Omega 3 and Omega 6 have been touted as the natural remedy for ADHD but what is the actual research evidence?
Research into Omega 3 & 6 (also known as Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids or Essential Fatty Acids) and hyperactivity started in the early eighties and really took off in the nineties. A 1995 study found that 54 hyperactive children had significantly lower amounts of fatty acids in their blood stream. A similar study in 2004 found that adults with ADD / ADHD also have lower levels of fatty acids
Once the idea that people with ADHD had lower levels of fatty acids, the next step was to provide supplements and see if behavior changes. One of the very earliest studies in 1987 used evening primrose oil but found that children only improved in two out of the 42 criteria they were assessing the children with. They concluded that gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), the active ingredient of evening primrose oil, was ineffective.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is what Omega 3 (Alpha-Linolenic Acid or ALA) is converted to in the body. A 2001 study using 63 children with ADHD found no difference in behaviour or academic performance after four months of taking 345 mg daily. This is backed by a 2004 Japanese study that used foods supplemented with DHA. They found no improvement in hyperactivity, impulsivity, aggression, visual perception or visual-motor integration.
In 2003, a team from Purdue University in Indiana, USA tested the effects of a daily dose of 480 mg DHA, 80 mg eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), 40 mg arachidonic acid (AA) and 96 mg GLA for four months. Results were mixed and no clear benefit was observed though the results were interesting and suggested further research was needed.
In Oxford, UK, Dr Ricardso conducted a pilot study in 2002. He found that cognitive problems and general behavior problems fell significantly during the trial. He expanded the research to a large scale trial in 2005. This study was widely reported in the news and followed 117 children from 12 schools in Durham, UK. These children had been diagnosed with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) rather than ADHD. DCD is a motor control problem and overlap with ADHD, dyslexia and autistic spectrum disorders. The study used omega-3 fatty acids containing 558mg of EPA and 174mg DHA and omega-6 fatty acids containing 60mg of linolenic acid (LA). Also included was 9.6mg of Vitamin E. The results showed significant improvements in reading, spelling and behavior but did not identify any effect on motor skills.
The studies are the only research done on Omegea fish oils and ADHD. Most research on the fish oils has focused on dyslexia and general health benefits.
It is clear from the results of these trials that taking omega 3 and omega 6 fish oils is not an instant cure for ADD / ADHD. Though as one research noted, the effectiveness of omega fish oil in trials is about 60% that of Ritalin and not one side effect has been reported. Whether fish oils are going to be beneficial for a particular person is unclear. Those who are co-morbid with dyslexia or are generally having reading problems probably will benefit.
It is also important to note that the ideal dose or mix of omega fish oils has not been identified. A mix of 4 to1 omega 3 to omega 6 plus a supplement of vitamin E has been suggested as effective by some of the research.
A month’s supply of ‘Eye Q’ capsules, as used in the Durham trial, will cost about £20 ($30). Most trials have been conducted over three to four months but some benefits were noted after just one month. If you can afford the supplements and are prepared to take them every day (something that people with ADHD might find hard) then they are worth trying but don’t expect miracles.
A lack of essential fatty acids as a possible cause of hyperactivity in children.
Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
Blood phospholipid fatty acid analysis of adults with and without attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
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.
The effects of essential fatty acid supplementation by efamol in hyperactive children
The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder [ PDF ]
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
EFA supplementation in children with inattention, hyperactivity, and other disruptive behaviors.