Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is quite common. It affects about one in 20 children and is three or four times more common in boys than in girls. Children with ADHD, which is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, are more likely to drop out of school. The drugs used to treat ADHD are often controversial and don’t work for 20-40 percent of the children that take them.
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are important for our brain, body, immune system and heart. We can only get them from food, such as oily fish, spinach and nuts.
Previous studies have found that children with ADHD eat less omega-3-containing food and have less omega-3 in their bodies than children without ADHD, so they are also more likely to show symptoms indicating a lack of omega-3, such as eczema, brittle nails, and dry and scaly skin. But in previous studies, omega-3 fatty acids were given to children with ADHD without checking if they were deficient in omega-3 in the first place.
In our study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, we examined 92 children, aged six to 18, diagnosed with ADHD. Half were randomly assigned to a group taking omega-3, EPA. The other half (the control group) were given a placebo. The trial lasted 12 weeks.
We measured the children’s progress with a continuous performance test, an objective cognitive assessment of attention, vigilance, and impulsivity at the beginning and at the end of the trial. We found that children who were deficient in omega-3, measured in the blood, became more attentive and vigilant at the end of the 12 weeks when taking EPA. The difference was statistically significant, that is, unlikely to be the result of chance.
In contrast, we found that children in the EPA group with little or no omega-3 deficiency had a worsening in some ADHD symptoms, especially impulsivity. This further suggests that you can have “too much of a good thing”, and that an adequate amount of omega-3 is needed for optimal results.
Currently, there is no recommended dosage for pure EPA, but a panel of experts suggested that the patients who prefer omega-3 supplementation over stimulants (such as Ritalin) should take a combination of DHA and EPA at doses greater than or equal to 750 milligrams a day for at least 12 weeks.