Brain Nutrition: Fish Oils, Cod Liver Oil, DHA and EPA

In a recent post, we highlighted some brain boosting foods of which one was fish. Well, we’ve always known fish was good, but how good is good? I thought I should check it out further, especially since Aristotle no longer likes to eat fish. The funny thing is that he really liked it when he was little. He really liked vegetables, too. Then he grew out of them both and move into junk food.

A quick scan on the Internet showed that the brain boosting ability can be seen directly in children who take fish oils:

“regular doses of fish oils dramatically boosted young children’s performance at school. Nearly three quarters of the youngsters – who were of mixed academic ability – showed improvements in numeracy, reading and writing after taking fish oil supplements for nine months.” – Daily mail.


“More and more studies are offering encouraging results to suggest that fish oils can improve children’s concentration.

Recent research has highlighted the specific benefits to the brain of the fatty acids in fish, particularly in children with behavioural or learning difficulties.

This is because in conditions such as autism, the brain needs more fatty acids than normal. Fatty acids also  improve blood flow to the brain, which may help concentration.” – Daily mail.

Then there are the results from the Durham trial:

“Dramatic results were seen within just 3 months of the trial. The children in the active group supplementing with fatty acids saw significant improvements in reading (9.5 months), spelling (6.5 months) and behaviour, compared to the placebo group where no overall improvement  was made.

During the 3-6 month period when the placebo group crossed over to fatty acid supplementation, considerable improvements were shown in the same areas, with an average reading gain of 13.5 months and an average spelling gain at over 6 months. The active group that continued with fatty acid supplementation showed further signs of progress or maintained their improvement.

At the start of the trial, all of the school children were a year behind their chronological age for reading and spelling, but after the trial, the active group who had been on fatty acids throughout the trial made spelling and reading gains over and above their chronological age.”

Wow! Amazing! We should start giving the boys fish oil immediately! Until you dig a little deeper and find out that there’s a lot of controversy over the Durham trial and it has been hailed as “bad science”. Okay, so I didn’t really have a lot of time to do more than a superficial scan of the media so I’m not too clear what the final conclusion was – whether it was all bogus or whether it was inconclusive or if there was some but limited brain benefits from fish oils proven. Whatever the case, an article from BBC seems to indicate that there is potential benefit but it isn’t fully understood just yet.

They might have some slight benefit on children with attention disorder, and some of them might have dyslexia. But there are a lot of provisos,” says Snowling.

While researchers have yet to fully resolve how the balance of different Omega 3s affects brain function, one point on which they agree is that studies into their effects need to be widened beyond children.

Well, even if the jury is still out on the brain benefits of taking fish oils, there is no denying the health benefits of taking fish oils. So if the boys take their fish oil, they’ll get the health benefits at the very least and possibly some brain benefits, too, and that’s good enough for me.

Since Hercules is fine eating fish, it’s only really Aristotle we have to work on.  So far we’ve been giving him Scott’s Emulsion which he is taking but a brief online investigation seems to suggest that for children, cod liver oil is not the way to go. This is because cod liver oil contains high levels of Vitamin A and D which can be toxic since they are both fat-soluble vitamins that the body can’t get rid of if taken in excess. Also, traditional cod liver oil is apparently not particularly rich in EPA and DHA – which are the Omega-3 fatty acids that we’re after.

The best sources for Omega-3 fatty acids are tuna and salmon because they have lots of it. Although nutrients are best taken directly from food sources, which means eating fish like tuna and salmon, we’ve already identified that this isn’t going to work for Aristotle. So we’re back to supplements…

The recommended daily dose of DHA and EPA is about 450-500mg, so that’s what we’re looking for in the market. Currently, Aristotle is taking Sustegen milk powder (a very recent formula milk addition to his diet that he finally tolerates) which only offers 120mg per serve so we need to start looking for an additional supplement. I haven’t figured out what that will be as yet so if you have one that’s working well for you, please recommend it to us in the comments section. Thank you!


