Could omega-3 supplements reduce abusive childhood behavior?

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There’s a lot of concern about the widespread use of drugs to control disruptive behavior by children and now a UMass Lowell study finds that something as simple as omega-3 fatty acid supplements have beneficial effects without resorting to drugs.

Jill Portnoy, an assistant professor in UMass Lowell’s School of Criminology and Justice Studies, says her studies have shown that giving children omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduces disruptive behavior, which in turn had a positive effect on their parents, making them less likely to argue with each other and engage in other verbal abuse.

“This is a promising line of research because omega-3 fatty acids are thought to improve brain health in children and adults. There is more to be learned about the benefits, but if we can improve people’s brain health and behavior in the process, that’s a really big plus,” said Portnoy, noting that a recent research review found that omega-3 supplements do not affect cardiovascular health, in a news release.

Portnoy has been studying  biological and social factors that can help explain and predict impulsive and risky behavior. The goal is to help determine effective ways to intervene before anti-social behavior escalates into crime.

The new research, published in the scholarly journal Aggressive Behavior, takes Portnoy into the heart of the “nature versus nurture” debate – whether people who commit crimes have something in their physiological makeup that predisposes them to doing so or if social factors like abusive family situations lead them to it.

“Of course, it’s both,” she said, but exactly how is still to be determined. “Biology and social environment interact in complex ways that we’re just beginning to figure out. Before we can design effective interventions, we need to do research to understand what’s happening.”

Cannabinoids a factor?

A growing number of beneficial effects have been attributed to omega-3 fatty acids, including a recent University of Illinois study that found they have anti-inflammatory benefits, thanks to chemical compounds called cannabinoids — they’re found in marijuana and also are produced naturally in the body from omega-3 fatty acids.

A well-known cannabinoid in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, is responsible for some of its euphoric effects, but it also has anti-inflammatory benefits. The UI study in animal tissue revealed the cascade of chemical reactions that convert omega-3 fatty acids into cannabinoids that have anti-inflammatory benefits — but without the psychotropic high.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Foods such as meat, eggs, fish and nuts contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which the body converts into endocannabinoids — cannabinoids that the body produces naturally, said Aditi Das, a University of Illinois professor of comparative biosciences and biochemistry, who led the study. Cannabinoids in marijuana and endocannabinoids produced in the body can support the body’s immune system and therefore are attractive targets for the development of anti-inflammatory therapeutics, she said.


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Truman Lewis
Truman has been a bureau chief and correspondent in D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix and elsewhere, reporting for radio, television, print and news services, for more than 30 years. Most recently, he has reported extensively on health and consumer issues for and