Updated 12 July 2017

Omega-3 may reduce aggressive behaviour in ADHD kids

Omega-3 is well-known for the important role it plays in promoting heart, brain and eye health, and now new research indicates that omega-3 supplements may improve behaviour in ADHD children with aggressive tendencies.

Omega-3 is hailed as one of the super nutrients, boosting the functioning of many processes in the body but how much of an affect can these fatty acids have on improving a child’s behaviour?

Common in kids with ADHD

A new, first-of-its-kind study by the University of Pennsylvania aimed to investigate just that.

Specifically, the researchers aimed to determine whether omega-3, vitamin and mineral supplementation would be more effective in reducing aggressive behaviour when combined with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

Aggressive behaviour is particularly common among children with ADHD and behavioural disorders.

Read: ADHD and learning

The randomised, single-blind study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry involved 290 children aged 11–12 years, dividing them into four groups, one group receiving only nutritional supplementation, one receiving only CBT, one receiving both nutritional supplementation and CBT and one control group.

The results showed that after three months of treatment the nutrition-only group showed a reduction in aggressive behaviour when compared to the control group. Three months after treatment, the group receiving nutritional supplementation and CBT showed less antisocial behaviour than both the control and the CBT-only group.

Only a temporary effect

However, the dietary changes only showed a short-term effect. Nine months after treatment, there were no noticeable differences between the four groups – an indication that ongoing supplementation may be needed to maintain the behavioural improvements.

It is also worth noting that the researchers describe the reduction of aggressive behaviours in the groups receiving nutritional supplementation as being in the “small to moderate range”. 

There were also discrepancies in the behavioural reports provided by parents and the children involved, a University of Pennsylvania press release explains.

Commenting on the results of the study, lead researcher Professor Adrian Raine stated, “We can’t oversimplify the complexity of antisocial behaviour. There are many causes. It’s not just the brain. Is it a piece of the jigsaw puzzle? I think it is.”

Professor Raine has dedicated his career to researching antisocial behaviour. A previous study conducted by Professor Raine found that children who were given a daily omega-3 supplement for 6 months showed a reduction in anxiety, depression and aggressive behaviours such as fighting.

The study is the first to explore the effect of a combination of CBT and nutritional therapy on child behaviour.

Further research on the topic is needed.

Read more:

Can omega-3 reduce antisocial behaviour in children?

Omega-3 supplements could make antidepressants more effective

Can fish oil help boys with ADHD concentrate better?


Ask the Expert

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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