Food for Thought: Omega 3’s For the Developing Brain

Food For Thought
Stephanie Wills
LifeStyle Health – Ballito

Did you know that the most rapid brain growth occurs during the first year of life, with baby’s brain tripling in size by their first birthday!? During this stage, the brain uses sixty percent of the total energy consumed by the infant. Fats are a major component of the brain cell membrane and the myelin sheath around each nerve. So, it makes sense that getting enough of the right kind of fat, can greatly affect brain development and performance. In fact, during the first year, around fifty percent of an infant’s daily calories should come from fat. Which is why Mother Nature cleverly ensured that the nutritional composition of breast milk is also fifty percent fat.

Another point of interest is that different species provide different types of fat in their milk, specific to the needs of that animal. E.g. cow’s milk is high in saturated fat (which helps the calf grow rapidly) but low in brain-building fats (they don’t need to do much thinking to survive!) In contrast, highly developed brains are important to human beings, so human milk is low in body-building saturated fats and rich in brain-building fats, such as the fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega 3 fatty acid.

Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids commonly referred to as essential fats because they are required nutrients for brain and body function. The body can’t manufacture its own omega-3 fatty acids, so these essential fats must be eaten. The three major types of omega 3 are alphalinolenic acid or ALA, eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA. EPA and DHA are the omega-3s that the brain and body actually use. ALA must be converted by the body into EPA and DHA.

Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fats for Children
Omega-3 fats are abundant in brain cells, nerve synapses, visual receptors, adrenal glands and sex glands and thus are vital to a child’s normal growth and development. Omega-3 fats are critical to keeping a child’s brain and body in biochemical balance and providing children with the building blocks for a strong immune system. DHA is considered the most important omega-3 for the growing brain while EPA is considered vital for immune system health. Omega-3 fats also help reduce inflammation and may play a role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and arthritis.

DHA Brain Food
DHA is the primary structural component of brain tissue. It has a crucial influence on neurotransmitters in the brain, helping brain cells better communicate with each other. This is turn has a positive influence on mood, concentration, memory, attention, and behaviour.

In fact, DHA is so essential to a child’s development that if a mother and infant are deficient in it, the child’s nervous system and immune system may never fully develop, and it can cause a lifetime of unexplained emotional, learning, and immune system disorders.

Furthermore, during pregnancy, the constant drain on a mother’s DHA reserves can easily lead to a deficiency which has been linked to preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure), premature delivery and postpartum depression.

Omega 3 During Pregnancy & Breastfeeding Mothers
While a baby is in the womb, the brain grows more rapidly than in any other stage of infant or child development. This is why it is so important for a pregnant mother to supplement her diet with brain-building omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil. Make sure it is a pharmaceutical grade fish oil, high in the active ingredients, EPA and DHA (at the very least it should contain 200mg DHA). Breastfeeding mothers also, should take a high dose of supplemental Omega 3’s, to not only meet her own body’s requirements, but those of her growing child also.

Omega-3 Fats for Children
The recommended daily intake of omega 3 fats is different for different age groups. For infants under 9 months of age, breast milk (from a healthy mother) is the perfect source of omega 3. For older infants and children, fatty fish like wild caught salmon, tuna or sardines provide excellent dietary sources of EPA and DHA omega-3 fats. Flaxseed oil, nuts, chia seeds and macadamia nut oil contain omega-3 fat in the form of ALA. But because a child may not be able to efficiently convert ALA to DHA and EPA, seafood sources of omega-3 are preferable.

For kids who refuse to eat fish, omega-3 supplements are available in oils, soft gel capsules and soft chews. These supplements are frequently flavoured to hide the fishy taste kids may find unpalatable. When looking for supplements, watch for the words “Safe Source” to guarantee the oil is third-party tested, certified for purity and free of environmental contaminants. Also consider supplements that do not contain artificial colours and sweeteners.

Dosage should be determined with the individual needs of the child in mind and only after consulting with the child’s doctor or other health care provider.

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