By Dr. David Perlmutter March 26, 2014
Sleeplessness among children is common, occurring in as many as 40% of kids. Sleep deprivation can crescendo into a variety of other problems, including fatigue, declining school performance, depression, behavioral issues, weight gain and even poor general health.
An Oxford University study recently published in the Journal of Sleep Research reveals findings that provide valuable insights about causes of sleeplessness in children. More importantly, the study sheds light on a nutrition-oriented approach to improving sleep.
The researchers evaluated the sleep patterns of 395 children aged 7 to 9. In addition, they performed a blood analysis on these children to measure their levels of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid.
As had been reported in earlier studies, the number of children having trouble with sleep is a significant 30 to 40%. When the researchers looked specifically at the measurements of total nightly sleep, they discovered a correlation with blood DHA levels. Specifically, lower levels of DHA correlated with a reduction in sleep duration, while higher blood DHA levels were associated with significantly better, longer sleep.
To test whether or not sleep could be improved by raising DHA levels, the researchers administered DHA (derived from marine algae) or a placebo to a smaller number of children for 16 weeks. These children were then evaluated in terms of their sleep performance using a technique called actigraphy. The technique provides an in-depth analysis of sleep duration, number of night-wakings and even actual quality of sleep.
The study revealed that children who received the DHA showed not only better quality sleep, but significantly fewer and shorter night-wakings. They also experienced an increase in sleep duration by nearly one hour.
How DHA directly relates to sleep in children remains unknown and requires additional research. However, in discussing their findings, the authors speculated that the correlation between DHA and sleep in children may be related to the relationship between DHA levels in the brain and the production of the hormone melatonin, which is known to play an important role in sleep regulation.
Adequate, restorative sleep is a fundamental requirement for healthy brain function. This new report provides some actionable information for health professionals and parents who are exploring options to help children obtain the rest they need. For example, parents can manage their child’s diet and nutrition to ensure the foods they are eating include omega-3 DHA, such as fatty fish like salmon.
If food alone is not providing adequate amounts of DHA, parents can look for high-quality fish and plant-based DHA supplements available in most grocery stores and pharmacies.