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Can Fish Oil Help Your ADHD?

written by: maryalene • edited by: Linda Richter • updated: 5/19/2011

Fish oil is gaining popularity as a treatment for ADHD. However, is it really effective? Learn what the research proves about fish oil, ADHD and whether these supplements are safe for you.

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    As diagnoses of ADHD continue to dramatically increase, many find they prefer alternative treatments for attention disorders rather than prescription medication. One option that is becoming increasingly popular is the use of fish oil. Although there is relatively limited research on the subject, initial studies show promising results on the use of fish oil for ADHD symptoms.

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    Essential Fatty Acids and Brain Function

    In order to work optimally, the human body needs a number of nutrients and minerals, including essential fatty acids (EFA). Omega-3 and omega-6 are two types of EFAs. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that while both forms of EFAs are essential to brain functions, omega-3 is known to reduce inflammation. Meanwhile, omega-6 fatty acids are associated with an increase with inflammation.

    Some hypothesize that ADHD symptoms may be linked to a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids or be related to an unbalanced ratio of EFAs. According to a 2002 report in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, Western diets contain an excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids as compared to omega-3 fatty acids. While it is suggested that the ratio of these acids was likely 1:1 in earlier times, people in developed countries now have diets with a 15:1 (or more) ratio.

    Other research indicates that children with ADHD may have a lower level of omega-3 fatty acids than their peers. One of the early studies examining the hypothesis that lower levels of EFAs may contribute to ADHD symptoms was published in 1995 by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers from Purdue University discovered that boys with ADHD had significantly lower levels of key fatty acids than children in a control group.

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    Research on Fish Oil & ADHD Treatment

    In the years following the Purdue study, many researchers initiated clinical trials to determine whether EFA supplements such as fish oil could be effective treatments for ADHD. While not all studies have shown a definite link between fish oil and a decrease in ADHD symptoms, many are promising.

    In 2001, researchers at Oxford University administered supplements to a group of children from 8 to 12 years of age. After 12 weeks of treatment, those receiving the supplements demonstrated considerably fewer cognitive and behavioral problems than those in a placebo group. The research, published in 2002 by Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, concluded that supplements were generally safe, well tolerated and deserving of further examination.

    More recently, another Oxford study – this one published in 2005 by Pediatrics – found that children receiving a combination of fish oil and primrose oil saw significant improvements in reading and spelling scores. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics also found a medium to strong response in children receiving supplements. Notably, parents reported a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms while teacher scores did not reflect the same improvement.

    Although the 2007 study did not demonstrate improvement in teacher scores, a 2010 Swedish study does. As part of this research, teachers have indicated that ADHD symptoms for oppositional children and those with less hyperactivity/impulsivity tendencies improved with EFA supplementation as compared to a placebo group.

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    How Much Fish Oil Should You Take?

    While most of the research available on the subject has been conducted on children, fish oil is generally considered safe for both adults and children. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne lists the following potential side effects with fish oil use:

    • Fishy aftertaste and upset stomach with high doses
    • Nausea, diarrhea, belching or rash
    • Bleeding problems with very high doses

    The hospital cautions that children with a known hypersensitivity to fish oils, those with bleeding disorders and individuals taking anti-coagulant or anti-platelet medicine should not take fish oil supplements.

    In terms of dosing, health care professionals have yet to agree upon a standard dosage. WebMD suggests six daily pills containing 400 mg of fish oil and 100 mg of evening primrose oil. Others recommend limiting children to 1,000 mg of combined omega-3 fatty acids each day and adults to 2,000 mg each day.

    Overall, fish oil shows promise as a safe and effective treatment for ADHD. Keep in mind a 2006 study from Oxford cautions that there is not enough evidence to use supplements as a primary treatment, but they can be used to complement standard treatment. However, if you plan to take fish oil for ADHD symptoms or administer it to your children, consult a physician first. An experienced health care professional can help ensure proper dosing and avoid potential interactions with other medications and supplements.

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    Sources for Fish Oil & ADHD:

    Rabin, Roni Caryn. Feeling Good About Fish Oil. New York Times, September 14, 2008

    Fish Oil Dosing, WebMD at http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-993-FISH%20OIL.aspx?activeIngredientId=993&activeIngredientName=FISH%20OIL

    Richardson, Alexandra J. and Puri, Basant K. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effects of supplementation with highly unsaturated fatty acids on ADHD-related symptoms in children with specific learning difficulties. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, February 2002

    Sinn, Natalie and Bryan, Janet. Effect of Supplementation with Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Micronutrients on Learning and Behavior Problems Associated with Child ADHD. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, April 2007

    Fish oils - what the research says, The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, at http://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/factsheets.cfm?doc_id=9984

    Richardson, Alexandra. Omega-3 fatty acids in ADHD and related neurodevelopmental disorders. International Review of Psychiatry, 2006

    Simopoulos, AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 2002

    Stevens, LJ et al. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, October 1995

    Omega-3 fatty acids, University of Maryland Medical Center.at http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm

    Gustafsson, PA et al. EPA supplementation improves teacher-rated behaviour and oppositional symptoms in children with ADHD. Acta Paediatr, October 2010

    Richardson AJ and Montgomery Paul. Fatty acid supplements did not improve motor function but improved literacy levels in developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics, 2005


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