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Fatty acids and sleep in UK children: subjective and pilot objective sleep results from the DOLAB study - a randomized controlled trial

Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Richardson AJ (2014) J Sleep Res. 2014 23(4):364-88, epub Mar 8. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12135.   

Web URL: View this and related abstracts via PubMed here. Free full text of this article is available online


 problems in children are associated with poor health, behavioural and cognitive problems, as are deficiencies of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid. Theory and some evidence support a role for these fatty acids in sleep regulation, but this issue has received little formal investigation.

We examined associations between blood 
fatty acid concentrations (from fingerstick blood samples) and subjective sleep (using an age-standardized parent questionnaire) in a large epidemiological sample of healthy children aged 7-9 years (n = 395) from mainstream UK schools. In arandomized controlled trial, we then explored whether 16-week supplementation (600 mg day-1 ) with algal docosahexaenoic acid versus placebo might improve sleep in a subset of those children (n = 362) who were underperforming in reading. In a randomly selected subsample (n = 43), sleep was also assessed objectively via actigraphy.

In 40% of the epidemiological sample, Child 
Sleep Habits Questionnaire scores indicated clinical-level sleep problems. Furthermore, poorer total sleep disturbance scores were associated weakly but significantly with lower blood docosahexaenoic acid (std coeff. -0.105*) and a lower docosahexaenoic acid : arachidonic acid ratio (std coeff. -0.119**).

The treatment 
trial showed no significant effects on subjective sleep measures. However, in the small actigraphy subsample, docosahexaenoic acid supplementation led on average to seven fewer wake episodes and 58 min more sleep per night.

Cautiously, we conclude that higher blood levels of docosahexaenoic acid may relate to better child 
sleep, as rated by parents. Exploratory pilot objective evidence from actigraphy suggests that docosahexaenoic acid supplementation may improve children's sleep, but further investigations are needed.


See also the associated news article:

As the researchers noted there:

To find clinical level sleep problems in four in 10 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.

Previous studies we have published showed that blood levels of omega-3 DHA in this general population sample of seven to nine-year-olds were alarmingly low overall, and were directly related to the children's behaviour and learning.

Poor sleep could well help to explain some of those associations - and our previous findings from this randomized controlled trial, showing that DHA supplementation improved both reading progress and behaviour in the poorest-reading children

Further research is needed given the small number of children involved in the pilot study. Larger studies using objective sleep measures, such as further actigraphy using wrist sensors, are clearly warranted. However, 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.