Linda Blair frightened everyone with her unnerving performance as a possessed child in the 1973 Academy Award winner The Exorcist. What's hard to believe -- and somewhat comical -- is that, in the movie's extended version, there is a scene in which a perplexed doctor initially diagnoses Blair's 12-year-old character with what we today call Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Although frustrated parents may sometimes think of ADHD as a burden their child must bear, and find the only solutions are pharmaceutical interventions, a building body of research is investigating the positive effects omega-3 fatty acids may have on reducing inattention symptoms.
ADHD is characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention and is a common childhood psychiatric disorder with approximately 11 percent of children ages 4 to 17 diagnosed as of 2011 -- a total of 6.4 million U.S. children. Diagnoses continue to rise steadily, increasing from 7.8 percent in 2003. Even though these statistics are dated, they remain alarming. A child with ADHD affects an entire family and can cause strained parent-child relationships, social problems, and academic difficulties; all of which may have compounding effects through childhood and into adulthood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four common methods to mediate the symptoms of ADHD exist: medications, behavioral intervention strategies, parent training, and school accommodations and interventions. Some of these methods include using goals and rewards, limiting choices, creating a routine, and intake of stimulants or non-stimulant medications. Between 70 to 80 percent of children with ADHD respond positively to stimulants. However, many parents have concerns about both the short- and long-term physiological and psychological effects of stimulant medication.
A debate in the nutrition science community is the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids in reducing ADHD symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that the body cannot reproduce and therefore can only be obtained through food. Three types of omega-3 fatty acids exist: alpha-linolenic (ALA), eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA). EPA and DHA are found in oily fish such as salmon. ALA is in flax seeds, nuts and leafy vegetables. Omega-3s are an imperative part of cell membranes and are important in health because they reduce inflammation, which lowers risks for chronic diseases. These fatty acids also are highly concentrated in the brain and improve cognitive functions. Children with ADHD often times have low levels of omega-3s, specifically EPA and DHA.
Despite conflicting results in individual studies, two independent meta-analyses supported minor yet beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for ADHD. To provide additional clarity in this debate, researchers from University Medical Center Utrecht, recently published a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. The study looked at the effects of dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on ADHD symptoms and cognitive control in young boys, ages 8 to 14, with and without ADHD. The trial lasted 16 weeks and the boys either received the placebo or 10 g of 650 mg DHA/EPA margarine daily. Results revealed that both the boys with and without ADHD showed improved symptoms of inattention with the DHA/EPA margarine.
Increased dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids is neither a cure nor a competitor to standard stimulant medication interventions. Nonetheless, considering the additional overall health and anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3 fatty acids -- and taking into account that the only way to increase omega-3 fatty acids in the body is through consumption -- it seems prudent for parents and clinicians to consider increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids among children with ADHD.