Omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil are effective for the treatment of autism. Find out why in this article.
What is autism?
- Social withdrawal
- Impairments in social communication and interaction
- Repetitive behavior
It encompasses a group of heterogeneous disorders and is therefore called autism spectrum disorder in the medical jargon3.
Autism affects 1-2% of all children born in developed countries2.
Increase in autism cases
The number of autism cases has increased worldwide during the last decades3.
In the US, it has increased about three times between 2000 and 20164.
Boys versus girls
What are the root causes of autism?
In the past, autism research has focused on genetics.
Autism most likely occurs from interactions between genetic predisposition and environmental factors7.
Industrial chemicals like toxic metals, PCBs, and toluene are recognized causes of neurodevelopmental disorders and brain dysfunction8.
A deficiency of essential nutrient elements
Furthermore, a deficiency of essential elements during fetal and postnatal development also increases autism risk.
Some metals like zinc, manganese, and copper are necessary for neurodevelopment but can be toxic in excessive amounts7.
Omega-3 and fish oil for autism
Medications for autism either lack effectiveness or have multiple side effects10.
Therefore, the possibility of using nutritional supplements to treat autistic symptoms has received much interest10.
Is omega-3 (fish oil) good for autism?
Multiple studies have shown that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids decrease the risk for autism.
Researchers based a study on 258 mothers who already had a child with autism and were planning a pregnancy or were pregnant11.
They reported that the mothers consuming more omega-3 fatty acids during the second half of the pregnancy were 40% less likely to have children with autism11.
An analysis that included 194 children revealed that omega-3 had a positive effect on social withdrawal, stereotypy, and hyperactivity10.
Also, a study involving 41 children and adolescents with autism in Singapore revealed that omega-3 fatty acids supplementation improved core symptoms of autism and attention problems12.
Furthermore, an investigation that included ten children with autism reported that of the nine subjects who completed the study, eight showed improvement13.
Besides, a study based on 111 New Zealand children with autism indicated that omega-3 fatty acids (or vitamin D or both) reduced irritability, a common symptom of autism14.
How many types of omega-3 are there?
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Availability of omega-3s
Fish do not produce EPA and DHA. Instead, they eat single-cell marine organisms (plankton) that synthesize them16.
Humans and omega-3s
However, the production of EPA and DHA is limited to rates of less than 4%15.
Hence incorporating EPA and DHA into the daily diet is important15.
Mechanism of omega-3 and fish oil for autism
What is the underlying mechanism of action of omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil for treating autism?
Nerve cells require DHA
Furthermore, omega-3s also exert an anti-inflammatory effect16.
Omega-3 versus omega-6 ratio
Three studies have reported low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in children with autism16.
- Hyperactivity disorder
- Bipolar disorder
Research suggests that dietary behavior changes in the last decade have led to an imbalance in omega-3 versus omega-6 fatty acids, increasing autism cases17.
Which omega is good for autism?
Omega-3 for heavy metal removal
Regulation of the methylation cycle
The methylation cycle is a process that regulates gene expression and protein function25.
It also neutralizes heavy metals via glutathione production25.
Increase in glutathione production
Glutathione is the human body’s most powerful antioxidant.
What supplements contain omega-3s?
Dietary supplements high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Fish oil (menhaden, herring, and cod liver) is rich in omega-3 fatty acids33, specifically in EPA and DHA15,34.
- Krill oil is also high in the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA15.
- Flaxseed oil is the richest plant-based dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, in particular ALA15,30.
- Chia seed oil and walnut oil are also abundant sources of short-chain ALA fatty acids15.
What foods are high in omega-3 (other than fish)?
- Fatty fish (menhaden, herring, and salmon)15
- Other seafood (shrimp, crab, lobster, and mussels)15
- Green leafy vegetables (raw spinach, kale, broccoli)35
- Seeds and nuts (flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts)15
What type of omega is best for autism?
The most biologically active omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA37.
Therefore, we recommend the consumption of fatty fish in the diet and supplementation with fish oil.
Green leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, and flaxseed oil are good alternatives for vegans.
Can I give omega-3 to my child?
Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to the neurodevelopment of your child.
How much fish oil for autism?
The National Health Institute recommends the following adequate intakes for omega-3s36:
Is omega-3 and fish oil safe during pregnancy?
The consumption of omega-3s in the diet is essential during pregnancy37.
Furthermore, omega-3s may also influence the length of gestation and prevent perinatal depression37.
How much omega-3 and fish oil should I take during pregnancy?
NHI recommends the following adequate intakes for omega-3s during pregnancy and lactation36:
When should I start taking omega-3 and fish oil in pregnancy?
Omega-3s are particularly important during the second half of pregnancy for autism prevention11.
Which omega-3 is best for pregnancy?
DHA and EPA are best for pregnancy37.
Research recommends the consumption of fish or supplementation with fish oil37.
Here are the fish and other seafood to consume and avoid during pregnancy37:
|Fish to consume
|Fish to avoid
|Local river fish
Contamination with heavy metals
Fish may be contaminated with heavy metals or other pollutants.
However, fish oil capsules are nearly devoid of mercury and PCBs37.
Fish oil suppliers are, namely, compelled to purify them of environmental toxins.
Side effects of omega-3 and fish oil for autism
However, these fatty acids can make you feel tired and dizzy in the beginning.
It is due to their cleansing effect on the liver and is also known as a Herxheimer Reaction.
With time, on the contrary, they will make you feel more energized and focused.
Summary: Omega-3 and fish oil for autism
Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil are good for preventing and treating autism.
The essential fatty acids EPA and DHA found in fish oil are necessary for the functioning of nerve cells and brain development.
Besides, omega-3 fatty acids also have anti-inflammatory attributes.
Furthermore, they also help the body get rid of heavy metals, which are one of the root causes of autism.