Fish Oil for ADHD?

I just heard about a study showing that fish oil supplements are more effective than Ritalin for kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). True? What would you recommend?

– August 7, 2006

The study you mention was done at the University of South Australia. Researchers there tested a combination of omega-3 fish oil and evening primrose oil (an omega-6 oil) on 132 children with ADHD, ranging in age from seven to 12. After the 30-week study ended, almost half the parents reported that their children’s symptoms were improved.

For the first 15 weeks of the study, the kids were divided into three groups. One group took the fish oil/primrose oil combination; the second took the same combination plus a multivitamin/mineral supplement and a third group took a placebo. For the second 15 weeks, the kids on the placebo got the fish oil/primrose oil combination plus the multivitamin/mineral as well.

The result: a 40-50 percent improvement in behavior for the two 30-week fish-oil groups, and a 30-40 percent improvement for the 15-week group. Compared with results of studies of Ritalin and Concerta, the drugs most often prescribed for ADHD, they found that fish oils were more effective.

I’m not surprised by the positive results. Levels of omega-3s in the plasma and red blood cells of children with ADHD are lower than in kids who don’t have the disorder. For this reason, my colleague, Tucson pediatrician Sandy Newmark, M.D., has been recommending omega-3 supplements for all kids with ADHD for some time. I’ve often referred questions about treating kids with ADHD to Dr. Newmark and incorporated his advice in my responses on this site.

Finding an alternative to stimulant drugs for treatment of kids with ADHD is vitally important. While Ritalin can have excellent results in some cases, I think it is greatly over-prescribed, exposing many thousands of youngsters to the risks of such serious side effects as loss of appetite, insomnia, changes in personality, and heart damage. There is also some evidence that it can stunt growth.

Dr. Newmark recommends that kids with ADHD take a quality multivitamin as well as a good probiotic, a product that contains “friendly” bacteria that can stabilize the digestive tract. You can find milk-free brands in health-food stores. I recommend brands containing Lactobacillus GG, such as Culturelle. In addition, Dr. Newmark sometimes recommends the herbal remedy valerian for ADHD youngsters with sleeping problems and St. John’s wort for those with depression (use half the adult dosage for children under 12).

Before starting any treatment for ADHD, make sure that it really is the underlying cause of your child’s disruptive behavior, and that he or she isn’t acting out difficulties at home or expressing frustration with a learning disability. Be sure to rule out hearing or vision problems, allergies, depression, or even boredom in a gifted child.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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