02 April 2019

New link between mom-to-be's diet, child's ADHD

A new study suggests that a mother's diet during pregnancy could affect her child's risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Eating for two takes on added significance with a new study suggesting that a mother's diet during pregnancy could affect her child's risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Spanish researchers found a link between levels of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in umbilical cord blood and ADHD at age 7.

The fatty acids play an important role in the structure and function of the central nervous system, particularly during later stages of pregnancy, the researchers explained.

Their study included 600 children from four regions in Spain. To assess ADHD symptoms, teachers completed questionnaires when the children were 4 years old and parents did so three years later.

Researchers also analysed samples of umbilical cord blood plasma from participants.

At age 7, the number of ADHD symptoms rose 13% for each unit of increase in the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.

The researchers said a balance between the two fatty acids is important, because they have opposing functions. Omega-6 promotes inflammation; omega-3 is an anti-inflammatory.

Omega-6 is found in certain vegetable and plant oils, seeds and nuts, while omega-3 is generally found in fish and fish oil, according to the Mayo Clinic.

While the ratio was associated with the number of ADHD symptoms, this was only at age 7 and it was not linked to an ADHD diagnosis, according to the study. Also, only an association and not a cause-and-effect link was seen.

Importance of maternal diet

"Our findings are in line with previous studies that established a relationship between the omega-6/omega-3 ratio in mothers and various early neurodevelopmental outcomes," said lead author Monica Lopez-Vicente. She's a researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal).

"Although the association was not clinically significant, our findings are important at the level of the population as a whole," Lopez-Vicente noted in an institute news release.

Study co-author Jordi Julvez, also from ISGlobal, said the study adds to a growing body of research about the importance of maternal diet during pregnancy.

"The nutrient supply during the earliest stages of life is essential in that it programs the structure and function of the organs, and this programming, in turn, has an impact on health at every stage of life," Julvez said.

"As the brain takes a long time to develop, it is particularly vulnerable to misprogramming. Alterations of this sort could therefore lead to neurodevelopmental disorders," he explained.

The study was published March 28 in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Image credit: iStock


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ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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