Omega-3 EPA: The Answer to Autism?


In the wake of National Autism Month 2009, nutrition scientist Dr Nina Bailey speaks out to suggest ways to avoid pharmaceutical interventions, instead imploring the use of highly unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids to address underlying problems.

According to NHS figures, 1 in 100 children are thought to be affected by autism. More recently, a study of British school pupils has found that up to 1 in 60 children has a form of the condition. These alarming findings, revealed by Cambridge University’s specialist Autism Research Centre, could mean that up to 216,000 children in the UK suffer with autism – although many go undiagnosed.

Autism, affecting a person’s communication and social skills primarily, may present itself in a range of ways. Families caring for an autistic child are under tremendous pressure and, without the right support, their lives can be turned upside down. The sheer number of support groups for autistic children and their families is testament itself to the difficulties faced by those affected.

Whilst there is no available medication specifically designed to treat cases of autism, doctors tend to prescribe pharmaceutical drugs to address the individual symptoms, including behavioural problems, anxiety or depression, mood swings, obsessive compulsive disorder, attentional issues and hyperactivity. By treating the symptoms, many doctors believe that people with autism are better able to learn, communicate and connect with others.

Autism is a complex condition, however, and not all people with autism demonstrate the same symptoms; what’s more, not all symptoms can be treated with pharmaceuticals. Many parents would be alarmed at the idea of their seven year old child being prescribed Prozac for anxiety or Zoloft for OCD, and understandably so. These drugs come with warnings for parents to monitor their child for signs of suicide, and a concerning risk of other side effects including seizures, rapid weight gain and severe mood alteration.

Dr Nina Bailey, a nutrition scientist with an interest in Neurodevelopmental disorders, is confident that dietary interventions can result in remarkable improvements to children’s behaviour. Rather than masking symptoms with drugs, she suggests that by making simple changes to a child’s diet, it is possible to address the underlying biochemical imbalances which bring about symptoms in the first place. According to Dr Bailey, “The foods we eat effectively provide the fuel our bodies need, not just physically but also mentally. More specifically, the types of fat we consume in our bodies can make us susceptible to problems with mood, attention and concentration, behaviour, as well as a host of other health conditions.”

“Too many bad fats in the diet, such as trans fats found in processed and deep-fried foods, combined with too few of the good fats found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, can deprive the brain of the essential nutrients required for effective cell messaging, which in turn can upset the delicate neurotransmitter balance in the brain.”

Dr Bailey cites double blind, randomised research which indicate that supplementation with highly unsaturated fatty acids, can bring about dramatic improvements in children with autism.

The study, published in the Journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry,[1] shows that deficiencies in highly unsaturated fatty acids – found in fish and seafood – contribute to both the predisposition and the development of autism, as well as a number of other learning problems such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD.

Overall, the results provide encouraging evidence that omega-3 fish oil can help with behaviour, reading, and spelling in children with developmental disorders, as well as reducing the associated aggressive symptoms in certain autism cases.

This nutritional approach has the backing of The American Psychiatric Association, which advises patients with mood disorders to consume at least 1g of the fatty acids a day. According to research conducted by the University of California, however, only 28.7% of children with autism do so. Although it is not a cure, “EPA offers several benefits in alleviating the symptoms of autism,” says Dr Nina Bailey. “The first relates to the insulating myelin sheath which protects important nerve fibres, which are crucial for maintaining efficient signalling in the brain. When electrical signals slow down, brain function can become impaired. By supplementing the diet with the omega-3 fatty acid EPA, it helps to rebuild the protective fatty acid layer surround nerve fibres, to allow efficient signalling. Individuals with autism appear to have a high turnover of long chain fatty acids and EPA can inhibit the action of the enzymes that are involved in releasing fatty acids from cell membranes, and may therefore help to protect all long chain fatty acids from degradation.”

“Furthermore, autistic children tend to have elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines high levels of which are associated with an overactive immune system and excess inflammation. EPA directly promotes the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and inhibits the productions of pro-inflammatory cytokines which target areas of inflammation and help to restore balance.”

Clinicians successfully use the highly concentrated forumulation Vegepa. Patented and produced in pharmaceutical facilities, Vegepa is a completely natural formulation of important fatty acids, crucial for healthy brain function. Containing a unique ratio of ultra-pure EPA and cold-pressed, virgin evening primrose oil (rich in the anti-inflammatory omega-6 gamma linolenic acid), Vegepa combines the benefits that both these natural substances bring to the body. Igennus, manufacturers of Vegepa, have received high appraisal from consumers and practitioners who have seen dramatic improvements in a variety of cognition-related conditions. In a bid to stimulate further research into this devastating condition, Igennus is donating 50 pence per tub to Research Autism, the only UK charity exclusively dedicated to interventions in autism.

Notes to editors:

For further information, to interview Dr Nina Bailey, contact case studies, or for samples of Vegepa, please contact Mina Nazemi on minan@igennus.com or 01223 358600.

Igennus Ltd

Igennus specialises in the formulation and production of innovative nutritional supplements based on scientific research. We are firmly committed to providing natural means of improving health, and contribute donations to medical research charities in order to support and further scientific understanding into various conditions.


Igennus has close affiliations with respected clinicians and researchers at academic institutions worldwide. Together we hope to build awareness and educate people about the importance of diet and nutrition in leading a healthy and active lifestyle. Our work focuses on the benefits of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet, particularly the omega-3 EPA and its role in health and disease. Research and development are central to the innovation of our new and unique supplements, which are developed in association with our consultants and independent experts.

Worldwide Autism Awareness Month

Although based in the US, the Autism Society of America achieves worldwide reach every year with National Autism Awareness Month. In order to highlight the growing need for concern and awareness about autism, ASA has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month since the 1970s. The United States recognizes April as a special opportunity for everyone to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.

In the UK, the autistic charities seek to persuade the government to recognise autism spectrum disorders as distinct from other conditions, in order to attract the urgent planning, policy development and dedicated resources it deserves.

See www.autism-society.org for more details.

[1] Amminger, G. Berger, G. Schafer, M. Klier, C. Friedrich, M. Feucht, M. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Supplementation in Children with Autism: A Double-blind Randomized, Placebo-controlled Pilot StudyBiol Psychiatry, 2007 61(4):551-3.

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