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Don’t ignore omega-3 for mood and behaviour, say UK experts

By Lorraine Heller , 08-Oct-2008

Academic and nutrition experts in the UK are calling for an increased focus on the benefits of omega-3 in mood and behaviour, especially in children, as a lack of consistent research is stunting potential in the field.

The resounding message that came out of a Food and Behaviour (FAB) research conference held in Oxford last week was the need for more funding for additional scientific studies.

“Omega-3s are precious nutrients that have never reached such historically low levels in our diets. We cannot ignore the physical health risks to children from a poor nutritional diet as they are all too visible. What’s less visible is the damage to their brains,” said Dr Alex Richardson, a research scientist at the University of Oxford and founder and director of FAB.

Dr Richardson and other speakers highlighted the studies that have so far indicated the crucial role of omega-3 in improving behaviour, learning and mood disorders.

Potential benefits of the fatty acids include a reduction in violent or impulsive behaviour, improvements in neurodevelopmental disorders in children (such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism), as well as improvements or even prevention of adult psychiatric disorders (such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and depression).

A number of randomized controlled trials – the gold standard in the scientific world – have demonstrated some of these benefits, explained the speakers. However, the results cannot be compared and confirmed through systematic reviews or meta-analyses because the studies are too differing – conducted in different populations and using different measures.

Ultimately, this means that regulatory authorities require more studies before the benefits can be recognised, but funds for these remain limited.

“Omega-3s do not work in the same way for everyone – we all agree that we need more studies. The department of education wants to see the results, but they don’t want to contribute anything,” said Dr Richardson.

“Stop setting the bar so high that there will never be enough evidence for us to do something about it,” she said.

Other speakers at the event – entitled Feeding Young Minds – included:

  • Professor Michael Crawford, director of brain chemistry and human nutrition at the London Metropolitan University, and consultant for WHO and FAO
  • Dr Paul Montgomery, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, University of Oxford, and director of FAB research
  • Professor Jack Winkler, director of the Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University, and director of the nutrition consultancy Food & Health Research
  • Dr Joseph Hibbeln, lead clinical investigator at the Unit on Nutrition in Psychiatry, NIAAA
  • Professor Malcolm Peet, consultant psychiatrist in the UK’s NHS (national health service), and former head of the University Department of Psychiatry, Sheffield
  • Professor John Stein, professor of neurophysiology at the University of Oxford, and chair of the Dyslexia Research Trust

The meeting was opened by Lord Rea, a former GP and chair of All-Party Food and Health Forum.

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