ability had the lowest blood levels of DHA. The other study showed that children with the poorest reading ability experienced the greatest improvement with DHA supplementation.
  • These studies were not done with third world children. They were studies with normal, healthy children in a prosperous European country.
  • These studies are fully consistent with previous studies looking at the effects of DHA on cognition in children.

The Bottom Line

What does this study mean for parents whose children may be struggling with their reading in school?

  • The lead author concluded: “We have shown that in the mainstream, general population, something as simple as DHA can benefit reading abilities in underperforming children.”
  • It’s perhaps not that ironclad yet. But if your kid or grandkid is reading below their grade level, DHA supplementation is both safe and inexpensive. It’s worth giving it a try.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

Is it How Much You Eat, or How Much You Keep?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Brain HealthWhy do some studies conclude that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a strong mind, a strong heart and will wipe out inflammation – while other studies suggest that they are ineffective? The simple answer is that nobody really knows.

However, in the process of reviewing two recent studies on omega-3 fatty acids and brain health I made an interesting observation that offers a possible explanation for the discrepancies between studies. And if my hypothesis is correct, it suggests that the design of many of the previous studies with omega-3 fatty acids is faulty.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

The first study (J.K. Virtanen et al, J Am Heart Assoc, 2013, 2:e000305 doi: 10.1161/JAHA.113.000305) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain function in older adults (>65 years old). It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with better white matter grade and a 40% reduction in subclinical infarcts (Sorry for the technical jargon – but both of those are good things in terms of brain function for those of us who are getting a bit older).

The second study (C. M. Milte et al, J of Attention Disorders, 2013, doi: 10.1177/1087054713510562) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on children (ages 6-13) with ADHD. It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with improved spelling and attention and reduced oppositional behavior, hyperactivity, cognitive problems and inattention.

What Is The Common Thread In These Studies?

Why, you might ask, am I comparing a study in the elderly, where the concern is retention of cognitive skills, with a study on ADHD in children?

That’s because there is a very important common thread in those two studies. It wasn’t the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet that counted. It was the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood that made the difference.

The first study included a detailed dietary history to estimate the habitual intake of omega-3 fatty acids in the participants.

  • There was no correlation between estimated dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and any measure of brain function in those older adults.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3s and brain health in that population group.

The second study was actually a placebo controlled intervention study in which the children were given 1 gm/day of either omega-3 fatty acids or omega-6 fatty acids.

  • Once again, there was no correlation between dietary intake of omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids and any outcome related to ADHD.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids or omega-3/omega-6 ratio and improvement in multiple measures of ADHD.

How Could The Effect of Dietary Intake And Blood Levels Of Omega-3s Be So Different?

Fish OilBoth studies were relatively small and suffered from some technical limitations, but the most likely explanations are:

  • Inaccurate recall of the participants as to what they eat on a habitual basis. (study 1)
  • Individual differences in the ability of participants to convert short chain omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as canola oil, flaxseed oil and walnuts) to the beneficial long chain fatty acids (found in cold water fish). (study 1)
  • Poor compliance in taking the supplements. (study 2)

Why Are These Studies Important?

The most important insight to come out of both of these studies is that it is essential to actually measure blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and not just rely on dietary intake or supplementation for a valid clinical trial.

That’s a concern because blood measurements of omega-3 fatty acids are expensive and have not been a part of many of the clinical studies that have been performed to date. Even the largest, best designed clinical study is worthless if the dietary recalls aren’t accurate or people don’t take their capsules.

We need to go back and reevaluate many of the clinical studies that have been published.

We need to ask:

  • Are their conclusions valid?
  • Did some studies fail to show that omega-3s were effective simply because they only measured dietary intake and not how much of the omega-3s actually accumulated in the blood?

The Bottom Line

  • High blood levels of omega-3s in the blood correlated with improved brain health in the elderly and reduced ADHD symptoms in children
  • These studies were small, but they are consistent with a number of other studies that have come to similar conclusions.
  • Blood levels of omega-3s are better predictors than dietary intake for evaluating the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Many previous studies that failed to find an effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain health, heart health or inflammation did not actually measure blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids. These studies should be reevaluated.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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