Many of the patients that I see who have problems with attention and focus as well as other behavioral and learning issues have been started on all sorts of different medications. For some children their medications seem to be “working well”. But, for some children it has been difficult to find the “right” medication to alleviate all of their symptoms. Studies have shown that anywhere from 10%- 30% of children with ADHD do not respond favorably to stimulant medications. Therefore, it is not uncommon for their parents to inquire about the use of alternative or complementary medications. In several cases their parents have already started “dietary supplements”, which at times they are reluctant to admit to, or ask for my opinion.
Interestingly, there is recent data regarding dietary supplements that parents and pediatricians should be paying attention to…and open to discussing. A study that was presented last fall at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed that omega-3’s “could augment the response in children aged 7-14 years who were receiving psychotherapy for depression and bipolar disorders”. There have been studies as well that have shown “significant improvements with Omega-3’s relative to placebo for problems including aggression as well as depression and anxiety symptoms”. There are also numerous studies looking at ADHD symptom improvement in those using Omega-3’s, and again the results have been mixed, made even more difficult by the fact that ADHD is a subjective diagnosis.
Another issue that requires more study is how these fatty acids actually work within the body and brain. Omega-3’s are an important building block of the brain and it is present in the brain's cell membranes, where it is thought to facilitate the transmission of neural signals. Current thought is that these fatty acids may change the cell membrane fluidity and may also have anti-inflammatory effects….but a lot of research continues on the issue of mechanism of action.
Several of the studies looked at dosage of the Omega 3 fatty acid supplements and “it seemed that there were more positive trials related to higher daily doses of certain omega 3 fatty acids including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). There need to be further studies to address the amount and ratio of these Omega-3’s as they are used for supplements.
So while the research continues as to the effectiveness of Omega 3’s on focus, mood, behavior and learning it is important for all children to consume enough Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. Eating fatty fish a few times a week would be beneficial for the health of all children - and the decision to supplement beyond that may be a topic for discussion with your own physician.