Omega 3 fatty acids—found abundantly in foods such as flaxseed fatty fish as well as in supplement form—have long been heralded as an important part of a healthy diet. Research shows that adding more omega-3 fatty acid to your diet can help with everything from easing symptoms of depression to reducing the risk of heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and inflammation.
Pregnant women are explicitly advised to consume omega-3 fatty acid supplements (namely high quality fish oil) because of the supplement’s positive effect on fetal neural development.
Given this compound’s health-boosting benefits for both mind and body, many researchers have initiated studies with the goal of answering an important question:
Can omega-3 fatty acid help adults, teens, and children living with autism?
Autism constitutes a range of neurodevelopmental conditions which impact the way a person communicates, interacts with others, and perceives their environment. With diagnoses typically beginning in the toddler years, common symptoms include decreased eye contact, lack of “make believe” play, difficulty expressing needs and feelings, repetitive language or movement, and difficulty interacting with or showing interest in others.
In the United States alone, approximately 1% of the population is affected by autism or a similar condition on the spectrum, and around 1 in 59 children—and the prevalence is growing. Autism is the fastest growing neurodevelopmental condition—and growing with it are the individual, familial, social, and economic costs of helping people with this condition.
While doctors and researchers don’t yet know the exact cause of autism—which at its core is believed to be related to atypical brain structure and function—biological, genetic, and environmental risk factors have been identified.
Lastly, while autism has no cure, it can be managed through services such as pharmacology and therapy. Many health-conscious parents (and doctors) also choose to seek holistic ways to help their children manage their symptoms more appropriately.
One leading area of holistic interest? Nutrition—particularly the addition of omega-3 fatty acids.
What’s the Link? Potential Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for People With Autism
Research has already shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help manage and improve symptoms of ADHD and mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Promisingly, systematic reviews of the literature (which include several small randomized controlled trials) have also revealed that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may be able to manage symptoms of autism, as well.
For instance, small randomized controlled trials have found that giving omega-3 fatty acids to children with autism may improve social interaction, social responsiveness, mood stabilization, and functional communication.
A leading hypothesis for these potential beneficial effects? Omega-3 fatty acid’s powerful anti-inflammatory effects—also the driving factor behind the popular compound’s other noted health benefits.
By and large, the medical and scientific communities agree that more research needs to be done to further explain if and how omega-3 fatty acids help people with autism. But given how safe omega-3 fatty acid is and how many other known health benefits it can offer, the consensus is that supplementation can be an effective complement to behavioral therapy and other traditional care approaches.
Do you have a child living with autism spectrum disorder? Curious about omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and how it could help? Consult with your pediatrician for more information. You know your loved one best, and you may be surprised by the results.