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Omega-3s' ADHD Benefits Clarified
5/31/2012
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Can omega-3 fatty acids help kids with attention or hyperactivity disorders?
 
And do the excessive intakes of omega-6 fatty acids typical of the standard American diet make matters worse?
 
Based on a small, preliminary body of clinical research, the answer to both questions seems to be a qualified “yes”.
 
Most of the relatively few, small published trials detect modest benefits, with variations in then outcomes linked to the total omega-3 doses used and the proportions of omega-3 DHA and EPA provided (Bloch MH et al. 2011; Richardson AJ 2012).
 
In addition, people’s intakes of competing omega-6 fatty acids appear to affect the efficacy of supplemental omega-3s.
 
For an overview, see “Fish Oil and ADHD: The New York Times Runs a Balanced Report,” which includes links to our prior reports.
 
Several years ago, we reported on three trials with largely positive outcomes … see “UK Study Finds Fish Oil Benefits Kids with Cognitive Deficits” and “Findings Support Omega-3s’ Ability to Aid Kids with Attention Disorders.”
 
One of those trials was conducted by a team from the University of South Australia, led by Natalie Sinn, M.S. … who’s since become Natalie Parletta, Ph.D.
 
Earlier this month, a team led by Dr. Parletta published the mixed but encouraging results of a new clinical trial testing omega-3s in pre-teens with (ADHD).
 
New Aussie trial gets mixed results
Dr. Parletta’s team recruited 90 children with ADHD aged between 9 and 12 to participate in a randomized, controlled clinical trial (Milte CM et al. 2012).
 
They wanted to test the effects on cognition, literacy, and parent-rated behavior of the major plant-source omega-6 fatty acid (linoleic acid or LA) and the two major fish-source omega-3s (EPA and DHA).
 
The children were divided into three groups, and randomly assigned to one of three daily supplement regimens:
  • Omega-3 EPA –fish oil high in EPA (1,109mg EPA + 108mg DHA)
  • Omega-3 DHA – fish oil high in DHA (264mg EPA + 1,032mg of DHA)
  • Omega-6 LA (linoleic acid) – safflower oil (1,467mg of LA)
After four months, the researchers saw no significant differences between the groups for the primary outcomes: cognition, literacy, and parent-rated behavior.
 
However, the omega-3 DHA group displayed slightly improved reading scores, and lower parent ratings of “oppositional” behavior.
 
Importantly, the benefits of omega-3 DHA were stronger in a subgroup of 17 children with learning difficulties,
 
These members of the DHA group displayed significantly improved word reading and spelling scores, an improved ability to divide attention, and lower parent ratings of oppositional behavior, hyperactivity, restlessness, and overall ADHD symptoms.
 
The results also linked higher blood cell levels of omega-3 EPA to reduced anxiety and shyness … which suggests that EPA and DHA may offer different benefits for kids with ADHD.
 
Prior trial detected greater benefits in kids with learning problems
Last year, the same Aussie team published the results of a trial in 75 children aged 7-12 who’d been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
 
The results showed that the kids with the highest omega-3 blood levels were less anxious and shy (Milte CM et al. 2011).
 
And those with the highest blood levels of the omega-3 most essential to brain function – called DHA – scored better on reading tests.
 
In contrast, the kids with the highest blood levels of omega-6 fatty acids had lower reading, vocabulary, spelling, and attention scores.
 
Finally, the third (36 percent) of the children with diagnosed learning difficulties had lower DHA levels than the other kids.
 
As they wrote, the results lent support to emerging indications that kids diagnosed with ADHD and learning difficulties may respond more strongly to omega-3s.
 
This was the first trial to compare omega-3 and omega-6 blood levels in ADHD children and to look for differences between kids with and without accompanying learning difficulties.
 
Omega-6 LA is the dominant fatty acid in vegetable oils, seeds, and nuts, and is generally overabundant in American diets.
 
Omega-6 LA is the precursor to omega-6 AA, which, like omega-3 DHA, is essential to brain function.
 
However, omega-6 LA competes with the plant-source omega-3 called ALA (found only in dark, leafy greens, flaxseed, and beans) for conversion into the long-chain forms needed by our brains … and excessive intake of LA promotes inflammation.
 
To learn more, see “America’s Sickening ‘Omega Imbalance’”.
 
Aussies address the mixed record, urge more research
As we said, the clinical record reveals inconsistencies in the effects of omega-3s in ADHD.
 
Dr. Parletta and her co-workers addressed this issue, noting the likely importance of the omega-3 doses – and the proportions of EPA and DHA – used in trials.
 
They also suggested that – given the generally low omega-3 intakes worldwide and emerging evidence of the specific brain effects of omega-3s – omega-3 supplements might be useful in kids with poor school performance who don’t have a clear diagnosis of ADHD.
 
As they wrote, “Given … the recent evidence that DHA supplementation can improve sustained attention and frontal lobe function in healthy boys, future research should explore the benefits of omega-3 PUFA supplementation for children who have developmentally delayed school performance but not necessarily a clinically diagnosed developmental disorder” (Milte CM et al. 2012).
 
Sadly, nutrition often gets overlooked in debates over school performance and reform.
 
Kids can’t do their best when their brains lack the tools needed for optimal learning capacity and behavior control.
 
 
Sources
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