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Fish Oils and Attention Deficit Disorder

Summaries of the latest research concerning fish oils and attention deficit


 Attention-deficit disorder in adults

SUNBURY, OHIO. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by hyperactivity, emotional instability, poor coordination, short attention span, poor concentration, impulsiveness, and learning disorders. It is very common among school-age children with an incidence of between four and twenty per cent. Dr. Eugene Arnold, MD, Professor of Psychiatry at Ohio State University, points out that ADHD is not just a childhood disorder, but can be found among adults as well. Dr. Arnold has just completed an exhaustive survey of alternative treatments for adult ADHD. Although none of these treatments have undergone strictly controlled clinical trials some of them may nevertheless be worth a try. Relaxation training, biofeedback, meditation and massage are safe therapies that may have benefits. Fish oil supplementation, vitamins and minerals (in RDA dosages), herbal and homeopathic remedies, laser acupuncture, and anti-fungal (Candida) therapy may also be of benefit. Thyroid dysfunction and chronic lead poisoning are possible causes of ADHD and should be investigated and treated if necessary. Chelation is effective in removing lead. Zinc and magnesium supplementation may be useful if a deficiency is present and St. John's wort (hypericum) should at least be given a pilot study according to Dr. Arnold.

Arnold, L. Eugene. Alternative treatments for adults with ADHD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 931, June 2001, pp. 310-41

Docosahexaenoic acid deficiency may be key to ADHD

WEST LAFAYETTE, INDIANA. It is estimated that 3-5% of the school-age population in the United States suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Prominent symptoms of this disorder are a poor attention span, inability to complete tasks, hyperactivity, and a tendency to interrupt others. Almost one quarter of children with ADHD also suffer from one or more specific learning disabilities in math, spelling or reading.

A study first reported in 1995 linked ADHD to a deficiency of certain long-chain fatty acids. These acids (arachidonic, eiscosapentaenoic, and docosahexaenoic acids) are all metabolites of the two essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3). Researchers at Purdue University are now leaning towards the conclusion that a subclinical deficiency in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is responsible for the abnormal behaviour of children with ADHD. They point out that supplementation with a long-chain omega-6 fatty acid (evening primrose oil) has been unsuccessful in ameliorating ADHD and believe this is because ADHD-children need more omega-3 acids rather than more omega-6 acids. The researchers also found that children with ADHD were breast fed less often as infants than were children without ADHD. Breast milk is an excellent source of DHA. A study is now underway to investigate the effect of oral supplementation with DHA on the behaviour of ADHD-children.

Burgess, John R., et al. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 71 (suppl), January 2000, pp. 327S- 30S 

Fish oils may help dyslexic children

GUILDFORD, UNITED KINGDOM. Dyslexia is a fairly common condition which involves difficulties in learning to read and write, mirror reversals of letters and words, and poor short-term memory. Dyslexia is closely related to dyspraxia (problems with coordination and muscle control) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is estimated that about 10% of the populations of the United States and the United Kingdom suffer from dyslexia and 4% are severely affected. There was a 3-fold increase in the prevalence of learning disorders in the USA over the period 1976 to 1993 and 80% of the new cases involved dyslexia.

Dr. Jacqueline Stordy of the University of Surrey believes that dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have one common denominator - a deficiency of long-chain fatty acids. She points to a study which found improved dark adaptation (a problem among dyslexics) after supplementation with 480 mg/day of docosahexaenoic acid (a main constituent of fish oil) for a month. Another study involving 15 dyspractic children found that supplementation with a proprietary mixture of tuna oil, evening primrose oil, thyme oil, and vitamin E for 4 months markedly improved their motor skills. The mixture provided 480 mg of docosahexaenoic acid, 35 mg of arachidonic acid, 96 mg of alpha-linolenic acid, 80 mg of vitamin E, and 24 mg of thyme oil daily. Dr. Stordy concludes that long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements may benefit children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and notes that large, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies are already underway to verify this hypothesis.

