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Essential Fatty Acids and the Brain

by Dianne Craft

Many of us are puzzled by the phenomenal increase in the number of children who have ADD, ADHD, learning struggles, and problems with behavior. We have seen a threefold increase in the use of Ritalin and antidepressants in children. As a consultant to public schools, private schools and homeschool parents, I have seen this dramatic increase in bright, wonderful, struggling children.. Many educators and parents are wondering why we are seeing this population grow so rapidly. Maybe you have been wondering about this, too.

Recent Research

Several research projects in the past few years have brought our attention to the biological basis of these struggles, specifically a difficulty with fatty acid metabolism. They have highlighted the relationship between learning, behavior, and attention disorders and essential fatty acid deficiency in children. The more recent studies corroborate the older ones. In a 1981 study, reported in the journal Medical Hypotheses, a large number of hyperactive children showed deficiencies in essential fatty acids. That particular study revealed that boys have a three times higher need for essential fatty acids than girls. This might be one explanation for the larger number of boys experiencing difficulties in various areas of learning and behavior.

“Boys with lower levels of Omega 3 fatty acids in their blood scored higher in frequency of behavior problems,” including hyperactivity, impulsivity, anxiety, temper tantrums, and sleep problems, according to recent research done at Purdue University. Leo Galland, a pediatrician who was the director of the Gesell Institute of Human Development in Connecticut, has used essential fatty acid supplementation to treat children with learning struggles, speech delays, attention problems and behavior problems for years, with good success. A gripping personal account of this success with two boys in the same family, is given in Jean Carper’s new book, Miracle Cures.

Dr. Jacqueline Stordy (Lancet,’95), who discovered the link between night blindness and dyslexia, has formulated a product consisting of a combination of essential fatty acids. She has been using this to help many students experience greater ease in reading and learning.

Fascinating results have been seen with children struggling with dyspraxia, which is evidenced by poor motor skills and poor coordination. One poignant illustration of the subtle suffering these children experience was of the little girl awarded the prize for winning the musical chairs game at a birthday party. It was the first time in her life she had won and it came after three months of essential fatty acid supplementation. Another youth, a young boy, reported that he didn’t feel as “out of order” now.

Dr. Stordy has reached the same conclusion as other researchers: that dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD, and ADHD run in families. Apparently, these family members share an inherited deficiency in essential fatty acids.

Defining Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids are specific fats and oils that cannot be produced in the body. They must be obtained in a person’s diet, or a deficiency will exist. Children born prematurely, given several antibiotics at a young age, or with a compromised immune system as evidenced by allergies or frequent infections, are particularly at risk for essential fatty acid deficiency.

Essential fatty acids are basically made up of two families called Omega 3 and Omega 6. The Omega 6 oils are more common to the foods we eat, such as salad dressing, mayonnaise, and safflower and sunflower oil. Because they are prevalent in our diet, we are not as likely to be deficient in them.

However, most of us are deficient in the Omega 3 oils, because our diets have changed dramatically in the last ten years. With the expanding practice of hydrogenation of oils to increase shelf life, the presence of good oils has decreased dramatically. What is worse, these hydrogenated oils actually block the body’s ability to use the essential fats that may still be present in some food we eat. Omega 3 fatty acids are found naturally in fish, flaxseed oil, wheat germ, and nuts and seeds. Navy beans and oatmeal also provide some essential fatty acids.

The most exciting research of late concerns the DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) component of fish oil. Scientists have long known that the EPA in fish oil strengthens the cardiovascular system in the body. Now they are studying the DHA content of fish oil for its possibly positive effect on brain function and vision. It appears that DHA affects the function of the retina of the eye, such as in ease of dark adaptation. It is also implicated in specific brain function such as memory, attending ability, speech, and specific motor skills.

Facts on Fats

  • Essential fatty acids are the building blocks of the membranes (gatekeepers) of every cell in the body, with the brain containing the most fats.
  • The brain is 60% fat, and 30% of that is in the form of long chain fatty acids (DHA).
  • Brain synapses require long chain fatty acids to be efficient.
  • The forebrain (the part used the most for sustained attention) has the highest concentration of DHA.
  • DHA is needed by the “rods” in the retina of the eye for normal dark adaptation (seeing well in the dark, and adapting to bright lights).
  • DHA is required for proper fetal and infant brain development.
  • Children with milk intolerance have been shown to be deficient in EFA’ps.
  • Children with poor motor skills and poor coordination often lack EFA’s.

How to Supplement

Research shows that most Americans are low in Omega 3 fatty acids, unless a particular effort is made to include them in the diet. As people are becoming aware of the importance of these good oils, they are including more in their diets. In addition, many people are also using supplements to insure a high intake, or to reverse a deficiency. (A thirsty child with dry skin and hair, especially when associated with any of the problems outlined above, is a good candidate for supplementation.)

For infants and young children one could get Omega 3’s, and especially the important DHA into their diet by using a liquid orange flavored cod liver oil. (Remember when cod liver oil was given to children regularly years ago?) Always add some liquid vitamin E drops to it, to prevent the fat from turning rancid in the body. It’s best to refrigerate this.

To get some good Omega 6 oils into an infant or young child, Dr. Galland recommends rubbing an opened capsule of Evening Primrose Oil into their wrists. For older children, and adults, fish oil capsules (Max EPA or Max DHA ) work well as a source of Omega 3 oils. One or two capsules of Evening Primrose Oil (Efamol is the most researched brand), would give a good balance of the Omega 6 oils. Again, the authors always recommend taking a vitamin E supplement (at least 200 i.u. capsule) with that.

To determine the correct amount of an Omega 3 food supplement requires some experimentation. Dr. Stordy, in her research protocol, gave about 500 mg. of DHA (eight of her capsules) for 12 weeks, then reduced that by one half. She also included some Primrose Oil and vitamin E in her supplement. Fewer capsules could probably be taken by using a fish oil supplement with a higher amount of DHA, plus an Evening Primrose Oil capsule separately, in addition to the vitamin E capsule.

In the Gesell Institute report, a fairly large amount of fish oil was given to boys with hyperactivity and learning problems. You can read about this in Jean Carper’s new book, Miracle Cures. By bringing this new research to your child’s doctor’s attention, you might be able to enlist his help in determining a good amount of essential fatty acids for inclusion in your family’s diet.

As I have made this research available to parents, I have heard many good reports. Most commonly, they report improved memory (both auditory and visual), easier reading, improved speech, calmer behavior, and better focusing on a task. Improved motor skills and coordination has been a welcome “side effect” of this increase in essential fatty acids.

As we know, there is no “magic bullet” for any malady. However, I am deeply gratified by the substantial changes that I have seen in children whose parents have—after carefully searching for answers—implemented this kind of supplementation, along with an improved diet, for their whole family. God bless you in your search!

Dianne Craft is president of Child Diagnostics, Inc., in Littleton, Colorado, and the author of Brain Integration Therapy for Children Manual, and “The Biology of Behavior” audio tape set. For more articles on children and learning visit her website:

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