Since my oldest child has been diagnosed with ADHD, I’ve developed a big interest in learning more about Omega-3 fatty acids and how they affect the brain. My goal is finding an alternative treatment that could possibly help with focus and attention. I’ve been aware of the importance of Omega-3 vitamins and their critical role in infant brain development, but I didn’t realize the benefits these essential fats continue to have on the brain as we age. Omega-3 is especially important for children with ADHD and ADD.
I reviewed several studies and analysis, the largest being a meta analysis in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychology 2011. This meta analysis concluded that 699 ADHD children demonstrated a small but significant improvement in attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity when taking Omega-3 supplements which had a higher ratio of EPA. Another study Published in Pediatrics 2009 showed results that indicated “a statistically significant trend toward improvement in the core symptoms of ADHD” in children receiving Omega-3 supplements. A more current study from the Netherlands, printed in March 2015, looked at 40 boys with ADHD. Results showed those taking Omega-3 supplements had improved parent-rated attention. Numerous studies exist that show other positive benefits with Omega-3’s in children with other diagnosis which include diabetes, asthma and depression.
So what are Omega- 3’s?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that our bodies need to function and they can only be obtained from the food we eat. The three types of omega-3 fatty acids are:
α-linolenic acid (ALA)
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
During the first 24 months of an infant’s life, DHA plays a critical role in infant retinal and brain development and rapid brain growth. After age two, the brain continues to grow and develop, reaching 90 percent of adult brain size by the age 5 so DHA levels need to remain high. DHA is critical for nerve cell myelination and neural transmissions, while EPA is involved in brain circulation. Omega-3’s also have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body which makes them beneficial in helping to treat many chronic diseases found in children and adults.
DHA and EPA are primarily found in fish. Parents are often conflicted about offering fish to their children because of concerns about potential toxins such as mercury and PCBs. Be sure to check out this great resource put out by the FDA on selecting safe fish. Experts recommend 1-2 servings (4 oz serving) of fish each week, limiting it to 8-12 oz or less weekly (smaller portion for a younger child). This list includes some of the “best” choices for DHA and EPA with low contaminants as well as sustainably caught.
- Wild Alaskan Salmon and canned pink salmon
- Farmed rainbow trout
- Farmed arctic char
- Wild Atlantic mackerel
- Wild sardines
- Canned light tuna
Other non-fish forms of DHA include fortified milk, fortified orange juice and DHA-fortified eggs.
ALA plays an important role since our bodies are able to convert ALA into EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, it’s an inefficient process and should not be relied on as the sole source of DHA/EPA.
Good food sources of ALA are:
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Flaxseed and Flaxseed oil
- Canola oil
- Soybean oil
Another important essentially fatty acid is the Omega-6 fatty acids found in corn and safflower oil. The typical American diet has plenty of this Omega-6 fatty acid. Researchers believe that Omega-6’s and Omega 3’s compete for the same limited enzymes, so too much Omega-6 can crowd out Omega-3s, resulting in an Omega-3 deficiency. Some experts believe that too much Omega-6 fatty acids in the body can also increase risk of inflammation in the body, which can elevate the risk of developing chronic diseases.
Daily Recommended Amounts of DHA and EPA in Children (there are no US recommended daily allowances-this information is drawn from international recommendations.):
2-4 year old: 100-150 mg
4-5 year old: 150-200mg
6-10 year old 200-250 mg
10-18 years: 250mg +
Omega-3 fatty acids are relatively safe and most children don’t get enough Omega-3’s in their diet so supplementing could be a worthwhile consideration. Most of the studies I reviewed were providing amounts 500-1500mg of total Omega-3’s, most with a higher EPA vs. DHA ratio. I provide this higher range for my own child. Do consult with your child’s pediatrician. My ADHD child loves fish and I have increased her DHA/EPA dosage. I’m thankful my daughter takes pills well since she didn’t like the fish gummies we tried originally. Also, the gummies have a very low amount of DHA and EPA. I have experimented with several different types of Omega-3’s and below are pictures of ones I’ve tried and like.
Metagenics makes a great product, which I am currently using. It has over twice the EPA vs. DHA and only 1 capsule required. The pill is a lot larger then the others I’ve tried, so if your child has a problem with pill size, this wouldn’t be a good one. My daughter has taken it without complaints for several months now.
Thanks Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen for your great book Fearless Feeding, which I used as an excellent reference.