Fish Oil For Autism: EPA, DHA and the Low Down On Omega 3

Fish oil is a staple supplement in my children’s autism treatment protocol. Even though both my daughters are now recovered from autism, they still take fish oil daily as part of their essential fatty acids needs. Children with autism usually have a higher need for essential fatty acids. It helps with cognition, brain function, eye sight, and inflammation. Fish oil can also support mood regulation for depression and anxiety. It also promotes healthy hair and skin against eczema and psoriasis. It supports and repairs cell membranes, healthy immune response, the development of the digestive tract, brain, nerves, respiratory and cardiovascular system. My husband and I too take fish oil daily to prevent inflammatory conditions, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

fish oil 2

Benefits of Fish Oil for Autism, Apraxia and Learning Challenges

Children with autism, apraxia and some learning challenges are commonly deficient in essential fatty acids. Supplementing them with fish oil and foods high in EFAs can be very beneficial. Fish oil is anti-inflammatory, inflammation is a common issue for children with autism, ADHD and developmental disorders.

Omega 3 fatty acids like fish oils and cod liver oil are derived from linolenic acid.  Linolenic acid is converted into two important substances, DHA and EPA.  DHA is essential for growth and EPA helps with regulation of inflammation.  Children with autism, PDD and ADHD have been shown to have DHA deficiency.  Supplementation results in improved cognitive, social, language and behavioural development. ~ treatautism.ca

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What does EFA, ALA, EPA & DHA Mean?

EFAs (essential fatty acids) are considered a good fat. Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid. Our bodies cannot function properly without Omega 3, an essential nutrient that must come from the diet because the body cannot manufacture it. My family and I take fish oil daily and eat foods high in essential fatty acids.

There are many types of fish oil, choose a good brand that is certified mercury free, with high levels of EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are vital nutrients that helps with brain and eye functions. EPA and DHA are produced from ALA.

  • ALA is a short chain (18 carbon) omega-3 fatty acid. It is found in small amounts in animal flesh, in very small amounts in a variety of plant products, and in relatively large amounts in soy, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds and their oil, hempseed oil, camelina oil, and chia seed oil. The human body cannot make its own ALA – it must be obtained through the diet.
  • EPA is a long chain (20 carbon) omega-3 fatty acid. It is found mostly in fatty fish, in small amounts in eggs, and in very small amounts in seaweed. Some EPA is converted into series 3 eicosanoids which can reduce blood clotting, inflammation, blood pressure, and cholesterol. The human body can produce EPA out of ALA and out of DHA.
  • DHA is a long chain (22 carbon) omega-3 fatty acid. It is found mostly in fatty fish, in small amounts in eggs, and in very small amounts in seaweed. It is a major component of the gray matter of the brain, and also found in the retina, testis, sperm, and cell membranes. The body can convert EPA into DHA. ~ veganhealth.orgHorizon-DHA-Why-DHA

Too Many Acronyms? Feeling Confused?

Depending on our needs, we may need more EPA or DHA. When in doubt, I just get a fish oil that has high levels of both.

My rule of thumb – DHA is for cognition and brain development, and EPA is for mood regulation and emotions.

Which should I choose – Cod Liver, Krill, Sardine or Anchovies?

Some fish oils are derived from krill, anchovies, sardines and the popular cod liver oil. You can choose any type you like. Some parents prefer fish oil derived from small fish such as krill and anchovies. The theory is that small fish accumulates very little amounts of toxins, compared to larger fish such as cod and tuna. I avoid tuna in general.

Eye Stims

However, if your child presents with eye stims (also known as stimming, a repetitive self-stimulatory behaviour) or certain visual sensory issues e.g. looking out of the corner of his eyes, always straining his eyes, side glancing, weird eye movements, always looking up and down or side to side frequently – for this, I prefer to use cod liver oil. Cod liver oil is sourced from the liver of the cod fish, which contains a natural form of Vitamin A, which seems to support eye health.

Eye SeeMy daughter’s chronic eye stimming completely stopped after 1 week on cod liver oil! I do not recommend you use other forms of Vitamin A supplementation without a biomed doctor’s guidance, as it can cause toxicity. However, the small amounts of natural Vit A in cod liver oil are generally fine.

What About Flaxseed Oil?

For people who are vegans, vegetarians or have a fish allergy or intolerance, you can take flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil contains ALA, which the body then needs to convert to EPA and DHA.

