Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

The Fats of Life

Is there really such a thing as 'brain food'? The answer most certainly is yes. Foods needed for the brain's development while the baby grows in the mother's womb, foods needed for the child, adolescent and teenager to make sure there is enough energy for brain function, and foods essential to keep the brain active and functioning correctly well into old age.

Many old wives tales have more than a grain of truth in them and when granny said 'Eat fish, it's good for your brains' she was right. Research by Professor Michael Crawford at the Institute of Brain Chemistry in London has shown a clear link between foetal brain development and the amount of oily fish eaten by pregnant women. Omega 3 fatty acids make up the greatest proportion of brain tissue and the growing baby gets them through the mother's placenta.

When nerve impulses are not transmitted properly from the brain to eyes, hands, feet or other parts of the body, reading problems like Dyslexia, behavioural problems - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), difficulties with co-ordination and clumsiness - Dyspraxia, and autistic spectrum disorders can occur. Special fats are essential if the brain and nervous tissues are to work efficiently and children with these type of problems often have too little of them. These essential fatty acids only occur in oily fish, seafood and fish oil supplements, and though there are other causes of these conditions it has to be worthwhile to try these supplements before resorting to the widely prescribed drugs like Ritalin.

Children with ADHD are constantly overactive, on the move and fidgeting; they've poor co-ordination; erratic emotions; and a short attention span, constant flitting from one activity to another. They seldom complete tasks, don't listen and are prone to destructive or self-damaging violent outbursts.

For years these children were treated exclusively as behaviourally disturbed until, in the late '60s, Doctor Ben Feingold, an allergist working in America, stumbled across a possible chemical cause for hyperactivity quite by accident. Whilst working on a project connected to flea bite allergies in children, he devised a special diet which excluded a group of chemicals called salicylates - related to the aspirin family and similar to the substances produced by fleas.

A number of children who were extremely allergic to flea bites were put on this diet and Feingold was astounded when many parents told him that not only were the children reacting less severely to flea bites, but their behaviour had improved as well. He went on to carry out a large scale study which convinced him that allergic reactions were responsible for the behavioural disturbances in many of the children.

Many children with ADHD may be sensitive to some of the chemicals. Amongst the worst offenders is the yellow colouring tartrazine, E102, which is widespread in convenience foods and especially in many of the drinks, sweets and biscuits aimed directly at the children's market. Over the last 20 years I've seen dozens of children (and their parents) restored to sanity and sleep by the simple expedient of avoiding food additives. These chemicals can also trigger asthma, eczema and urticaria.

In 1973 I persuaded Dr. Feingold to give a lecture on hyperactivity in London which was attended by several hundred desperate parents, a handful of teachers and not a single doctor. The response might be a bit different today but there are still medics who maintain that dyslexia and ADHD are the figments of middle class imaginations, and that these children are badly behaved, have some sort of behavioural problems or are just not very clever. How blinkered can you be? These serious medical problems have no social boundaries, are spread through all communities and are just as devastating and disruptive to any family that has to cope with them. Of course some children are just plain naughty or not very bright, and some mothers and fathers lack good parenting skills, but that's no reason to put all affected youngsters into a chemical straight jacket.

Fantastic Fish Oils

The breakthrough came in the late 1990s when Dr. Jackie Stordy, then Director of Nutrition at Surrey University, discovered that a product called Efalex - a mixture of evening primrose, thyme and tuna oils - could help children with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. Since then there's been a growing body of research into the importance of fish oils. Some of the most important experiments have been conducted by Dr. Alex Richardson, Senior Research Fellow, Mansfield College and the University Laboratory of Physiology, Oxford. The most recent, and potentially the most exciting, experiment is the Oxford/Durham Study, featured last week in the first of Lord Winston's new TV series 'The Human Mind' on BBC1. Dr. Richardson is the lead investigator and the scientist in charge of this collaboration between Oxford University, Durham LEA and the Dyslexia Research Trust. Although the final analysis of the results is not yet complete and exact figures aren't available, Dr. Richardson is excited by what she's already seen.

