DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid sometimes used to improve health in children. Found naturally in oily fish and in seaweed, DHA is also available in supplement form.
Since DHA is essential for neurological and visual development, in alternative medicine, DHA supplements are thought to enhance brain function and vision in children. In addition, DHA supplements are purported to treat certain health problems in children, such as allergies, asthma, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Here’s a look at some key study findings on the benefits of DHA for children:
DHA deficiency may be common among children with ADHD, according to a report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2000. However, it’s not known whether DHA supplements can help treat ADHD in children.
For instance, in a 2001 study from the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers found that four months of DHA supplementation failed to decrease symptoms in a group of children with ADHD. The study involved 63 six- to 12-year-old children, each of whom received 345 mg of DHA or a placebodaily. Given this finding — and an overall lack of evidence for the effectiveness of DHA in treating ADHD in children — it’s too soon to recommend DHA supplements as a treatment for ADHD in children.
2) Brain Health
So far, research on DHA’s effects on cognitive function in children has yielded mixed results. For example, a 2009 study of 90 healthy children ages 10 to 12 (published in Nutritional Neuroscience) found that eight weeks of DHA supplementation did not have a beneficial effect on brain function.
On the other hand, a 2008 study of 175 healthy four-year-old children (published in Clinical Pediatrics) found that higher blood levels of DHA were linked to higher scores on vocabulary tests. However, this study did not specifically test the use of DHA supplements (and its potential to improve test scores). Therefore, DHA’s effectiveness in improving cognitive function in children remains unclear.
Taking DHA in the form of fish oil may cause certain side effects, such as bad breath, heartburn, and nausea.
It’s important to keep in mind that supplements haven’t been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances such as metals. Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established.
Before giving your child with DHA supplements, consult his or her pediatrician to determine a safe dosage.
Where to Find It
Widely available for purchase online, DHA supplements for children are sold in many natural-food stores, grocery stores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements. DHA supplements are often available in flavored “gummy” form to make the supplements palatable for children.
Due to the lack of research, it’s too soon to recommend DHA as a treatment for any condition in children. It’s possible to achieve ample DHA intake by eating oily fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines) several times a week. Talk to your pediatrician about whether you should increase the amount of oily fish or should consider giving them DHA supplements. Your pediatrician can also help you to determine a safe and effective dosage for DHA supplements.
It’s important to note that treating a chronic condition with DHA and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences for your children’s health.