Omega-3 and ADHD in Children

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Drugs and Health, Health Current Events, Supplements and Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Sometimes I write articles pointing out the fallacies in the headlines you’ve been reading. Other times I write articles because major studies have provided a definitive test of a current paradigm. And sometimes I write articles about small studies that have the potential to change existing omgega-3 and adhd in childrenparadigms. This week’s article falls in the latter category. This week’s article is on omega-3 and ADHD in children.  More precisely,  I’m going to review a study looking at the role of the omega-3s DHA and EPA in reducing ADHD symptoms.

Amid growing concern about the side effects and overuse of the stimulant medications used to treat ADHD symptoms in children, many parents have been looking for natural approaches for controlling ADHD symptoms. One of the most popular natural approaches has been omega-3 supplements, primarily the long chain omega-3s, DHA and EPA.

However, not everyone agrees that DHA and EPA are effective for reducing ADHD symptoms. Here is a brief summary of what we know:

  • Children with ADHD and learning difficulties generally have lower tissue levels of DHA and EPA than children without those deficits.
  • Animal studies show that DHA-deficient diets decrease neuron size and are associated with hyperactive and compulsive behavior.
  • Some clinical studies have reported a significant decrease in ADHD symptoms when children were given omega-3 supplements, while other studies found no effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms. This has led to considerable confusion as to the value of omega-3 supplementation in children with ADHD.

However, recent studies have led to a certain amount of clarity about omega-3 and ADHD in children. In particular:

  • Two recent meta-analyses of all high quality published studies have concluded that omega-3 supplements have a beneficial effect on ADHD symptoms, but the effect is relatively small (Bloch and Qawasmi, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 50: omega-3s991-1000, 2011; Sonuga-Burke et al. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170: 275-289, 2013).
  • One recent study showed that when omega-3 supplementation was combined with a stimulant medication, it improved the effectiveness of the medication, which allowed physicians to decrease the amount of medication they prescribed (Barragan et al, Journal of Attention Disorders, doi: 1177/1087054713518239, 2014).
  • Previous studies have shown that omega-3 supplementation is most effective in the children who are the most deficient in DHA and EPA at the beginning of the study. This is no surprise.

However,what you may not know is that many otherwise healthy children in this country have at least some degree of DHA and EPA deficiency. That’s because major food sources of EPA and DHA, such as salmon and sardines, are not most kid’s favorite foods.

Do Omega-3s Improve Attention Span In Children?

The most recent study (Bos et al, Neuropsychopharmacolgy, 40: 2298-2306, 2015) was a double blind, placebo controlled study looking at the effectiveness of omega-3 supplementation in reducing ADHD symptoms in boys between 8 and 14 years old. It differed significantly from most previous studies in that:

  • It included a matched group of boys who had not been diagnosed with ADHD.
  • It used a 1:1 ratio of DHA to EPA, which resulted in a greater intake of DHA than in many of the previous studies.

The study included 40 boys, aged 8-14, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and 39 matched controls who did not have ADHD. Both groups were either given margarine containing 650 mg/day of both DHA and EPA or a placebo margarine containing an equal amount of monounsaturated fatty acids for 16 weeks. Compliance with the study was measured in terms of the amount of margarine consumed and the levels of DHA and EPA found in cells obtained by a cheek swab. ADHD symptoms (particularly attention span, rule-breaking behavior and aggression) were assessed on the basis of standardized parent-rated child behavior assessments. The results of the study were:

  • At the start of the study, the children with ADHD scored higher on all measures of ADHD symptoms. No surprise here.
  • can foods cause adhd in kidsThe children with the lowest omega-3 levels at the beginning of the study scored highest on all measures of ADHD symptoms. This is also not surprising given the results of previous studies.
  • Omega-3 supplementation increased attention span in boys with ADHD, and the improvement in attention span correlated with an increase in omega-3 status. No improvement was seen in other symptoms of ADHD (rule-breaking behavior and aggression).

Since different studies tend to use different symptom assessments to measure the severity of ADHD, this may explain why some of the previous studies on omega-3s and ADHD symptoms have come up empty. The authors also suggested that some previous studies may have come up empty because the omega-3 supplements they used were low in DHA.

What Is The Significance Of This Study?

Because this study included a control group of boys without ADHD, it offers a whole new perspective on the importance of omega-3s for children. For example, this study showed:

  • Omega-3 supplementation improved attention span equally well in boys with and without ADHD. This is perhaps not surprising. If you have ever had a child in the 8 to 14 year old range, you know their attention span could stand a bit of improvement.

However, when you think about it, this study represents a potential paradigm shift in how we think about omega-3s and childhood behavior. The real significance of this studyis that it suggests that omega-3 supplementation may be beneficial for any child with poor attention span, not just for children with ADHD. This interpretation would be fully consistent with previous studies showing that omega-3 supplementation improves cognitive function and reading skills in children.

 

The Bottom Line

  • Previous studies have suggested that the long chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are modestly effective at improving ADHD symptoms in children, and that they are most effective in children with the lowest omega-3 status at the beginning of the studies.
  • The current study showed that supplementation with DHA and EPA improved attention span in boys aged 8-14 with ADHD, but did not improve other ADHD symptoms such a rule-breaking behavior and aggression.

What does this mean to you if you have a child with ADHD?

  • If the ADHD symptoms are mild and mostly relate to attention span or learning skills, omega-3 supplementation alone may be enough to make a difference. Based on this study you might want to choose an omega-3 supplement that is rich in DHA.
  • If the ADHD symptoms are severe, you will probably need to include omega-3 supplementation as part of a more holistic natural approach for controlling the symptoms.
  • Finally, if a holistic natural approach is just too difficult to manage, the good news is that recent studies suggest that omega-3 supplementation makes ADHD medications more effective, which means your child’s physician may be able to reduce the dose of medication if you include omega-3 supplementation along with the medication.

This study was unique in that it also included a control group of 8-14 year old boys without ADHD and found that omega-3 supplementation was equally effective at improving attention span in children without ADHD.

  • This is a single study, but if it is replicated by future studies it suggests that we may need to change our paradigm. What we have been thinking about omega-3 supplementation for children may be all wrong. Perhaps we should stop thinking of it as a supplement that might help with ADHD symptoms and start thinking of it as a supplement that might help children improve their attention span and mental focus whether they have been diagnosed with ADHD or not. This would certainly be consistent with previous studies showing that omega-3 supplementation improves cognitive function and reading skills in children.

One final thought:

  • This study was performed with boys because they are more prone to ADHD symptoms than girls. However, based on numerous previous studies it is safe to assume that it is likely to apply equally well to girls with and without ADHD.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

UA-43257393-1