Health & Science

Omega-3 Fish Oil Just As Effective At Improving Attention In Some Children As ADHD Drugs

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A promising new study found that omega-3 fish oil may work just as well as ADHD medications in some children — specifically those who have essential fatty acid deficiencies.

While this is interesting news for families who are curious about exploring treatments in addition to or beyond medication for children with ADHD, the findings are relevant only for children with low levels of omega-3 in their blood

The research, performed by scientists from both King’s College London and China Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan, was published in Translational Psychiatry late last month. Scientists studied two groups of children: one group with ADHD and an Omega-3 deficiency, and one group with ADHD without the deficiency. 

According to the group’s prior research, children deficient in essential fatty acids like those delivered in Omega-3 fish oils often exhibit ADHD behaviors. The severity of their deficiency also correlates with the severity of their ADHD symptoms. With the new study, they hoped to uncover what, if any, relationship existed between these polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) levels in the body and treatment response to PUFAs (like those found in fish oil).

In children who were deficient, they found that the omega-3 supplementation worked as well as, and in some cases better than, medication. Specifically, treating these kids with the omega-3 fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) for 12 weeks significantly improved their scores on vigilance and focused attention. However, the supplement had no benefit to the group of children without the deficiencies — and in some cases actually made them more impulsive.

It’s always critical to consult with a health care provider before changing a child’s treatment plan. And since omega-3 fish oils can actually be detrimental to children without the deficiency, it’s important to consult your child’s doctor to see if they are deficient and whether they might benefit from additional Omega-3 fish oils. Common signs of deficiency are dry eyes, dry skin, brittle nails or small skin bumps.

Co-leader of research Jane Chang, M.D. explains the study’s outcome, and similarly urges caution. “Our results suggest that fish oil supplements are at least as effective for attention as conventional pharmacological treatments among those children with ADHD who have omega-3 deficiency. On the other hand, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and parents should always consult with their children’s psychiatrists since our study suggests there could be negative effects for some children.

Jessica Watson is a freelance writer, author and the blogger behind Four Plus an Angel. Mom to five kids, four in her arms and one in her heart, she tries hard to enjoy them every moment but sometimes dreams of a week alone with a pile of her favorite books. "Four Plus an Angel" -