(NaturalNews) If you want to produce brainy children, feed them brain food. Brain development of babies and children is highly influenced by nutritional intake. Children who are fed inadequate amounts of a key nutrient will have inadequate brain growth and development resulting in lower IQ's, reduced language development, and slower fine motor development. These are the findings of an extraordinary longitudinal study conducted by a research team led by Professor Jake Najman at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
Composition of the Brain
The human brain is primarily composed of fat, 60% by dry weight. Researchers hypothesized that fat must therefore be critical to the development of a healthy brain. They were particularly interested in the importance of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 long chain fatty acid. DHA comprises 25 to 35% of the brain's fatty material and 50 to 60% of the fatty material in the retina of the eye where it is needed for visual acuity.
DHA and Infant Development
The presence of adequate amounts of DNA is necessary for infant neurological development. DHA is known to significantly alter many basic properties of cell membranes including fluidity, elasticity, permeability, and interactions with key regulatory proteins. These properties and functions in the nervous system include a modulating effect on the activity of ion channels and are believed to underlie the role of DHA in supporting electrical signaling, cellular communication, and ultimately brain functions such as memory, processing, and learning ability.
Compelling research links DHA to the rapid cerebral cortex and eye development that occurs during the prenatal period and in the first few months of infancy. This is the period during which high levels of DHA are actively deposited, especially during the last trimester of pregnancy and during the first two months following birth.
The diet of the mother reflects the amount of DHA available to be passed on to the baby. If the mother is low in DHA, there will be little to pass along to the child. If the baby is not breast fed at all, it receives no DHA in the critical developmental period following birth. DHA levels of premature infants are especially low since they miss much of that last trimester. Premature babies are also more likely to be bottle fed.
Since DHA is passed through the placenta to the fetus during pregnancy and to the nursing baby from breast milk, optimal levels of DHA are necessary in the bloodstreams of pregnant women and in the breast milk of nursing mothers. The Queensland study concluded that the presence of DHA in breast milk explains why breast fed babies have a cognitive advantage over babies fed with infant formula containing no DHA. The study found that the breast fed children demonstrated an 8 point intellectual advantage when they were administered standard IQ tests.
Other research supports the conclusion that the DHA levels in American women today are comparable to that of women in Third World countries, largely as the result of dietary choices.
Sources of DHA
The level of DHA available to support brain and nervous system development in the fetus and to be transferred from the mother to the infant via breast milk is highly dependent on the diet of the mother. Food sources providing superior levels of DHA are primarily salmon, sardines, tuna and other fatty cold water fish. Lesser amounts may be found in eggs, red meats and organ meats.
The vegetarian food source producing the greatest amounts of DHA is flax. Other vegetarian sources include soybeans, walnuts and canola oil. It is important to note that the vegetable source of omega-3 fatty acid is ALA (alpha linolenic acid). ALA is not equivalent in its biological effects to DHA, which is more rapidly incorporated into plasma and membrane lipids and produces more rapid effects than does ALA. ALA is converted in the liver to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which then converts to DHA. This conversion is not always reliable and may be restricted by insufficiencies in the body. So even though ALA is beneficial for health, DHA is best obtained directly from animal sources.
Realizing the need for this amazing nutrient, some people supplement their diets with fish oil capsules. If this is your choice, remember that DHA is highly unsaturated so it is very susceptible to free radical damage. Such molecular damage is the reason why old fish has that pungent fishy smell. This is also why you should be careful to eat only the freshest fish. Canned fish may be a good choice as fish is canned when very fresh. DHA survives the canning process well, and canned fish is not noted for the presence of bisphenol A, a hazardous compound found in many other canned foods.
When buying fish oil capsules, be sure to buy only a high quality brand. Buy in quantities you can reasonably consume in a short period of time, and store the bottle in the refrigerator. It may be best to cut open a capsule and sample the oil. Fresh fish oil should have almost no odor and only a slight after-taste.
Do not fall into that old idea 'if some is good, more is better'. If large amounts of supplemental DHA are taken, serious imbalances may occur. A typical adult dose is 4 1000 mg. capsules per day. If you wish to supplement your child after breast feeding is discontinued, use 1/4 teaspoon of liquid fish oil rubbed into the body up to the age of one year. Administered this way, the oil will go directly into the infant's blood stream. For children ages one to two, use 1/2 teaspoon. After age two a child can be given a teaspoon of oil a day.
FDA Continues to Ban DHA in Infant Formula
DHA has received glowing recommendations from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and the National Institutes of Health.
In 1996, the retired chairman of pediatrics of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine led a campaign in which outraged researchers and pediatricians bombarded the FDA with over 1,000 letters pleading and demanding that they ensure the health and well being of children by at least allowing the addition of DHA to infant formula.
Despite these endorsements and the mounting research providing evidence that DHA is the one essential structural ingredient missing in infant formula, the FDA continues to ban its use in infant formulas with the result that children who are not breast fed encounter the world at a disadvantage.
About the author
Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.