This is the last post in a series of Back-to-School Health and Wellness Tips. And it’s a LONG one. But, please read it because it is very important information!
Have you ever wondered if there is a way to improve your child’s memory and concentration at school? Well, I have some good news. You can make a difference in your child’s cognition because diet and nutrition most certainly play a role.
In this post, we will focus on the most common nutrient insufficiency among school-aged children. Estimated at 85% of the population in a state of insufficiency, essential fatty acids most certainly do not get enough attention! Given that approximately 20% of the dry weight of the brain is made up of fatty acids, it should come as no surpirse that that inadequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids will have neuropsychiatric consequences.
Most are under the impression that fat is to be generally avoided, and that consuming fat will make you fat. However, there are good fats and there are bad fats. Artificially-produced trans-fatty acids in any amount are harmful and saturated fats from animal products should be somewhat limited.
So what is essential fatts acids (EFAs)? EFAs are a group on fat-soluble nutrients that are “essential” or vital. This means that you must inget the nutrient to stay alive. EFAs are grouped into two families: omega-6 EFAs and omega-3 EFAs. Seemingly minor differences in the biochemical structure make the two EFA families act very differently in the body. While the metabolic products of omega-6 acids promote inflammation, blood clotting, and tumor growth, the omega-3 acids act entirely opposite. Though we do need both omega-3s and omega-6s, it is clear that an excess of omega-6 fatty acids can have dire consequences.
A massive change in dietary habits over the last few centuries has changed the Omega6:Omega3 ratio from approximately 1:1 to 15:1 or even 20:1. With much research, a 2:1 ratio has been established as the ideal. A little math will tell us that the quickest way to change this ratio is to decrease the Omega-6 fats that are consumed while ALSO increasing the Omega-3 fats.
The main source of omega-6 are vegetable oils such as corn/safflower/peanut/soy oil that contain a high proportion of linoleic acid. By contrast, the richest omega-3 sources are found in flaxseed oil, walnut oil, marine plankton and fatty fish. The main component of flaxseed and walnut oils is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) while the predominant fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oils are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
The most beneficial and active of these fatty acids are EPA and DHA. ALA is capable of conversion; however, this is quite inefficient in a percentage of the population (mostly the elderly, but also some genetic tendency in others including children).
Scientists were first alerted to the many benefits of EPA and DHA in the early 1970s when Danish physicians observed that Greenland Eskimos had an exceptionally low incidence of heart disease and arthritis despite the fact that they consumed a high-fat diet (remember, good fats/bad fats). Intensive research soon discovered that two of the fats (oils) they consumed in large quantities, EPA and DHA, were actually highly beneficial. More recent research has established that fish oils (EPA and DHA) also play a crucial role in the prevention of atherosclerosis, heart attack, depression, cancer, and effective in managing rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, and Raynaud’s disease.
Turning to memory, cognition and the student’s brain: The human brain is one of the largest “consumers” of DHA. A normal adult human brain contains more than 20 grams of DHA. Low DHA levels have been linked to low brain serotonin levels which again are connected to an increased tendency to depression, suicide, schizophrenia and violence.
The processing and packaging of the fish oil are crucial in determining its quality. Low quality oils may be quite unstable and contain significant amounts of mercury, pesticides, and undesirable oxidation products. High quality oils are stabilized with adequate amounts of vitamin E and are packaged in individual foil pouches or other packaging impervious to light and oxygen. Recent research carried out at the University of Minnesota found that emulsified fish oils are much better absorbed than the straight oils in gelatin capsules. However, when choosing a fish oil supplement, be aware that cod liver oils and fish oils are not the same. Cod liver oil is extracted from cod liver and is an excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Fish oils are extracted from the tissues (flesh) of fatty fish like salmon and herring and are good sources of EPA and DHA, yet are low in vitamins A and D. Consult with a doctor or nutritionist on the amounts of vitamins A, D, and E in your student’s diet to determine the right fish oil supplement for you. Supplementing with fish oils has been found to be entirely safe even for periods as long as 7 years and no significant adverse effects have been reported in hundreds of clinical trials using as much as 18,000 mg/day of fish oils.