Updated 19 July 2017

Omega-3: a solution to ADHD?

Several studies have shown that supplementation with essential Omega-3 fatty acids can benefit children with learning difficulties and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Several studies have shown that supplementation with essential Omega-3 fatty acids can benefit children with learning difficulties and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Elliot Brown, from Durham in the United Kingdom, is proof of this. He was one of a group of 100 children who took part in a study conducted by the Durham Local Education Authority.

The Durham study was designed to find a way to help the 30% of children who are suffering from conditions such as dyslexia (a developmental disorder that affects a child's ability to read and write), dyspraxia (an inability to make skilled movements with accuracy) and ADHD, which is characterised by excessive activity levels and lack of concentration.

At the age of nine, Elliot could speak fluently, but couldn't read or write properly.

Then he was chosen to take part in the study, which was aimed at establishing whether children with learning difficulties could benefit from omega-3 and omega-6 supplementation, and his situation changed dramatically.

What the research proved?

The children in the Durham study were split into two groups. One group was given Omega-3 supplements, while the other was given only placebos (a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment).

At the start of the trial, the children were diagnosed with almost 32% of ADHD characteristics.

The researchers found that after taking tablets containing high-grade fish oils (with EPA, an Omega-3 fatty acid) and virgin evening primrose oil (with GLA, an Omega-6 fatty acid) for six months, the children's behaviour showed a marked improvement.

After a mere three months, those children who were taking the Omega-3 supplement showed a reduction of ADHD characteristics to 18%, while the drop in the same characteristics for those given placebos was only by 1%.

As for Elliot, after only six months of treatment, his school grades improved and the boy was enthusiastic about doing his homework. He even developed an interest in classical music.

But the Durham model is not unique in its findings. Other studies have also reported similar results, leading to calls for Omega-3 supplementation of school children.

A University of South Australia study has also found that supplements containing Omega-3 and Omega-6 also improved appeased hyperactivity and boosted attention-span scores in a group of young kids.

And, in a clinical study in Massachusetts, a group of young children with ADHD were given a daily dose of EPA and DHA of 10.8 grams and 5.4 grams respectively over 15 weeks. All of the children showed increased attention, lowered hyperactivity, lower impulsive tendencies, as well as less defiance and conduct disorder.
The Massachusetts study firmly established that Omega-3 fatty acids, when consumed in a controlled dosage, can relieve some of the effects of ADHD.

Specific functions of omega 3

Experts believe that the different fatty acids have very specific functions. As an example, it's believed that EPA increases blood flow, regulates hormones and boosts the immune system – all of which have a positive effect on brain function. DHA, on the other hand, makes it easier for the brain to transit electrical signals.

Studies on ADHD say that children with the condition experience a miscommunication between brain cells, resulting in a message being fired, but not received. That message then gets sucked back up into the neuron that sent it.

Experts are convinced that EPAs (Omega-3 fatty acids) can help the brain cells receive the messages sent between synapses, and ultimately erase the chatter and stop the sending neuron from scooping up its own message.

Once again, the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, in the form of fish and evening primrose oil, might be a solution.

ADHD is usually treated with synthetic stimulants such as Clonidine, Ritalin, and Methyline and Metadoxine, to name a few. However, the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has consistently warned about the dangers of stimulants when treating ADHD for children.

Overall, Omega-3, because it’s all natural, appears to be the best defense against ADHD in kids since it has none of the stimulant side-effect such as nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, insomnia and high blood pressure.

It should be noted, however, that research on ADHD and fatty acids is ongoing and that no definite recommendations can be made as yet.

In the meantime, experts say that fatty-acid supplementation probably couldn’t hurt, but that it shouldn't be seen in isolation and parents should always consult a specialist first.

When it comes to the treatment of ADHD, adequate sleep, a balanced, low-GI diet and regular exercise should also play an important role.

Image: Salmon fish from Shutterstock

(Carine Visagie, updated by Hayden Horner, Health24, July 2013)


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

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.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules