Nutritional supplements lower extreme aggression in children according to multi-country research

In today’s “medication for everything” culture, a child who shows signs of extreme aggression is typically prescribed a powerful stimulant like Ritalin or Adderall during his/her first visit to the doctor.

In fact, in the U.S., nearly 20 percent of all boys will be diagnosed with a behavioral problem by the time they reach high school—and millions of them will be prescribed a powerful stimulant to “normalize” them!

Since a great many of these boys will suffer serious side effects from those drugs, it’s too bad that more of their parents didn’t first look into the benefits of nutritional supplements.

According to studies conducted by University of Pennsylvania researchers, incorporating vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids supplements into the diets of children with extreme aggression can reduce the problem behavior.

Though the research focused only on short-term benefits, the results were even more dramatic when the supplements were given to the children who rated higher on the scale of more-impulsive, emotional types of behavioral problems.

The research results were published this month in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The lead researcher, Adrian Raine, the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology, Psychology and Psychiatry, has spent his career looking at how the brain’s biological functioning affects antisocial behavior.

Raine focuses specifically on understanding these actions and learning how to modify them, whether with something benign like a child acting out or with something extreme, in the case of a homicidal killer.

“How do you change the brain to make people better?” he asked. “How can we improve brain functioning to improve behavior?”

These questions formed the foundation for work Raine had previously done with adolescents on the African island of Mauritius. In a randomized control trial, one group received omega-3 supplements for six months, the other didn’t.

Those taking the fish oil saw a reduction in aggressive and antisocial behavior.

“That was my starting point,” he said. “I was really excited about the results we published there.”

Mauritius, however, is a tropical climate and a different culture from the United States, so Raine decided to test a new version of the study in Philadelphia—to aim for more broadly applicable outcomes.

He partnered with Therese Richmond, the Andrea B. Laporte Professor of Nursing and associate dean for research and innovation, and several other University of Pennsylvania faculty.

The Philadelphia randomized control study placed 290 11- and 12-year-olds with a history of violence into four groups: The first received omega-3 in the form of juice, as well as multivitamins and calcium for three months.

For that same duration, a second group participated in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which included meeting weekly for an hour, with time split between the child, the parent and with both together.

“Sessions focused on the links between thoughts, feelings and behaviors and also practicing alternative actions the children could take to deal with difficult situations rather than to emotionally react to something,” said Richmond, who supervised the clinical trial.

“It’s helping the child build a toolbox of ways to interact with others. For example, if I’m angry, how might I cope with anger other than physically striking out?”

All study participants were also given homework.

A third group in the study took the supplements and participated in CBT, and a fourth received resources and information targeted at reducing aggressive behavior.

Blood samples at the experiment’s start and conclusion measured omega-3 levels in each child.

“Immediately after three months of the nutritional intervention rich in omega-3s, we found a decrease in the children’s reporting of their aggressive behavior,” Richmond said.

The team also followed up three and six months later.

At the first check-in, participants getting the combination of CBT and omega-3s reported less aggression than the control group and the therapy-only group.

By the final check-in, however, any positive effects had dissipated. What remains unknown is whether continued use of omega-3s would lead to a long-term reduction in antisocial behavior.

Full study details available at the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry online.