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Omega 3: A Natural Remedy for ADHD - or is it?

by David McEvoy

Is Omega 3 a natural remedy for ADHD? The simple answer is no. Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that is absolutely vital for adults, hence the word 'essential' - for children of birth age until age two, it is even more important that they receive enough of the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA for the healthy construction of the brain. Beyond two years, they need EPA for the healthy function of the brain.

So why is it not a remedy? It is not a remedy for the simple reason that it should already be included in the diet, and not simply as an afterthought to add it to the diet because the child or adult has ADHD.

Does this mean that if you give a person with ADHD high-strength pharmaceutical grade fish oil in addition to a poor diet, they will not feel any effects? The answer has to be yes, of course they will feel the effects. If you starve anyone for long enough of vital nutrients then the body will react in certain ways – if you then replace those nutrients, the body will return in time to its correct balance.

What is ADHD?

A good definition is as follows:

A common developmental and behavioral disorder, it is characterised by poor concentration, distractibility, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness that are inappropriate for the child's age. Children and adults with ADHD are easily distracted by sights and sounds in their environment, cannot concentrate for long periods of time, are restless and impulsive, or have a tendency to daydream and be slow to complete tasks.

Fish oil supplementation

With current research revealing that Omega 3 fatty acid deficiencies may be a factor affecting learning difficulties, authorities in Durham, England, initiated a programme to see if it was possible that an improved diet would lead to improvements in the classroom. But overturning the high-carbohydrate, heavily-processed diets that children typically consume was going to be a momentous task. So they decided to see if fatty acids in the form of a fish oil supplement could be of any use.

This was the largest and most extensive trial looking at Omega 3 fatty acids and learning conditions to be carried out within the United Kingdom.

This trial involved more than 100 children at 12 primary schools in the Durham area. The trial looked at dyspraxia and motor skills, but also assessed for dyslexia and ADHD.

Trial results

At the start of the trial, the percentage of children within the clinical range of an ADHD diagnosis was set at 32% for the fish oil group and 31% for the placebo group.

After 3 months of Omega 3 fish oil supplementation, the percentage of children within the clinical range of an ADHD diagnosis reduced to 18% for the fatty acid group, whereas this only dropped 1 % for the placebo group.

A raw score was calculated from the teacher rating form that assessed each child's behavior. After 3 months there was a highly significant reduction seen in the fish oil supplement group, compared to those on placebo, in this behavioral score. The fatty acid group reduced from an average score of 74.7 to 58.1., whereas the before and after treatment scores for the placebo group were 69.5 and 67.9.

The active fish oil group also saw significantly reduced teacher ratings on the Conners' DSM ADHD global scale after 3 months, compared with the placebo group. The placebo group saw similar improvements on this scale after crossing over to the active fish oils for the 3-6 month period of the trial.

Within 3 months children on the active supplement saw a significant reduction on the rating scale of Hyperactive-Impulsive behavior, compared to those on placebo. Further reductions were seen in the 3-6 month period of the study.

Dramatic results were also seen within just 3 months of the dyspraxia trial. The active group supplementing with Omega 3 fish oil saw significant improvements in reading (9.5 months), spelling (6.5 months) and behavior, compared to the placebo group where no overall improvement was made.

During the 3-6 month period when the placebo group crossed over to Omega 3 fish oil supplementation, considerable improvements were shown in the same areas, with an average reading gain of 13.5 months and an average spelling gain at over 6 months. The active group continuing supplementation displayed further signs of progress or maintained their improvement.

At the start of the trial, children were a year behind their chronological age for reading and spelling, but after the trial, the active group who had been on Omega 3 fish oil throughout the trial made spelling and reading gains over and above their age.

An alternative view

On the face of things these results look fairly conclusive. However, when you take into account that by their own admission they had a real battle with the children (and in some cases parents) to change their eating habits then the results - to a qualified dietician and anyone who knows what a balanced diet is – swing. Far from seeming to show that fish oil cures ADHD and dyspraxia, it rather appears to demonstrate the need for a very balanced diet, with all these nutritional components included in the first place.

What would be far more interesting than turning a lot of unruly children's diets into the correct balance and then claiming that fish oil helps with ADHD, would be to take a lot of children who eat a very balanced Mediterranean style diet, which is already very balanced, and perform a trial with those children to see if it actually improves their reading or spelling ability.

Conclusion

Not all the children involved in the trial showed great gains in behavior, spelling and reading, and those children that did show great gains were in my opinion children who were very badly deficient in Omega 3 already through a very poor diet.

The correct approach is not to supplement children with fish oil, but to drastically improve the child's eating habits, following the example of a Mediterranean diet which includes oily fish, and trying to cut out all additives and preservatives and the wrong kinds of "bad fats". As most parents will know this is almost an impossibility, but changing a few little things about the diet will make a difference. As for the fish oil capsules, if you really can't get your child to eat oily fish then as this trial proves, supplementing with a high quality fish oil supplement is highly advisable so that your child can get the correct amount of Omega 3 in their diet.

About the Author:

Dave McEvoy is an award winning personal trainer with over 20 years experience; he also runs a high quality health supplement website. http://www.mind1st.co.uk

Anthony Kane, MD
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