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Study: Omega-3 supplements reduce aggressive behavior in children

“This is a promising line of research because omega-3 fatty acids are thought to improve brain health in children and adults.”

Simple changes in diet can unlock meaningful changes in human behavior. (Image: Shutterstock)


A new report shows that children who took omega-3 supplements as part of a year-long study behaved better than another group that received a placebo.

For the study, published in the journal Aggressive Behavior, researchers gave omega-3 supplements to one group of children, and a placebo to another. At all stages of the experiment, neither the children, parents (or caregivers), or research staff knew which group had received the placebo.

The researchers asked the parents to report on the children’s behavior over the next year, and also to rate their own psychological aggression they experienced in response to the children’s misbehavior.

The results revealed that children who took the omega-3 supplements showed decreased psychological aggression and improved behavior, effects that seemed to encourage less fighting and arguments between caregivers.

“This is a promising line of research because omega-3 fatty acids are thought to improve brain health in children and adults. There is more to be learned about the benefits, but if we can improve people’s brain health and behavior in the process, that’s a really big plus,” said study author Jill Portnoy, who’s studying how interventions can stop anti-social behavior from escalating into crime, said in a press release.

Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to a healthy diet. These “essential” fatty acids (meaning ones not produced by the body) are commonly consumed through fish oil supplements and foods like:

  • Fish and other seafood (especially cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines)
  • Nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts)
  • Plant oils (such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil)
  • Fortified foods (such as certain brands of eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, soy beverages, and infant formulas)

Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to help alleviate a number of medical problems, including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, mood disorders and even cancer. The evidence is mixed on many of these claims. Case in point: A recent meta-analysis found that taking omega-3 supplements seemed to result in little or no reduced risk “of cardiovascular events, coronary heart deaths, coronary heart disease events, stroke or heart irregularities.”

However, omega-3 supplements do seem to be effective at lowering rates of inflammation in the body. In the brain, these anti-inflammatory effects could even play a role in treating disorders like anxiety and depression, according to some research.

Omega-3 supplements could also be a safe and cheap way to improve children’s behavior, and also the wellbeing of the rest of the family. In a broader context, the results suggest that simple changes in diet could unlock meaningful changes in human behavior, including ones that prevent crime down the road.

“This study is the first to show that omega‐3 supplementation in children can reduce inter‐partner psychological aggression among adult caregivers not receiving supplements,” Portnoy said. “Findings suggest that improving child behavior through omega‐3 supplementation could have long‐term benefits to the family system as a whole.”

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