photo of a sleeping child
Oxford researchers say there's a link between low blood levels of omega-3 DHA and sleep disruption in children

Boosting omega-3s could help kids sleep

13 March, 2014

Natural Health News — Getting more omega-3 DHA, the group of long-chain fatty acids found in algae and seafood, could help children sleep better.

As part of  a  randomised placebo-controlled pilot study, researchers at the University of Oxford, UK, explored whether supplementing with algal source DHA would improve the sleep of 362 children.

The children who took part in the study were not selected for sleep problems, but were all struggling readers at a mainstream primary school.

However, at the outset, the parents filled in a child sleep questionnaire which revealed that 40% of the children had clinical-level sleep problems, such as resistance to bedtime, anxiety about sleep and constant waking in the course of the night.

The researchers also used bloodstick samples to determine levels of omega-3 and omega-6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA).

Better sleep

Over the 16 weeks of the study the children were given daily supplements containing 600mg of algal source DHA or a placebo of corn or soybean oil. The researchers also fitted wrist sensors to 43 of the children who were poor sleepers to monitor their movements in bed over five nights.

At the end of the study children with higher blood levels of the long-chain omega-3 DHA (the main omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain) had nearly one hour (58 minutes) more sleep and 7 fewer waking episodes per night compared with the children taking placebo.

In addition, higher ratios of DHA in relation to the long-chain omega-6 fatty acid AA (arachidonic acid) are also associated with fewer sleep problems.

The findings are published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Improving our understanding

Previous research has suggested links between poor sleep and low blood omega-3 LC-PUFA in infants and in children and adults with behavior or learning difficulties. However, this is the first study to investigate possible links between sleep and fatty acid status in healthy children.

Lead author Professor Paul Montgomery of Oxford University said: “To find clinical level sleep problems in four in ten of this general population sample is a cause for concern. Various substances made within the body from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have long been known to play key roles in the regulation of sleep. For example, lower ratios of DHA have been linked with lower levels of melatonin, and that would fit with our finding that sleep problems are greater in children with lower levels of DHA in their blood.”

Co-investigator Dr Alex Richardson of Oxford University said: “Previous studies we have published showed that blood levels of omega-3 DHA in this general population sample of 7-9 year olds were alarmingly low overall, and this could be directly related to the children’s behaviour and learning. Poor sleep could well help to explain some of those associations.”

Noting that further research is needed he added: “This randomised controlled trial does suggest that children’s sleep can be improved by DHA supplements and indicates yet another benefit of higher levels of omega-3 in the diet.’