Research on Fish Oils
and Autism

With all the attention given to the benefits of fish oils and omega-3s, you may be asking if you can use fish oils for autism.

Well it turns out that scientists now believe there may be a link between the healthy fats found in fish oils and the risk for developing autistic behaviors.

And while fish oils may not be a definitive cure for autism, some studies indicate they may improve behavior and reduce some autistic symptoms.

What is Autism?

Autism is a disorder with many different symptoms. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines autism as:

"Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior."

Healthy Fats for a Healthy Mind

Omega 3 fatty acids play a key role in the healthy development of our children's neurological development.

The omega 3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is the most abundant fatty acid in our brains and retinas. It profoundly affects our neurological and visual development.

  • Scientists believe that low levels of DHA are linked to slower brain activity and Alzheimer's disease. In fact, some studies show that a small minority of severely depressed patients have chronically low levels of DHA.

  • Studies indicate DHA is passed to babies during breast feeding. This omega 3 fatty acid is particularly important for developing a healthy immune system and enhancing cognitive function in infants.

  • Researchers at the Child Evaluation and Treatment Program in North Dakota discovered a higher proportion of autistic children were breast fed at fewer frequencies and shorter duration than non-autistic children.

The following research studies look at omega 3 fatty acids, fish oils and autism in children:

1. Omega 3 Fatty Acid Supplementation in Autistic Children

Vienna, Austria - Researchers believe low omega 3 fatty acids levels may increase the risk for autistic behavior in children.

Scientists conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study to determine possible effects of omega-3 fatty acids on thirteen (13) children, aged 5 - 17 years of age with autistic symptoms such as aggressiveness, temper tantrums or self-inflicted injuries.

Children received 1.5 grams of omega 3 fatty acids providing 840 mg. of eicosapentaenoic acid and 700 mg. of docosahexaenoic acid for a 6 week period.

Using a behavior checklist, researchers noted a marked difference in behavior patterns in children that received the omega 3 fatty acid.

Researchers concluded omega 3 fatty acids may be an effective treatment for some children with autism.

2. Omega 3 and Omega 6 for Attention Deficit Disorder

Sweden - A study published in the March 2009 Issue of Journal of Attention Disorders looked at the relationship between omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids on seventy five (75) children aged 8 - 18 years of age.

A randomized portion of the children received either a placebo or the omega fatty acids for 3 months; followed by another 3 months where the entire group received the omega 3/6 fatty acids.

Researchers found 26% of the children receiving omega 3 and 6 fatty acids showed a 24% reduction in ADHD symptoms. At 6 months, 47% of all children showed similar improvement.

3. Effects of Fish Oils on Severe Autism

Italy - Nineteen (19) adults with severe autism were given two fish oil capsules providing 930 mg. of EPA and DHA for a 6 week period.

Subjects were assessed with a questionnaire and the Rossago Behavioral Checklist to check for any significant changes in behavior.

Researchers found fish oil had no significant effect on severe autistic behavior. Could dosage amount and omega 3 concentrations play an important role in obtaining a therapeutic response?

Is Low Omega 3 Fatty Acids Levels Linked to Autism?

Researchers believe there's a possible connection between low omega 3 levels and a risk for autistic-type behaviour.

  • Scientists in Belgium found some autistic children have lower levels of omega 3 fatty acids than non-autistic children.

  • Animal studies at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland found monkeys displaying autistic-type behaviours were deficient in omega 3 fats.

  • Researchers in France compared the omega-3 blood levels between autistic children and mentally handicapped children. They found autistic children had lower total omega 3 and DHA levels than mentally handicapped children.

Scientists at Purdue University throw more support behind the omega-3 and autism link:

  • They compared behaviour, learning and health problems of young boys with low and normal omega-3 levels. The boys with low omega 3 levels displayed more behavioral problems, temper tantrums, and learning difficulties than boys with normal omega-3 levels.

Another study using fish oils on autism showed promising results:

  • Children diagnosed with either autism or Asperger's Syndrome were given a daily supplement of fish oil/borage oil for 90 days. At the end of 90 days, the children on fish oil supplements showed significant improvements in their language and learning abilities.

Dr. Barry Sears, a leading authority on how diet can affect hormones, genetics and inflammation, explains how increasing dietary intake of omega 3 fatty acids may help reduce autism and ADHD symptoms:

Omega 3 Fish Oils may Improve Autistic Behavior

With the current belief that a diet low in omega 3 fatty acids may increase the risk for autistic behavior, researchers at the University of Western Ontario recently confirmed a 'gut-brain connection' to autism.

Scientists discovered the digestive system produces compounds linked to autistic behaviour, supporting the theory that what children eat can alter their brain function.

Parents of autistic children may have already done the research for these scientists.

The website Autism-Awareness.Org has an interesting forum on autism where people share their ideas with others. There have been a few postings by parents that have had some success using omega 3 supplements and fish oils on autism symptoms.

x-ray of brain and skull

Autism's wide range of symptoms poses a unique challenge to parents and caregivers. While the evidence is encouraging, there needs to be more research on the effects of omega 3 fatty acids and fish oils on autism.

Food scientists agree that our diets are lacking in optimal omega 3 fatty acids. Over the last 20th century, researchers have found an inverse relationship between Western society's reduced consumption of fish and omega 3 fatty acids and a corresponding increase in autism rates.

The current research on omega 3 fatty acids and autistic behaviour seems to suggest a possible link.

Research References:

Plasma fatty acid levels in autistic children. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids Volume 65, Issue 1, July 2001, Pages 1-7

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Supplementation in Children with Autism: A Double-blind Randomized, Placebo-controlled Pilot Study. Biological Psychiatry - Volume 61, Issue 4, 15 February 2007, Pages 551-553. Advances in Understanding and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorders

Omega-3/Omega-6 Fatty Acids for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Attention Disorders March 2009 vol. 12 no. 5 394-401

The Impact of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Reducing Child Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders. Journal of Attention Disorders November 2010 vol. 14 no. 3 232-246

Behavioral Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation in Young Adults with Severe Autism: An Open Label Study. Archives of Medical Research Volume 39, Issue 7, October 2008

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