Essential Fatty Acids

Many parents find that simple fish oil supplements can help relieve their child’s autism symptoms…

Autism’s biological underpinnings are becoming increasingly important as clinicians and parents seek treatments to address pathologies and abnormalities that often go undiagnosed or ignored. An important focus in recent years is inflammation, which is often present in the gut and brains of children with autism. Acknowledging this factor has led to many dietary interventions, including the GF/CF plan, which removes gluten and casein—thought to be inflammatory—from the diet. It also is the rationale behind supplementing with essential fatty acids (EFAs), such as omega-3s, as a treatment for autism. In Autism Research Institute surveys, 55 percent of parents treating their child’s autism with EFAs reported improved symptoms.

An Autoimmune Condition?

Many autism researchers believe causation to be attributable to genetic and other predispositions, and environmental factors. Viruses and other pathogens also have been implicated, and signs of immune system irregularities have been found in children with autism.

Autoimmune disorders are more common in families where children have autism, and mothers with asthma, psoriasis, and type 1 diabetes—all autoimmune conditions—are at higher risk of having children with autism. This has led some experts to posit that autism may be an autoimmune condition, with inflammation a key component. In a 2004 study1, researchers analyzing tissue from the brains of children and adults affected by autism discovered evidence of active inflammation in various regions of the brain, although it was most prominent in the cerebellum (which plays an important role in motor control, and also is involved in some cognitive functions such as attention and language, and in regulating feelings of fear and pleasure).

The research also revealed ongoing inflammation in the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and cytokines—chemical messengers that are secreted by the immune system and lead to inflammation—were found to be present. Here is where EFAs may come in as a possible therapy, because one in particular—omega-3—may help to reduce inflammation.

Brain Food

Essential fatty acids are vital nutrients for humans: they are required for many crucial biochemical processes, and are critical to the health and development of the brain. Both types of omega-3—DHA and EPA —have been found to affect many aspects of brain function. Animal studies have suggested that supplementing omega-3s may improve cognition, while a lack of omega-3s has been linked to a higher risk of inflammation, as well as mood and behavior problems in humans. Two published studies suggest that omega-3s may be lower in people with autism2,3.

EFAs can’t be manufactured by the body—we have to get them via our diet. Unfortunately omega-3s and their “opposite,” omega-6s (see Balancing Act) have a relatively short shelf-life, and modern food-processing also can reduce or eliminate its nutritional value, to the extent that more than three-quarters of Americans are believed to have low omega-3 levels. Moreover, for individuals with autism, dietary intake may not be sufficient because there is evidence to suggest they may have problems converting the EFAs contained in food into the forms that are necessary for many biochemical reactions.

Go Fish or No Fish?

The main dietary source for EFAs is fatty fish such as tuna, salmon and shrimp. Unfortunately, many fish—especially the large predators, of which tuna is one—are high in mercury and other toxins that may factor into autism. Salmon and shrimp typically have lower levels of mercury, but this depends on where they originate. This means it’s generally safer for children to obtain essential fatty acids from fish oil, since little mercury is stored in the oil.

Cod liver oil (or other fish liver oil) is a good source, and also provides significant amounts of vitamin A and vitamin D. However, you’ll need to take care to ensure your child’s intake of vitamin A derived from animal sources doesn’t exceed the recommended daily amount, since excess A from these sources is stored in the liver and can affect liver function (carotenes aren’t stored).

Flax seed oil also is a source of omega 3s, but it’s in the form of alpha linolenic acid (ALA—see Know Your EFAs) which has to be converted to the active EPA and DHA forms by the body. It has been reported that some children with autism respond poorly to flax seed oil.

Are EFAs Effective?

Currently there are only a few studies into the effectiveness of EFAs for autism treatment. While most of the parents of 18 children with autism who were given amounts ranging from 0.6 to 2.3 g daily via fish oil reported improvements in cognition, sleep, social interaction and eye contact, the study concerned3 wasn’t double-blind (the most reliable) and it’s possible a placebo effect was at work. A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study4 reported reduced hyperactivity and a reduction in repetitive movements such as hand-flapping in 13 children with autism who received 1.5 g of fish oil per day, as compared to children who received placebo. A 2008 study5 reported improvements in behavior, concentration, motor skills, and language among children with autism who were treated with EFAs.

As with all medications and supplements, it’s recommended that you check with your pediatrician to ensure there is no contraindication for your child when it comes to supplementing with EFAs. Research suggests that the best dose ranges from 1 to 2 grams per day (medical supervision is advisable for daily intakes above 3 g). Purchase fish oil that has been purified by molecular distillation and is labeled as pharmaceutical grade.

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