Omega-3 Fish Oil As Effective as ADHD Drugs?

John Bachman
3 Mins
Omega-3 Fish Oil As Effective as ADHD Drugs?

Personalized Psychiatry: Why One Size Doesn’t Fit All Kids with ADHD

“Everyone is a snowflake.” We’ve heard it a million times. And it’s true. No two people are exactly alike. Everyone is unique. So why, oh why, do we think one course of treatment will work on every single person with the same diagnosis?

If you are near-sighted, you wouldn’t assume all diagnoses of near-sightedness require the exact same strength of vision correction in both eyes and for all people. Instead, the doctor examines each eye, takes measurements, and determines how much correction is required for you to see optimally out of each eye individually and together.

So, what about children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Isn’t there a standard course that “fixes” all of them? No.

Traditional ADHD Treatment: Is It Working?

There is an underlying neurobiological component to ADHD. Whether a brain issue causes ADHD or ADHD causes neurotransmitter difficulties, there is a clear relationship between the two. There is also a standard that has been commonly used over the last several decades – stimulants.

In people with ADHD, the brain often has issues with producing enough neurotransmitters, specifically dopamine and norepinephrine. Stimulants can help the brain produce more of these neurotransmitters or prevent the neurons from prematurely reabsorbing them, thus rendering them inefficient in sending messages across synapses. This impacts the brain’s ability to regulate attention and executive function, such as staying on task.

Just as glasses don’t “cure” poor vision, but rather manage and correct it on an ongoing basis, stimulants assist the brain in an ongoing manner to continue to generate and use sufficient amounts of neurotransmitters.

Another Option? ADHD and Omega-3s

Recent studies have established a correlation between omega-3 deficiencies and individuals experiencing ADHD symptoms. Study after study confirms a link between low levels of EPA, DHA and ALA (omega-3s) in the blood and the likelihood of having ADHD. Needless to say, when omega-3 levels are normalized in the blood, symptoms often decrease.

However, there are plenty of patients diagnosed with ADHD who do not have omega-3 deficiencies. So would a supplement help them as well?

New Study Reveals the Need for Personalized Approach

A study published in Translational Psychiatry (Nov 20, 2019) evaluated the impact of omega-3 supplements on patients with ADHD, both with low omega-3 levels before treatment, and those with normal-to-high levels of omega-3s in their blood. 

Ninety-two children ages six to 18 diagnosed with ADHD were randomly assigned to take a placebo or a high-dose supplement of omega-3s. Children with low pre-study levels of EPA showed marked improvements in both focused attention and vigilance when given the supplement. However, those children with normal EPA levels before the supplement showed no change. And, what’s more, children with high EPA levels pre-study actually showed a negative change in impulsivity!

What worked for some was not the proper answer for all. But what did work for the children with low EPA levels actually worked two- to four-times better than stimulants.

It is of interest to note this joint effort study was completed at King’s College London (UK) and China Medical University (Taiwan). The actual study was conducted in Taiwan, where diets are more likely to contain higher levels of fish (and thus, omega-3s) than many Western diets.

So, How Do I Know What My Child Needs?

You are your child’s best ally and advocate! Be observant, speak up for what is or isn’t working, and partner with your mental and physical health care providers. If you suspect your child has ADHD, look for a few potential indicators of omega- 3 deficiencies, including:

  • Dry eyes
  • Dry skin
  • Eczema and other allergic reactions
  • Dry or brittle hair and nails

Try a solution, give it enough time to have an impact, and keep notes on how effective it is at managing symptoms. If it works, great! If it doesn’t, go back to your provider and discuss what’s happening and what needs to change.

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