‘The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA. ALA is efficiently converted to EPA, but it may require large amounts of ALA to produce optimal amounts of DHA.’ – veganhealth.org

It is also said that women are more efficient at converting ALA into EPA and DHA, when compared to men. But personally, I still prefer fish oil over flaxseed oil.

What About Omega 6 and Omega 9?

Omega 6 also known as GLA, is usually derived from evening primrose oil. We usually have too much Omega 6 in our diets. An imbalance of Omega 3 : Omega 6 ratio and too much Omega 6 can cause inflammation. Omega 9 is considered non-essential, as the body can produce small amounts adequately.

When Not To Take Fish Oil

Seizures – Dr Natasha Campbell McBride, founder of the GAPS Diet (Gut and Psychology Syndrome), advises that children with autism who have seizures should avoid fish oil.

Before surgery – fish oil can help thin the blood, thus it’s advised for people at risk of stroke or certain heart conditions. However, if taken too close to surgery, it prevents blood from clotting.

Certified Mercury-Free Fish Oil

I never skimp on good quality fish oil. Fish accumulate toxins in the fat cells surrounding their organs eg. the liver.  Essential fatty acids must be processed to remove these toxins.  I choose trusted brands that produce pharmaceutical grade fish oil free of heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs and other harmful toxins. I have used many brands of fish oil, nowadays I usually rotate between a couple of my favourite brands such as Nordic Naturals’s Arctic-D Cod Liver Oil. And I love Butter Oil/ Fermented Cod Liver Oil Blend by Green Pasture. Other fish oil brands popular amongst my friends include Extra Virgin Cod Liver Oil by Corganic, Carlsons Labs’ Norwegian Cod Liver Oil and SPEAK by Speech Nutrients (use coupon code THINKER and get 20% off your total order and TEAM TMR get’s 10% for their grant program!) There’s so many fantastic fish oils to choose from, please share your favourite brand in the comment section below.

Giving Fish Oil To Little Kids

Fish oil supplements come in liquid, gel capsule and chewables for little kids. They also come in a variety of flavour, such as lemon, orange or strawberry. However, they still smell fishy regardless. And fish oil tends to give us fishy burps, even lemon flavoured ones, akin to being kissed by a stinky mermaid!

Fermented fish oil smells and taste even stronger, more pungent. Thus Green Pasture came out with different flavours including chocolate. But for us Asians who are used to belacan (fermented prawn paste) and nam pla (fish sauce) the smell isn’t as shocking as you’d expect.

For children who are too young to swallow gel caps, liquid fish oils are the obvious choice. However, the smell and taste may take some getting used to. I used to add fish oil in my daughter’s bottle of rice milk, not ideal but it was a start. Later on, I was able to give them fish oil in a syringe. When my children were finally able to swallow capsules, woo hoo!

Many Malaysian parents say that their children easily take fish oil when mixed in congee i.e. rice porridge.

Foods High in Essential Fatty Acids

I make sure my family and I eat foods high in essential fatty acids. Oily fish such as salmon,  eggs (organic, free-range or telur kampung), olive oil, avocados, almonds and walnuts are excellent sources of essential fatty acids.

foods_list_0‘Let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.’ – Hippocrates 

My family and I take Omega 3 fish oil daily to maintain good health and prevent future illness. Fish oil was a crucial supplement for my children’s recovery from autism. Please ensure that you get adequate essential fatty acids in your children and family’s diet.

* Don’t forget to join  KL Biomed: Natural Healing For Autism group on Facebook. KL Biomed is a support network for parents of children with autism, ADHD, apraxia and learning challenges in Malaysia, Singapore and neighbouring countries. We focus on nutrition, natural remedies, holistic treatments and chemical-free living.


By Spectrum Mum In Malaysia – Spectrum Mum is a mother of 2 children who are now recovered from autism. She is the co-author of Autism Beyond The Spectrum and the vice-president of The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, a grassroots autism advocacy movement. She is also the founder of Brightstars – Life Skills For Exceptional Kids, a holistic school for children with autism, ADHD and learning challenges. And founder of KL Biomed, a support network for parents with children affected by autism, ADHD and related disorders in Malaysia, Singapore and neighbouring countries in Asia. She lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with her husband and children.

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One thought on “Fish Oil For Autism: EPA, DHA and the Low Down On Omega 3

  1. Pingback: What's The Healthiest Oil? 10 Cooking Oils Compared - The Thinking Moms' Revolution

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