Omega-3 Fats and ADHD

Can a daily fish-oil supplement improve mental focus?

When he was younger, 16-year-old Bennett Jackson of Colorado Springs struggled in school. “He was easily distracted,” says his mother, Suzanne. “He’d see a leaf fall outside and want to go chase it.” At 7, Bennett was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—characterized by an inability to concentrate, impulsivity and increased motor activity. His doctor started him on a stimulant drug, which vastly improved his symptoms. Later Bennett learned he had a cardiovascular condition that rendered his use of the drugs risky.

Four million Americans find relief from ADHD in stimulants, such as Ritalin and Concerta, which boost neurotransmitters involved in mental focus. But recently, concern over cardiovascular risks prompted a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel to vote in favor of labeling such stimulants with prominent warnings. Not all experts agree with the decision. “Used appropriately, these medications are no more harmful than caffeine—unless you have an underlying cardiovascular problem,” says Edward Hallowell, M.D., a psychiatrist in Sudbury, Massachusetts. “And it’s not clear that the number of cardiovascular deaths linked with stimulants is greater than what would occur randomly in the general population. I wouldn’t tell my patients to stop taking them.”

Promise From the Sea

Still, for people with ADHD who can’t (or choose not to) use stimulants, fish oil may offer new hope. “Anecdotally, fish oil, which is very safe, has helped those with ADHD,” says Hallowell, who recommends fish-oil supplements to all his patients.

Small studies uphold the hypothesis. In a randomized, controlled trial, Alex Richardson, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at Oxford, found that fatty-acid supplementation (800 mg per day) for three months significantly improved reading, spelling and behavior in children with attention disorders. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center reported a correlation between higher blood levels of omega-3 fats and fewer impulsive behaviors.

Larger trials are under way—but some don’t need controlled studies to believe in the benefits. “No magic pill will get rid of my son’s attention deficit,” says Suzanne Jackson. “But fish oils have made a noticeable difference in his ability to focus.”

Bottom Line: The science is new, but experts say a daily fish-oil supplement may improve mental focus and probably will provide cardiovascular benefits. -Cheryl Sternman Rule