Stordy, B. Jacqueline. Dark adaptation, motor skills, docosahexaenoic acid, and dyslexia. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 71 (suppl), January 2000, pp. 323S-26S 

Your brain needs DHA

NEW YORK, NY. Dr. Barbara Levine, Professor of Nutrition in Medicine at Cornell University, sounds the alarm concerning a totally inadequate intake of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) by most Americans. DHA is the building block of human brain tissue and is particularly abundant in the grey matter of the brain and the retina. Low levels of DHA have recently been associated with depression, memory loss, dementia, and visual problems. DHA is particularly important for fetuses and infants; the DHA content of the infant's brain triples during the first three months of life. Optimal levels of DHA are therefore crucial for pregnant and lactating mothers. Unfortunately, the average DHA content of breast milk in the United States is the lowest in the world, most likely because Americans eat comparatively little fish. Making matters worse is the fact that the United States is the only country in the world where infant formulas are not fortified with DHA. This despite a 1995 recommendation by the World Health Organization that all baby formulas should provide 40 mg of DHA per kilogram of infant body weight. Dr. Levine believes that postpartum depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and low IQs are all linked to the dismally low DHA intake common in the United States. Dr. Levine also points out that low DHA levels have been linked to low brain serotonin levels which again are connected to an increased tendency to depression, suicide, and violence. DHA is abundant in marine phytoplankton and cold-water fish and nutritionists now recommend that people consume two to three servings of fish every week to maintain DHA levels. If this is not possible, Dr. Levine suggests supplementing with 100 mg/day of DHA.

Levine, Barbara S. Most frequently asked questions about DHA. Nutrition Today, Vol. 32, November/December 1997, pp. 248-49 

Hyperactive children lack essential fatty acids

WEST LAFAYETTE, INDIANA. Children suffering from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactive. Researchers at Purdue University now report that hyperactive children have lower levels of key fatty acids in their blood than do normal children. Their experiment involved 53 boys aged 6 to 12 years of age who suffered from ADHD, but were otherwise healthy and 43 matched controls. Analyses showed that the boys with ADHD had significantly lower levels of arachidonic, eicosapentaenoic, and docosahexaenoic acids in their blood. The hyperactive children suffered more from symptoms associated with essential fatty acid deficiency (thirst, frequent urination, and dry hair and skin) and were also much more likely to have asthma and to have had many ear infections. The researchers conclude that ADHD may be linked to a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids (linolenic, eicosapentaenoic, and docosahexaenoic acids) or a poorer ability to convert 18-carbon fatty acids to longer more highly unsaturated acids. The researchers conclude that supplementation with the missing fatty acids may be a useful treatment for hyperactivity.

Stevens, Laura J., et al. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 62, No. 4, October 1995, pp. 761-68 

ADHD and essential fatty acids

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND. Researchers at the School of Medicine at the University of Auckland released a fascinating report which throws a great deal of light on the question "Why are hyperactive children different from normal children"?

The study involved 48 hyperactive children and 49 age- and sex-matched controls. The hyperactive children were selected based on input from both teachers and parents and all participants were evaluated using four behaviour rating scales. The researchers discovered numerous, statistically significant differences between hyperactive and normally behaved children:

  • Hyperactive children had significantly lower birth weights and learned to walk later than normal children;
  • Hyperactive children were more likely to have frequent coughs and colds (44% vs. 8% among normal children);
  • 52% of hyperactive children had an abnormal degree of thirst compared to only 6% in the control group;
  • Hyperactive children were more likely to have speech and language difficulties (32% vs. 6%) and difficulties in learning (67% vs. 6%).

Blood analyses showed that hyperactive children had significantly depressed levels of docosahexaenoic, dihomogammalinolenic, and arachidonic acids. Other research has found that hyperactive children also tend to have lower zinc levels. The researchers point out that male animals require 3 times as much EFAs (essential fatty acids) as do females in order to achieve normal neonatal and infant development; this is consistent with the finding that hyperactivity is far more common among boys than among girls. They also report that they carried out a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study of supplementation with evening primrose oil in 31 selected hyperactive children. No benefits of the supplementation were observed. NOTE: This study was partially funded by Efamol Research Ltd., a manufacturer of evening primrose oil supplements.

Mitchell, E.A., et al. Clinical characteristics and serum essential fatty acid levels in hyperactive children. Clinical Pediatrics, Vol. 26, August 1987, pp. 406-11.

Additional References

  1. Colquhoun, I., and Bunday, S. A lack of essential fatty acids as a possible cause of hyperactivity in children. Med Hypotheses, Vol. 7, May 1981, pp. 673-79 Conclusion: Many hyperactive children lack essential fatty acids.

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