You could be forgiven for thinking that "Omega-3" was just a made-up marketing term to help advertisers sell more fortified cereal and baby-formula. The important truth, however, is that omega-3  intake is critical for good health, and there are more than 10,000 academic studies that support that claim. Now, there seems to be one more reason why you should keep a close eye on your omega-3 intake: the latest research shows that a specific type of omega-3 improves sleep in children. Let's take a closer look at that particular type of omega-3 called DHA ('docohexanoic acid') and how it might help improve the quality of your sleep.

Omega-3 Improves Sleep in Children?

Although it’s still early days in terms of research on DHA's effect on sleep, a recent study conducted by the University of Oxford shows that omega-3 fatty acids might very well be the answer to sleepless nights.The study, conducted by Prof Paul Montgomery and his team, involved 395 children between the ages of 7 and 9 years. Some participants were given DHA-rich omega-3 supplements, while others were given placebo.

Within approximately four months, the team of researchers noticed impressive improvement in sleep in the children who were given the omega-3 supplements: not only did they sleep almost an hour longer each night, but their sleep also had few disturbances. Prof. Montgomery's study was published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Early days

So, does this mean you should start taking omega-3 supplements if you’re tossing and turning at night? Perhaps, but there is still more research required before we can say definitively... “It’s very early to say exactly what the effect of DHA is on sleep patterns.” says Prof Maretha Opperman, senior researcher at the Functional Foods Research Unit at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa. “There are, however, strong indications that omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in (brain function). We need the results of more high-quality clinical trials in order to make broader recommendations.”

Oxford's Prof. Montgomery himself notes that more research needs to be done, but believes his study is certainly a step in the right direction: “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 DHA in the diet.”

How might Omega-3 DHA improve sleep in adults?

While the Oxford study provides a compelling case for improving children’s sleep, DHA’s effect on adults – and how much shut-eye they get per night – is still unclear. However, Montgomery believes there could be a similar finding among adults, too: “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,” he notes.

For instance, research has shown that DHA helps release melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep. What’s more, melatonin levels also naturally rise and fall, decreasing and increasing at certain times during your lifetime. DHA appears to help normalise these fluctuations, helping to ensure better sleep. “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,” Prof. Montgomery says.

The positive benefits of DHA on sleep may be even broader. It’s a well-known fact that this omega-3 fatty acid is also a major structural fat in the central nervous system and brain – in fact, up to 97% of the brain is made up by it. So, it may also encourage better sleep in ways we don’t quite understand yet. In addition, various studies have indicated that taking omega-3 supplements daily may improve mood, while a lack of the fatty acids could lead to depression and anxiety. This, in turn, could also lead to lack of sleep.

Prof. Montgomery also notes this significance: “Core features of both depression and anxiety are sleep problems, and it wouldn’t surprise me if these things were linked.”

How Much DHA Do I Need For Sleep?

Having established that adequate DHA intake may have a variety of sleep benefits, the high dosage of DHA required to match the amount used in the Oxford study is something to be aware of. Getting the same intake the children had in the study can be particularly difficult if you are hoping to replicate the study yourself. “The recommended daily (DHA) intake is around 200mg for children,” says Opperman. “This study supplied them with 600mg – no natural food product (e.g. fish) contains such high amounts of DHA.” Indeed, even a 1000mg capsule of Calamari Oil (one of the most DHA-rich supplements currently on the Australian market) provides just under 500mg of DHA.

But while Opperman is cautious about making recommendations at this early stage, we do know for certain that our bodies all need a regular, adequate dose of the omega-3 fatty acids (and omega-6, for that matter) to function optimally, and that with a combination of supplements and the right dietary choices, 600mg of DHA a day is achievable.


How Do I Get enough Omega-3 to improve sleep?

We always recommend readers get their nutrients where possible from food sources. However, as already noted, if you are trying to replicate the results of the Oxford study yourself, the 600mg a day of DHA is difficult to get from food alone. As such we recommend:

    1.  Take a good marine-algae supplement or calamari oil supplement (the Oxford study used an algae supplement, while calamari oil is particularly rich in DHA and more readily available in Australia. Note: calamari oil was not included in the Oxford study). AND

    1. Increase your intake of fatty fish... this means eating at least 2-3 serves of bluefin or albacore tuna, salmon or swordfish a week. Salmon in particular is very rich in DHA.

Your brain and nervous system will certainly be grateful if you make the above changes to your omega-3 intake. And without you even realising it, these good fats might softly nudge you in the direction of Dreamland….

Do you have any anecdotal examples of omega-3 helping your sleep? Let us know below.