Weekly fish consumption linked to better sleep, higher IQ

Children who eat fish at least once a week sleep better and have IQ scores that are 4 points higher, on average, than those who consume fish less frequently or not at all, according to new findings from the University of Pennsylvania published this week in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal.

Previous studies showed a relationship between omega-3s, the fatty acids in many types of fish, and improved intelligence, as well as omega-3s and better sleep. But they've never all been connected before. This work, conducted by Jianghong Liu, Jennifer Pinto-Martin and Alexandra Hanlon of the School of Nursing and Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Adrian Raine, reveals sleep as a possible mediating pathway, the potential missing link between fish and intelligence.

"This area of research is not well-developed. It's emerging," said Liu, lead author on the paper and an associate professor of nursing and public health. "Here we look at omega-3s coming from our food instead of from supplements."

For the work, a cohort of 541 9- to 11-year-olds in China, 54 percent boys and 46 percent girls, completed a questionnaire about how often they consumed fish in the past month, with options ranging from "never" to "at least once per week." They also took the Chinese version of an IQ test called the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised, which examines verbal and non-verbal skills such as vocabulary and coding.

Their parents then answered questions about sleep quality using the standardized Children Sleep Habits Questionnaire, which included topics such as sleep duration and frequency of night waking or daytime sleepiness. Finally, the researchers controlled for demographic information, including parental education, occupation and marital status and number of children in the home.

Analyzing these data points, the Penn team found that children who reported eating fish weekly scored 4.8 points higher on the IQ exams than those who said they "seldom" or "never" consumed fish. Those whose meals sometimes included fish scored 3.3 points higher. In addition, increased fish consumption was associated with fewer disturbances of sleep, which the researchers say indicates better overall sleep quality.

"Lack of sleep is associated with antisocial behavior; poor cognition is associated with antisocial behavior," said Raine, who has appointments in the School of Arts and Sciences and Penn's Perelman School of Medicine. "We have found that omega-3 supplements reduce antisocial behavior, so it's not too surprising that fish is behind this."

Pinto-Martin, who is executive director of Penn's Center for Public Health Initiatives, as well as the Viola MacInnes/Independence Professor of Nursing and a professor of epidemiology in Penn Medicine, sees strong potential for the implications of this research.

"It adds to the growing body of evidence showing that fish consumption has really positive health benefits and should be something more heavily advertised and promoted," she said. "Children should be introduced to it early on." That could be as young as 10 months, as long as the fish has no bones and has been finely chopped, but should start by around age 2.

"Introducing the taste early makes it more palatable," Pinto-Martin said. "It really has to be a concerted effort, especially in a culture where fish is not as commonly served or smelled. Children are sensitive to smell. If they're not used to it, they may shy away from it."

Given the young age of this study group, Liu and colleagues chose not to analyze the details participants reported about the types of fish consumed, though they plan to do so for work on an older cohort in the future. The researchers also want to add to this current observational study to establish, through randomized controlled trials, that eating fish can lead to better sleep, better school performance and other real-life, practical outcomes.

For the moment, the researchers recommend incrementally incorporating additional fish into a diet; consumption even once a week moves a family into the "high" fish-eating group as defined in the study.

"Doing that could be a lot easier than nudging children about going to bed," Raine said. "If the fish improves sleep, great. If it also improves cognitive performance -- like we've seen here -- even better. It's a double hit."

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Simple Steps for a Screen-Free Childhood

Want to “get your kids off their phones?” a recent ad on Facebook asked me. “Buy your children a gift they will remember for a whole lifetime. A CHICKEN COOP! Backyard Chickens are easier than you think.” Maybe they are—I tend to doubt it—but that’s still a lot of trouble just to get kids to drop their devices for a few minutes.

In a national survey I commissioned last year, I asked some 400 parents about their children’s use of technology. For those whose oldest was 6 or younger, 30% said that their children spent too much time looking at screens. The figure was 56% for parents whose oldest was between 7 and 12. And if the oldest child was between 13 and 17, 62% thought they were on screens too much.

Dozens of parents I interviewed around the country echoed these sentiments. In the case of the older kids, the concerns were tempered by parents’ recognition that social media has become a key way for teens to stay in touch with friends. But what about children who are still years away from adolescence?

Many of the parents I interviewed assume that keeping their younger children occupied without screens would be expensive and time-consuming: You either have to sign them up for a constant stream of activities or make sure that you or another adult is around to entertain them.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Start with holiday gifts. If you are giving your children more screens, they will soon be harassing you for more time on them. Don’t set yourself up for failure. If you want to spoil your kids, do it at a bookstore or with art supplies or sporting goods.

With little kids, even this is largely unnecessary. Every parent knows that toddlers often love packaging more than what is inside the box. Yet few of us seem to follow this idea to its logical conclusion.

Before my older daughter had learned to walk, she developed a love for ripping up newspapers. A weekend paper could keep her occupied for almost a half-hour. It left her filthy with newsprint, and the floor was a mess, but it was worth it. I was always grateful for the time to myself, especially without the guilt of relying on an electronic distraction.

So ask yourself: What sorts of activities are your children drawn to? Do they want to build forts out of couch pillows? Do they want to try on every item of clothing in their drawers? Or use a whole bottle of glue sticking leaves to construction paper? There are alternatives to an iPad, if you can tolerate some untidiness.

It’s useful to remember how previous generations handled these challenges. In her best-selling 1977 book, “The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers and Family Life,” author Marie Winn noted that most children used to nap until at least kindergarten—well past the point when they were actually sleeping during the day. Naptime simply morphed into “quiet time,” when kids would go to their rooms for a bit and play by themselves. Now parents put their children in front of a screen for quiet, but this rarely seems to have the same calming effect—especially when it’s time to turn it off.

We also need to set reasonable expectations. Our parents and grandparents didn’t take toddlers to restaurants past their bedtimes and expect them to behave. They didn’t imagine that 3-year-olds could sit for hours through a sibling’s swim meets. One parent stayed home. Or they got a babysitter. Or no one went.

Now parents use screens to make all of these activities possible. The result is that children expect screens whenever they’re bored. We give in because we don’t know what else to do, but countless generations survived childhood without screen time. If we’re careful about it, ours can too.


—This essay is adapted from Ms. Riley’s new book, “Be the Parent, Please,” to be published by Templeton Press on Jan. 8.