Brain Awareness Week: Here is what food is best for a child's brain development
As next week (March 11-15) is brain awareness week, medical herbalist columnist Jenny Logan writes about natural ways to support a child's brain health.
So, I thought I would take this opportunity to have a look at natural ways to support brain health – starting with children.
Childhood is a major period of brain growth and development.
The period from birth to two years is a primary growth phase, with additional spurts of development at around two years, between seven and nine years and then again during mid-adolescence.
There has been much publicity about the potential benefits of omega 3 for this development.
There are actually many different forms of omega 3, and in the case of the brain it is thought that it is specifically DHA which is vital. DHA has been identified as being important in the development of the brain and in normal brain function.
With DHA, rich brain cells being said to be responsible for planning, problem solving and focussed attention – which is why it has been suggested that supplementing with omega 3 fats could help to improve performance in the classroom, and a child’s ability to concentrate.
One of the key studies investigating the benefits of supplementing children with DHA, was carried out in Oxfordshire primary schools. This study investigated the effects of supplementing with DHA on reading ability and behaviour in primary school children aged six to ten.
The study involved 362 children from 74 different schools. These children were split into two groups – half were provided with a daily DHA supplement, whilst the other half were given a dummy pill – no one knew whether they had been given the real pill or the fake one, the results from each group were then compared.
The results were astounding for the children in the DHA group, with reading ability improving rapidly. Some children had an improvement in reading age of over a one year, and it was the children who had struggled the most beforehand, who saw the biggest improvements.
Behaviour improvements were also noted by both parents and teachers.
The children taking the dummy pills in comparison noted little unexpected change over the period of the research. It was the results of this study, and others that followed it, which led to an increased interest in omega 3 supplements for children, and is the reason why some foods are enriched with ‘added omega 3’.
The important thing to note, though, is that it is specifically the omega 3 fat DHA, which is required by the brain. The body is unable to manufacture DHA, so we do need to make sure it is provided by our diet, and the best food sources of DHA are oily fish, like salmon, trout and sardines – not many children’s favourite choice.
This is why food companies started to add omega 3 to popular foods such as fish fingers, yogurt and even orange juices. The problem is that, apart from the fish fingers, it is not possible to use fish sourced omega 3 as obviously it does not have the best taste when combined with orange juice.
For this reason, many manufacturers use vegetable sourced omega 3 – and this can be a problem. It is not easy for the brain to get DHA from plant sourced omega 3.
This was proven in a study carried out in Australia, which looked at the effect of replacing standard eggs, milk and yogurt with omega 3 enriched versions in children.
This study showed that although the omega 3 levels of these children did improve slightly, the levels of DHA in their blood was still not adequate.
Realistically, then, to support a child’s brain, we need to either ensure that they eat oily fish at least twice every week – not possible in the case of my own daughter – or use a DHA rich supplement.
I have given my own daughter one form of DHA or another for much of her life – although I have to inform you that there are some drawbacks with this, she is quick thinking, sharp and has an answer for everything.