"Up to a third or more of children with ADHD may benefit from the right kind of fish oil supplement," says Dr. Richardson. "The essential fatty acids in fish oils are absolutely vital for brain development and function, and sadly fish has been largely replaced in our diets by highly processed ready meals, convenience foods and American junk. Oily fish and seafood used to be a staple part of the diet, even in the poorest communities. London's East End for instance was famous for jellied eels, cockles, mussels, winkles, potted shrimps, pickled herrings and even oysters. Maybe this was part of the reason for traditional Cockneys being so smart."

The Durham Trial lasted six months and included over 100 children. The LEA estimate that around 30% of children in their schools have some form of learning difficulty of a greater or lesser extent and the trial, which included 12,000 different assessments, was designed by Dr. Richardson to see if these youngsters could be helped by such a simple supplement. The Duffields were one of the families that took part and their four children, Ivy 10 and triplets Megan, Michael and Ellie aged 8, all joined in. Ivy has real problems with numbers and maths, Megan has needed speech therapy, was shy, quiet and her schoolwork below average. Michael also needed speech therapy as well as having difficulty with co-ordination, motor skills and being boisterous and sometimes difficult. Though Ellie didn't have any obvious learning problems, she was included so she could be a comparison with her siblings. During the study some of the children had the real supplement, 'eye Q', for the whole six months, whilst others had the dummy pill for three months and the real one for three months. The secret code hasn't been broken yet so it's not known which group any of the children were in.

Mum noticed changes with a few months and according to Mrs Duffield Megan became more perceptive and absorbed information faster than before. She was more confident and seemed happier and the school reported an improvement across all subjects. Ellie had problems taking the tablets and even putting the oil onto a biscuit didn't work so she didn't get much of the supplement, but she didn't have obvious problems to start with anyway. There were obvious changes in Michael and Ivy during the second three months and Mrs. Duffield assumes they switched to the real supplement. Michael seemed much calmer and better behaved and began playing happily with his sisters. There was a significant improvement in his memory and his chess, which was already good, has improved too. Ivy's maths has really improved and she's overall more perceptive and generally much more interested in everything.

The Durham Trial and previous studies highlight the possibility of less disruptive behaviour, improved concentration, easier reading, writing and counting and all-round improvements in general school performance. Dr. Richardson's work also demonstrates the importance of these oils for the management of the more severe mental problems like bipolar disease, depression, and even in one paper published in 2000 the history of a patient with schizophrenia.

So how do these fish oils affect the brain? The truly essential fatty acids (EFA) are linoleic acid (Omega 6) and alpha-linolenic acid (Omega 3) and these cannot be manufactured within the human body. These highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA) can theoretically be synthesised but this is a slow and very inefficient process in humans. This means that the well-publicised importance of flax seed oil which vegetarians and vegans believe can provide them with all that the brain needs is in fact of very little use. According to Dr. Richardson, following these restrictive regimes may not be in the best interests of developing babies, growing children and adolescents.

There are four particularly important HUFAs that the brain needs in order to grow and function, and the body makes these from the Omega 6 and Omega 3 fats. Between them they make up 20% of the brain and 30% of the retina, and are responsible for producing the hormone-like substances that are critical in the constant regulation of brain function. So how right granny was about fish being good for the brain, though it does need to be oily fish or seafood at least three times a week. With the exception of tuna, the canned oily fish like sardines, salmon, pilchards and mackerel are all excellent sources of EFAs, and you can even buy mussels, oysters and virtually every other shellfish in your local supermarket. If you're taking a supplement make sure that the ratio of EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) is at least five to one, that it is guaranteed free of toxic impurities like mercury, dioxin and PCBs, and that the capsules contain 70% or more of Omega 3 fatty acids so you get the optimum dose from the least number of capsules.

If you have any concerns about your child's behaviour, reading, writing or physical skills, make sure you consult your doctor. Whilst giving oily fish or supplements to any child won't turn him or her into a genius, and there may be many other causes of their problems, these essential fatty acids are an absolute requirement for good brain function. Omitting them from the diet is an ill-advised risk.

For more information see www.fabresearch.org, www.dyslexic.org.uk and www.healthyandessential.com

Mrs. Duffield is happy for the children to be photographed but preferably within the school environment. Her contact numbers are 07714 332882 or 01833 660936.


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