Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may benefit children with learning difficulties and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, research shows.

Elliot Brown from Durham in the United Kingdom, one of a group of 100 children who took part in a study conducted by the Durham Local Education Authority, is one example of how omega-3s could make a difference in children with learning difficulties.

At the age of nine, Elliot could speak fluently, but couldn't read or write properly. For this reason, he was chosen to take part in a study aimed at establishing whether children with learning difficulties could benefit from omega-3 and omega-6 supplementation. Elliot’s situation changed dramatically.

Marked improvement in behaviour

The Durham study sought to find a way to help the 30% of children who suffer from conditions such as dyslexia (a developmental disorder that affects a child's ability to read and write), dyspraxia (an inability to make skilled movements with accuracy) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), characterised by excessive activity levels and lack of concentration.

The study participants were all demonstrating some level of ADHD symptoms at the start of the trial. For research purposes they were split into two groups: the first was given omega-3 supplements, while the other received a placebo. After taking tablets containing high-grade fish oils and virgin evening primrose oil with GLA (an omega-6 fatty acid) for six months, the children's behaviour showed marked improvement.

After a mere three months, the children who were taking omega-3s showed a reduction of ADHD characteristics to 18% (from 32% at the start of the trial), compared to a 1% drop in the control group. And, after only six months of treatment, Elliot’s school grades improved dramatically. The boy was also enthusiastic about his homework.

A growing body of evidence

The Durham study isn’t unique in its findings either. Other studies have also reported similar results, leading to calls for wide-scale omega-3 supplementation in school children.

A University of South Australia study also found that supplements containing omega-3 and omega-6 decreased hyperactivity levels and boosted attention-span scores in a group of young children.

In a clinical study in Massachusetts, a group of young children with ADHD were given a daily dose of EPA and DHA of 10.8g and 5.4g respectively over 15 weeks. All the children showed increased attention span, lower hyperactivity levels, fewer impulsive tendencies and better conduct at the end of the trial.

This study also established that omega-3 fatty acids, when consumed in a controlled dosage, could relieve at least some of the effects of ADHD.

A safer treatment option

Experts believe that the different fatty acids have very specific functions. It’s believed, for example, that EPA can increase blood flow, regulate hormones and boost the immune system – factors that all have a positive effect on brain function. Plus, it looks like DHA makes it easier for the brain to transit electrical signals. Both EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in marine oils.

ADHD is usually treated with synthetic stimulants such as clonidine, methylphenidate, methyline and metadoxine. However, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have consistently warned about the dangers of stimulants when treating ADHD in children.

Omega-3 appears to be a safer defence against this common disorder. The essential fatty acids have none of the side effects commonly associated with these stimulants, some of which include nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, insomnia and high blood pressure.

Emergence of new, smarter omega-3 options

Fish oil along with plant based options, such as chia, algae and flaxseeds are some of the most commonly known options for omega-3 supplements.  However in recent years there have been new additions to the line up.  Krill Oil offers sufferers of arthritis and joint pain a more effective solution while calamari oil which is higher in DHA than both other options is becoming more and more popular.

Calamari is the highest known source of DHA and currently the most ecologically sustainable.  The Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australian has recently added the product to the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.

Researchers have been able to identify the specific action of these fatty acids and have proven that DHA is the preferred omega-3 for:

    • growth and development (Approximately 60% of the human brain is made up of fats, of this 40% of it is DHA.)

    • improving communication between brain cells and making cell membranes more fluid

    • development and proper maintenance of the brain

    • development of the brain and retina membranes of developing fetus when taken during pregnancy

It should be noted, however, that research on ADHD and fatty-acid supplementation is ongoing, and that no definite recommendations can be made at this stage.  While omega-3 supplementation probably can’t hurt, concerned parents should always consult a specialist first. When it comes to the treatment of ADHD, adequate sleep, a balanced diet and regular exercise should play an important role.