Omega-3s May Offer An Alternative Treatment For ADHD, Study Says

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She has bachelor's degrees in journalism and english literature from Boston University.

Image by Kaat Zoetekouw / Stocksy

Millions of kids in America have been diagnosed with some form of attention disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common, with 6.1 million reported diagnoses in 2016, and 62% of children as young as 2 years old taking medication to treat ADHD.

But a new study offers more evidence for a different solution to ADHD. Researchers found, in certain cases, omega-3 fish oil supplements can help children with ADHD more than common medications.

What did the researchers find?

Previous studies had established a link between omega-3s and ADHD but were inconclusive when it came to using supplements in treatment. This study was able to establish the specific cases when supplements can make a big difference and to isolate a particular fatty-acid that seems to make a difference.

The joint study was conducted by researchers at King's College London and China Medical University in Taiwan. They found that the use of supplements was only beneficial when kids had previously low blood levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (also known as EPA, a fatty acid commonly found in fish oil). In cases where the children already had normal or high levels of EPA in their blood, the supplement either didn't help or actually made symptoms worse.

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Why does this matter?

The standard treatment option for ADHD in children is doses of stimulants like methylphenidate. The results of this study offer not just an alternative but a potentially more effective alternative in the right cases.

"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," said co-lead researcher Jane Chang, Ph.D., of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College.

It's important to note that this study was conducted in Taiwan, where fish is a much more common part of the diet for children compared to in Europe and America. Previous studies of children with ADHD in these communities have indicated that more of those children have EPA deficiencies than in this study's test group.

"It is possible that EPA deficiency is more common among children with ADHD in countries with less fish consumption, such as in North America and many countries in Europe," said Kuan-Pin Su, M.D., Ph.D., co-lead researcher and professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at China Medical University. "Fish oil supplementation could therefore have more widespread benefits for treating the condition than in our study."

What's next for research?

"Our study sets an important precedent for other nutritional interventions, and we can start bringing the benefits of 'personalised psychiatry' to children with ADHD," said Carmine Pariante, M.D., Ph.D., a senior researcher on the project and professor of psychological medicine at King's.

This study gives even more reasons to explore alternate options for treatment in kids, especially when the evidence suggests this natural alternative can actually be more effective than traditional treatment.

Just remember: While we love hearing about new approaches to complicated medical conditions, always talk to a professional to find the best plan for your family.

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