Omega-3 fatty acids appear to be important in normal brain development and capability. Omega-3 fatty acids
are recognized as essential fatty acids that are vital to our health but cannot be produced by the body. For
this reason, omega-3 fatty acids must be consumed from food. It is important to maintain an appropriate
balance of omega-3 and omega-6 (another essential fatty acid) in the diet, as these two substances work
together to promote health. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most omega-6 fatty acids
tend to promote inflammation.
Extensive research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent risk factors
associated with chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. These essential fatty acids are
prominently fixed in the brain and appear to be particularly important for cognitive (brain memory and
performance) and behavioral function. In fact, infants who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from
their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Symptoms of omega-3
fatty acid deficiency include extreme tiredness (fatigue), poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood
swings and/or depression, and poor circulation.
Aggressive behaviors often associated with ASD, are theorized to have a relationship with aggression and
omega-3 fatty acids. Research indicates there are potential benefits that omega-3s may have in addressing
behavioral concerns and injurious behavior in people with ASD, PDD, etc. Studies have also found that
children with autism have lower levels of omega 3 fatty acids than do typical children. In other research
studies it’s been establish that the use of essential fatty acids in children with autism significantly increases
language and learning skills.
Low levels of essential fatty acids are associated with a wide range of psychological disorders, including
depression, post-partum depression, bipolar (manic/depression) and Rett’s syndrome (similar to autism).
Studies have found that 2 months supplements of fish oil (rich in DHA) led to significant improvements in
sociability and other areas, especially in children and adults who consumed 1 serving of fish a month.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, other marine life such as algae
and krill, certain plants (including purslane), and nut oils. Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids
(PUFAs), omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function as well as normal growth and
development. There are three major types of omega 3 fatty acids that are ingested in foods and used by the
body: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Once
eaten, the body converts ALA to EPA and DHA, the two types of omega-3 fatty acids more readily used by
the body. There have been recent scientific studies showing that humans need essential fatty acids, and that
most people in the US do not consume enough.
Fish (and fish oil supplements) may contain potentially harmful contaminants, such as heavy metals
(including mercury), dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). For sport-caught fish, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that intake be limited in pregnant or nursing women to
a single 6-ounce meal per week, and in young children to less than 2 ounces per week. For farm-raised,
imported, or marine fish, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant or nursing
women and young children avoid eating types with higher levels of mercury (such as mackerel, shark,
swordfish, or tilefish), and less than 12 ounces per week of other fish types. Unrefined fish oil preparations
may contain pesticides.
The Omega 3 Fatty Acid Treatment
One of the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids is found in fish, which get it from algae and plankton in the
sea. Unfortunately, many fish are high in mercury and other toxins, especially the large predators (shark,
swordfish, and tuna). Small fish, such as salmon and shrimp, tend to have lower levels of mercury, but it
depends where they come from. So, it is generally safer for children to obtain essential fatty acids from fish
oil, since little mercury is stored in the oil. Because fish oil (and fish) spoils quickly, it is important to obtain
high-quality oil that do not smell or taste foul, and it should be refrigerated.
Two of the major omega 3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA. DHA is critical for early brain development, and
EPA is useful for later development. Recommended dosages: (based on the mass of omega 3’s, not the total
amount of oil which will contain other oils) are: Omega 3: 20-60 mg (600-1800 mg for or 60 lb, child). For
younger children, use a supplement richer in DHA, and for older children and adults, use a supplement richer
Flax (a widely cultured plant), seed oil is also a source of omega 3 fatty acids, but the form it provides
(alpha linolenic acid) must be converted by the body to the active form (EPA and DHA). There have been
some reports that children with autism respond poorly to flax seed oil, so generally fish oil is recommended
instead. Cod liver oil (or other fish liver oil) is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, and also provides good
amounts of vitamin A and vitamin D. However, vitamin A intake from all supplements should not greatly
exceed the RDA intake for extended periods, since excess amounts will be stored in the liver and could
affect liver function.
Fish oil can cause flatulence, bloating, belching, and diarrhea.
Effects of Omega- 3 Fatty Diet on Behavior
Since aggressive behavior often accompanies autism, omega- 3 fatty acids may be helpful in treating such
behavioral difficulties. It has been suggested that imbalances in fatty acids may be linked to the development
of pervasive developmental disorders. There has been one study on the effects of omega-3 supplements in
youth with autism. There is one study which found a tendency toward reducing hyperactivity and
stereotypy (repetitive thought, motion or speech), but the number of subjects was small and the findings
were not statistically significant.
Another study showed that the use of fish oil supplements in children with autism increased red blood cell
levels of omega-3 fatty acids while reducing omega-6s. These changes were accompanied by improvements
in general health, cognitive skills, and sociability, as well as reductions in irritability, aggression, and
hyperactivity, according to parental reports. Among children with developmental coordination disorder,
which is common among people with autism, omega-3 supplementation improved reading, spelling and
In conclusion, omega-3s may be an important dietary consideration in improving brain functioning and
subsequently reducing aggressive behaviors, though further research is needed to understand its influence.
The overall benefits suggest that the supplement can lead to the reduction of associated aggressive
symptoms. Further, there is no apparent harm associated with omega-3 supplementation. As with any form
of supplementation, the decision to use omega-3s in children with autism should be made in along with a
primary care provider.