There are a few really interesting studies examining the role omega 3 fatty acids may play in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related disorders. In this article, we take a look at the clinical studies to see if they shed any light on these nutrients.
What are omega 3 fatty acids?
Omega 3 fatty acids are fats that are commonly found in fish oils and certain plant oils (like flaxseed oil), and are considered essential fatty acids. By “essential” we mean that our bodies cannot produce omega 3 fatty acids, yet we need them in our diet.
There are literally hundreds of different omega 3 fatty acids, but the two most important ones are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The health benefits of EPA and DHA were first noticed in the 1970s, when it was observed that the Greenland Inuit people consumed large amounts of omega 3 fatty acid-rich fish, yet they had little to no cardiovascular disease.
Potential Health Benefits
Unfortunately, there are innumerable numbers of products and claims associated with omega 3 fatty acids. Many of these claims are quite general, and are supported by little or no clinical evidence. However, there are a few areas where there are some studies that demonstrate some level of health benefit.
Cardiovascular Disease – As mentioned earlier, omega 3 fatty acids were originally thought to have some cardiovascular health benefit. A variety of studies have noted that omega 3 fatty acids can help with high cholesterol, mildly elevated blood pressure, and cardiovascular issues associated with diabetes
Central Nervous System – While the evidence supporting the use of omega 3 fatty acids for cardiovascular health is substantial, it is less so for diseases of the central nervous system. One exception may be the use of omega 3 fatty acids in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For example, a detailed review conducted at Yale University concluded:
Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, particularly with higher doses of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), was modestly effective in the treatment of ADHD…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…interventions or for families who decline other psychopharmacologic options.
In other words, the authors concluded that omega 3 fatty acids may have some benefit in ADHD. Importantly, their excellent safety profile makes them a low-risk for parents to supplement existing prescription stimulant drugs, or in cases where parents refuse to expose their children to prescription stimulants for the treatment of ADHD.
Another interesting study from the University of South Australia found that low blood levels of omega 3 fatty acids are associated with ADHD, especially in kids with learning difficulties. The authors suggest that ADHD children may benefit from omega 3 fatty acid supplements.
Lastly, a study out of Norway looked at krill oil supplements (a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids) in boys aged 7-11 years with ADHD. The researcher noted that the boys taking the krill oil improved their clinical symptoms of ADHD versus boys who did not take krill oil. The details are a bit sketchy, but intriguing nevertheless.
There is little doubt that omega 3 fatty acids have positive health benefits in cardiovascular disease. Can they help kids with ADHD? Our general conclusion is that omega 3 fatty acids are extremely safe. Further, the evidence, while limited, seems to suggest that omega 3 fatty acid supplements can help kids with ADHD. So there is little lose, and much to gain!