Many children with sleep disorders may just need more fish oil, particularly DHA

September 09, 2013

Professor Paul Montgomery of Oxford University discussed preliminary data from the Oxford University DOLAB Study at the Food And Behavior Research Symposium (FAB Research) held this month in London. According to the findings consuming omega-3 fats from fish or from supplements helps improve the quality of sleep in children. The very interesting thing about this study is that it was two armed. The first arm of the study, the epidemiological arm, looked at a larger population and found that decreased quality of sleep and an increased risk of developing sleep disorders are well correlated to having low levels of omega-3 long chain fatty acids in the blood. These two fatty acids are found in fatty, ocean-going fish such as sardines or salmon, or are found in fish oil supplements and are abbreviated as EPA and DHA. Checking the levels of these fats in the blood is the best way to gauge and is superior to filling out a food frequency questionnaire. The connection with increasing risk of sleep issues was strongly related to having decreasing levels of DHA more specifically.

Dr Montgomery stated that “This was highly significant” for the connection between decreasing levels of DHA and increasing levels of risk for sleep disorders, adding that it was “striking” just how many children in the study had been found to have clinical signs of sleep disorders, and that blood levels of DHA were significantly correlated with sleep scores.

In the second arm of the study, a controlled randomized trial, the researchers had questionnaires detailing sleep quality and also had blood samples from 395 children; this is a large number for any study of this kind. The amount of Fish Oils in the blood was predictive of sleep quality and with lower levels of these fats sleep problems increased and sleep quality suffered. The team also noted that their findings also confirmed previous research that links sleep disorders with behavioral problems. Issues with sleep and poor behavior have been linked in many previous studies but this is the first linking these to low levels of DHA.

In a second phase of this arm 60 of these children were supplemented with DHA. These children wore actigraphs – wrist watch style sensors that measure sleep for about five days before being supplemented with DHA. They then wore them again during the DHA-supplementation period. The DHA, derived from algae, improved blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and as these increased so did the ability to enjoy a good nights rest. Dr Montgomery states “Importantly, they were awake far less (throughout the night). They were asleep for 46 minutes more.” “These kids were sleeping a lot more (after supplementation),” Doctor Montgomery said. The “action is clear,” he commented. “I’m struck by the size and scale of this.”