Updated 13 August 2015

Why fats are important for ADHD sufferers

There is strong evidence to suggest that omega 3 fatty acids could play a key role in alleviating ADHD


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, usually referred to as ADHD, is a mild psychiatric disorder that affects an individual’s attention and impulse control. Depending on the diagnostic criteria used, ADHD is believed to affect between 1 and 7% of the child population.

The condition varies so substantially in terms of its presentation, severity and treatability, that many cases, perhaps even the majoriy, go undiagnosed. The impulsive, unfocussed behaviour is often just seen as ill discipline or “part of growing up.”

Given that the condition can persist for many years, there is a need to consider intervention options that are suitable for chronic treatment plans. This has led many researchers and medical practitioners to look beyond traditional medication.

Read: Causes of ADHD

While medication has been shown to be effective in curbing the hyperactivity of afflicted children and helping them focus on tasks like schoolwork, it isn’t without its drawbacks. For starters, if taken constantly the medication can prove very costly for the parents of ADHD sufferers. Additionally, there are the usual issues associated with taking chronic medication such as renal toxicity and protecting the gastro-intestinal tract.

One particularly promising area for long-term treatment is a focus on the dietary intake of children with the condition.

Specifically, boosting the intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to be very effective in suppressing the symptoms of ADHD by working on the underlying causes of the disease. Ensuring that a child has adequate amounts of omega 3 helps to maintain an optimal environment for neural functioning, boosting attention and focus.

Read: ADHD medication FAQ's

These poly-unsaturated fats are a key part of normal metabolism. Metabolism is one of your body’s most essential processes and instability here can have knock-on events throughout the body.

DHA, one form of the oil, are intrinsic in the construction of synapses, the joints at which neurons connect. Without enough DHA, these neurons grow more slowly and more irregularly, increasing the chance of developmental problems arising.

One of the main problems lies in the fact that omega-3 cannot be synthesised by the human body, it is entirely reliant on diet and supplements for its requirements.

The compound is found in a range of foods including:

Salmon, oysters, tuna, sardines, flaxseed, oatmeal, spinach, kale, canola oil.

In addition, a number of other foods are commonly enriched with omega-3 oils. Typically you’ll find that milk, eggs, fruit juices and bread have had omega-3 oils added to them.

However, it can be difficult to consistently get enough of these essential oils from dietary sources. The easiest way to correct an omega-3 deficiency and maintain a healthy level of them going forward is via supplementation. The compound is easily available in both tablet and liquid form which makes it easy to fit into your existing routine.

Outside of ADHD prevention, omega-3 oils have a wide range of other beneficial side-effects. For one, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that the compounds possess anti-inflammatory properties which could potentially form part of a dietary solution for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis. 

Read more:
Parenting a child with ADHD 
Taking control of ADHD
Talk to our ADHD expert 

Sources: International Review of Psychiatry/Mercola/Diet/


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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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