Omega-3s and ADHD

For parents, there are few things more shocking or upsetting than being told your child has a neurodevelopmental problem such as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). To make matters even worse, this condition is still largely misunderstood and often stigmatized (wrongly so).

Kids with attention deficit disorder (ADD) have a difficult time paying attention, are easily distracted, and often appear to “space out.” Those with ADHD may have have attention problems as well as hyperactivity and impulsivity. You’ll often see them fidgeting and squirming, getting up from their seat a lot, and acting out impulsively or inappropriately. As you can imagine, ADHD greatly affects a child’s performance in school, as well as their social relationships.

According to the CDC, between 2003 and 2007, the incidence of ADHD increased from 7.8 percent to 9.5 percent. Today, they estimate that 11 percent of children have the disorder. That’s an astonishing 6.4 million kids between the ages of 4 and 17. And the numbers keep going up.

The primary treatments for ADHD are behavioral therapy and stimulant medications. ADHD is believed to be the result of abnormalities in the frontal regions of the brain as well as the catecholaminergic system. Catecholamines are a class of compounds that include neurotransmitters—brain chemicals responsible for communicating important information throughout the body. Patients with ADHD have deficiencies or disturbances in the excitatory (or stimulatory) neurotransmitters such as dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. This explains why stimulant medications can be so effective in so many of these children. (Unfortunately, these drugs can also have side effects and are addictive.)

Omega-3s: Another Key Deficiency

Perhaps even more importantly, research has uncovered another problematic deficiency seen in children with ADHD—omega-3 fatty acids.

I’ve discussed many times in the past how harmful the modern Western diet can be to our health. It tends to be rich in vegetable-based oils (corn, soybean, etc.) that are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and grossly lacking in foods that contain the anti-inflammatory omega-3s (such as fatty fish and fish oil). Omega-3s, and especially the fatty acid DHA, are critical for brain health.

Just think about what the typical American kid eats on a daily basis—hot dogs, pizza, sugary juices, cookies, ice cream. When was the last time you saw a 6-year-old eat a plate of grilled salmon or mackerel?

Fueled by massive amounts of sugar and other junk food, it’s no wonder our kids are so lacking in beneficial, brain-nourishing omega-3s. And they’re paying the price not just physically, but mentally.

What the Research Says

Children with ADHD sometimes have poor control over their emotions, which research has linked to low omega-3 levels. In a study of 31 patients with ADHD and 32 without, investigators assessed the differences in omega-3/omega-6 blood levels and the relationship between those indices and event-related potentials (ERPs). ERPs are the brain responses that directly result from an event.

They found that the children with ADHD had lower omega-3/omega-6 ratios and a difficult time appropriately processing their emotions. In fact, “ERP abnormalities were significantly associated with lower omega-3 levels in the ADHD group.”3

Not only has research established a connection between low omega-3 levels and neurodevelopmental problems, it has also shown that supplementation may prevent the onset of ADHD and similar conditions, and dramatically reduce symptoms in those who already have it.

In a 2014 study on omega-3 deficits in children and neurodevelopment, the researchers wrote that, “nutritional insufficiencies of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs) may have adverse effects on brain development and neurodevelopmental outcomes.” It went on to say that, when it comes to children’s diets, “adjustments to increase omega-3 and reduce omega-6 HUFA consumption are sensible recommendations based on general health considerations.”1

Another trial involved 26 children with ADHD who were divided into two groups. In phase one, group A received an omega-3 supplement and group B received an omega-6 supplement (sunflower oil) as placebo. During phase 2 of the study, group B switched to taking the same omega-3 supplement given to group A, and group A continued with the omega-3.

After 16 weeks, the researchers noted a statistically significant improvement in symptoms between baseline and the end of phase 1, with greatest benefits in patients from group A phase 1 and group B phase 2 (both of which were taking the omega-3s). Additionally, a subgroup of eight patients showed dramatically improved attention after taking the omega-3s.

In other published research—this time, a large meta-analysis combining the results from 10 studies involving 699 patients—researchers determined that omega-3 supplementation helps improve ADHD symptoms. The researchers wrote “given its relatively benign side effect profile and evidence of modest efficacy, it may be reasonable to use omega-3 fatty supplementation to augment traditional pharmacologic interventions or for families who decline other psychopharmacologic options.”

A second more recent meta-analysis came to similar conclusions. Researchers examined omega-3s’ effects on emotional lability (inappropriate emotional responses, such as laughing at what might seem like the wrong time), oppositional behavior (defiance), conduct problems, and aggression. The higher quality studies they examined showed significant reductions in emotional lability and oppositional behavior in omega-3 takers.

Add Omega-3s to Your Kids’ Diets

It’s a well-established fact that omega-3 fatty acids are a key ingredient of brain tissue.

Even more critical, research has established that the accumulation of omega-3s in the brain starts in infancy and continues well into the later teen years—the same time period as the onset of ADHD and other mental and neurodevelopmental disorders.

So what’s a parent to do? The answer is really very simple. Whether your goal is to prevent such problems or to treat an existing problem, it is imperative that you limit the amount of junk food (and omega-6s) your children eat and increase the amount of omega-3s they ingest.

Now, I know that getting your child to eat salmon two or three times a week is a long shot. I’ve known a few youngsters over the years with advanced palates who have embraced the taste of fatty fish. But more often than not, giving your child a fish oil supplement is the easier way to go. Fortunately, omega supplements for kids have come a long way. You can find them in liquid and gummy forms, and most have a pleasant, non-fishy taste that most children enjoy.

As always, the proven benefits of omega-3s make them a supplement I’d recommend for,

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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