Did you know that there might be a direct connection between the quality of our diet and the quality of our focus? That’s right! What we eat, what we ate as kids and teenagers and even our mother’s diet before and during pregnancy could play a role in the development of ADHD.
Over the past five years, the number of Google searches for ‘ADHD’ have nearly quadrupled. Whether this is because we are hearing the term used more in social and workplace settings, increased awareness via celebrities, influencers and medical professionals, or just sheer curiosity, one thing is certain….more and more people are becoming concerned about their ability to focus.
In an attempt to figure out “how on earth can I help my child to improve attention”, many parents have been experimenting with dietary supplements, particularly Omega 3 supplements, such as fish oils (or algal oils, for those who don’t eat fish).
This is not a random choice: scientists have been studying the effects of Omega 3 fats on ADHD for nearly two decades, with some studies occasionally peaking the interest of mainstream media, running headlines such as “Fish oils could be as good as drugs for treating ADHD ”. Unsurprisingly, the real story is a little less black & white.
In fact, if the story was to be retold according to the current state of research, it would probably go something like this:
It is very unlikely that lack of Omega 3s is the one and only cause of ADHD, although it may be a contributory factor. A 2021 review looking at Omega 3 intake during and before pregnancy has found that children exposed to more omega-3 from fish or fish oils during pregnancy were less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD during their first years.
In addition, when researchers analysed blood levels of specific types of Omega 3 fats in
586 children, they found a remarkable difference in the levels between children with and without ADHD. Since omega 3 cannot be made by the body, it appeared that lower intakes of omega 3 from food or dietary supplements were more likely in those with ADHD. And supplementation with omega-3 oils also appeared to improve ADHD-related symptom scores.
So then you might be wondering, “If I take a fish oil supplement or eat a load of fish, will my ADHD symptoms just go away?” Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. Cochrane, an organisation known for analysing the combined results of different clinical trials, recently reported that whilst there is some possible improvement in symptoms of attention, evidence suggests that it is highly unlikely that hyperactivity and impulsivity improve in children with ADHD who consume omega 3 supplements. Parent-rated outcomes of attention were also not much different compared with placebo.
Perhaps there is a “Life-Long Effect”, where longer-term intake across developmental stages is more influential than trying to “correct” with supplements when symptoms are already present. Vitamin D may be similar, as discussed in one of my previous blogs.
Clearly, there are still some questions that need to be addressed further in research, particularly in relation to attention and focus. But it is safe to conclude that maintaining your Omega 3 status at an optimal level through regular consumption of oily fish, walnuts, hemp seeds, and flax seeds is not a bad idea. Though, whether the use of algal/fish oil supplements will make a big difference in concentration span remains to be seen.
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Gillies D, Leach MJ, Perez Algorta G. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2023;4(4):CD007986. Published 2023 Apr 14.
Hawkey E, Nigg JT. Omega-3 fatty acid and ADHD: blood level analysis and meta-analytic extension of supplementation trials. Clin Psychol Rev. 2014;34(6):496-505.
Nevins JEH, Donovan SM, Snetselaar L, et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Dietary Supplements Consumed During Pregnancy and Lactation and Child Neurodevelopment: A Systematic Review. J Nutr. 2021;151(11).
Shareghfarid E, Sangsefidi ZS, Salehi-Abargouei A, Hosseinzadeh M. Empirically derived dietary patterns and food groups intake in relation with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Nutr ESPEN. 2020;36:28-35.