Help for Common Children’s Coordination Disorder
A mixture of fish oil and evening primrose oil improves learning capacity and behavior in children with developmental coordination disorder, reports a study in Pediatrics (2005;115:1360–6). This is the first treatment that has been shown to be safe and effective for this common disorder of childhood.
Developmental coordination disorder, also called dyspraxia, affects approximately 5% of school-aged children, and manifests as impaired motor function, independent of general ability. Children with developmental coordination disorder may also experience some of the symptoms of attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia (reading problems), and autism or related disorders. Difficulties in learning, behavior, and psychological or social adjustment may persist into adulthood. The abnormalities seen in children with developmental coordination disorder are similar to some of the manifestations of essential-fatty-acid (EFA) deficiency in experimental animals; for that reason, EFA supplementation was investigated as a potential treatment.
In this study, 117 children between ages 5 and 12 were randomly assigned to receive an EFA supplement or placebo (olive oil) for three months. After three months, all children received the EFA supplement for an additional three months. The supplement contained 80% fish oil and 20% evening primrose oil in gelatin capsules. The daily intake of six capsules provided 558 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), 174 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and 60 mg of gamma-linolenic acid. After three months, compared with placebo, EFA treatment resulted in significant improvements in reading, spelling, and behavior. When the children who initially received placebo were switched to the EFA supplement, they also improved. In addition, the children treated with EFAs for the full six months maintained or increased the improvement that was seen at three months.
While EFA treatment was no more effective than the placebo at improving motor skills, both groups showed substantial improvement during the course of the study. Whereas the average level of motor skills was only around the sixth percentile (relative to the general population) at the start of the study, both groups improved to the twentieth percentile after six months. These improvements could have been due to a placebo effect or a “training” effect (in other words, participants may have improved as a result of repetitive testing), but it is also possible that both treatments were beneficial. Olive oil has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which might conceivably enhance nervous system function.
While it is not clear which components of the EFA supplement contributed most to the improvement, each component has previously demonstrated positive effects on some aspects of neurological or psychological function. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil appear to be particularly important for children’s brain development. Studies have shown that adding DHA to feeding formulas can increase the growth rate of premature babies, and that giving DHA to normal infants improves the development of the visual system. In addition, the babies of women who supplement with cod liver oil have been found to have improved mental development.
The typical Western diet contains less omega-3 fatty acids than it did a century ago. This reduction is due in part to changes in farming practices; farm animals are now fed grain instead of grazing on grasses, which are higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Hydrogenation of oils also destroys both omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs, and eating hydrogenated oils appears to increase EFA requirements. Eating vegetable oils that have been heated to high temperatures (as in frying) may also promote EFA deficiency.
An expert in nutritional therapies, Chief Medical Editor Alan R. Gaby is a former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition. He is past-president of the American Holistic Medical Association and gave expert testimony to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine on the cost-effectiveness of nutritional supplements. Dr. Gaby has conducted nutritional seminars for physicians and has collected over 30,000 scientific papers related to the field of nutritional and natural medicine. In addition to editing and contributing to The Natural Pharmacy (Three Rivers Press, 1999), and the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Three Rivers Press, 1999), Dr. Gaby has authored Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima Lifestyles, 1995) and B6: The Natural Healer (Keats, 1987) and coauthored The Patient's Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999).
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