  1. Hi Fz,

    I, too, would prefer that the boys get their source from fish. Hercules is good with fish. So was Aristotle, when he was younger. I don’t know whether he just OD on fish and got sick of it or he just grew out of the taste. Anyway, feeding him what he doesn’t like has always been a bane for me. Luckily both boys have been breastfed until 2 years so DHA supplementation has not been an issue in those first two years.

    Hopefully as Aristotle grows older it will be easier to feed him fish. For the meantime, I will have to resort to supplementation.

  2. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks! Yeah, flavour is a real issue with us, too. Such a shame the boys didn’t take after me… (I love salmon). When Aristotle was little, he was actually very fond of Cod. Somewhere along the way, he stopped liking it.

  3. Thanks MieVee – your thorough research on all these things is always appreciated! I saw Pristine but hesitated because I’m not sure if Gavin can cope with swallowing capsules yet. Thankfully I nursed Aristotle until he was 3.5 years so he’s had a good source of DHA for the start. It’s now that I need to start supplementing since he’s not great with fish 🙁

    I noticed that Safemama mentioned only organic milk formula. I suppose it would probably be the same for non-organic formulations…? Then again, the DHA levels in formula are not that high so it’s probably not really a good alternative.

  4. Added DHA in infant milk formula has some controversies involved. Check this example of article discussing it:

    I read from Dr. Sears website that DHA natural sources are egg yolks and oily fishes. I’ve been feeding my boy 1 egg yolk (or whole egg) since 1 year old. Luckily he loves it! I also confirmed this with my friend who’s a dietitian.

    As for fish, I give him a small portion of salmon or mackerel 4 times a week. Not too much due to concern labour mercury level. Go for small fishes instead of big ones like huge tunas, larger fishes have higher mercury content.

    For DHA supplements, I take Pristine, recommended by my obgyn, because it’s well-distilled. Dubious brands may contain high mercury content. Available at Caring Pharmacy, check with pharmacist if a child can take it.

    I’ve also taken Solaray DHA, sourced from algae. I prefer it because it’s vegetarian but too expensive, so I reserve this for only first and third trimester pregnancy.

    Of course, extended breastfeeding is the best source of DHA. 🙂

  5. I started him on Nature’s Way Omega capsules when he was 1 plus which provides 500mg of fish oils in EPA and DHA forms. He loves the taste (important). I find it palatable too since I can’t stand any form of oil supplements. My boy is one 1 capsule a day since he is taking Enfagrow A+, so from there he gets about 75 mg. He is also rather picky about the type of fish he gets, so oily fish is out.

    Here’s a page on the details of this brand:

    Happy hunting!

  6. Fz Teh says:

    I personally believe this ” fish theory” effect on baby’s brain.

    I was recommended by one pharmacist ( my senior in uni.)  to add one fish oil to my daily dietary list during my pregnancy 6 years ago, I didn’t  like fish…and I am still….reason I swallowed that “fishy capsule” whole was he said that was his best  recommendation he could give me, and  I  believed so, more importantly, he said “almost” all his customers who took that same fishy capsule gave positive feedbacks to him of their babies brilliant  memory after birth, one mother, his client, he said out of gratitude,  even brought her brilliant child to let him attest in order to do some follow-up of that findings thereafter……so I was confident in what he said and I reckoned all must be in that  fishy capsule….

    After V was born,  is true V is having ” Very Good”  memory………but my story continued when my MIL who used to be a famous and experienced midwife her times, too  advised me to continue giving a small amount ( lesser than a tea spoon, to be increase later)  of fish oil to my infant baby shortly after she turned 3 months old for she said she learned from her book fish oil gave specifc benefits to infant’s brain particularly between 0-2 years old and the oil given after that period  didn’t really show any specific benefits/growth to the infant’s brain BUT only to bodily growth………

    Now that V is 6, I prefer her to get source direct from fish….any fish…