Essential Fatty Acids for ADHD

Are fatty acid supplements the magic bullet for ADHD?


Filed Under: Supplements for ADHD, ADHD Diet and Nutrition, Alternative Treatments for ADHD, Homework and Test Help

Essential Fatty Acids for AD/HD

If flax oil helps, why does the FDA stand in the way ? Why is it still such a "secret?" Some parents and conspiracy theorists alike suggest that the medical-industrial complex somehow has influenced the FDA's approval process. After all, if flax oil really works, people with ADHD wouldn't have much need for costly prescription drugs and psychiatrists.

But even Dr. Burgess does not recommend omega-3 dietary supplements if treating ADHD is the goal. That's because science has yet to prove that fatty acid supplements help ADHD.

Here is what scientists do know:

No one has been able to demonstrate scientifically that omega-3 fatty acid supplements help ADHD. Every scientific study to date has shown that giving fatty acid supplements to ADHD kids does not improve their symptoms. The supplement only elevates DHA in the blood to normal levels.

Increased DHA blood levels may have no bearing on DHA levels in the brain. Scientists don't even know whether ADHD brain levels of DHA are normal or not, because there's no safe way to measure it. In fact, the ADHD brain may not even be able to use ingested DHA; some scientists suggest that the normal brain makes its own DHA, but this theory isn't proven either.

Children diagnosed with ADHD may be too old to benefit from dietary supplements of omega-3. Our brains do most of their growing before age two, and adding supplements after that age may be of little use for children who have ADHD. By the time ADHD usually is diagnosed, structurally "the damage may already be done," says one leading researcher who declined to be named in this article.

DHA supplements could actually hurt, although this theory too remains unproven. Children with ADHD also have lower blood levels of arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. The interplay between intake of this fatty acid and DHA is fragile and complex. Research suggests that intake of too much omega-3 decreases blood levels of arachidonic acid, and also that too much omega-6 decreases blood levels of DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids.

Not having enough arachidonic acid may be as bad as not having enough DHA. That's because arachidonic acid plays an important role in blood pressure and immune response. Despite the potential risk, however, low DHA blood levels in ADHD children remain so intriguing that scientists will continue pursuing this lead. There may soon be studies on supplementing ADHD children's diets with both DHA and arachidonic acid, but again, the jury is still out on whether this combination will work. (When Dr. Burgess tried this approach, it didn't work.)

One brain disorder that fatty acid supplements do seem to help is manic depressive illness, also known as bipolar disorder. A preliminary study published recently in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that omega-3 fatty acids improved bipolar symptoms markedly.

But researchers caution us not to draw any such conclusions about their use for ADHD. While symptoms of bipolar disorder and ADHD sometimes look alike, and the two occur together in many patients, they are very different disorders and so are their treatments. "In the omega-3 / bipolar disorder study we were looking at changes in the neuronal signal transduction system, (a system) which has nothing to do with ADHD," says Lauren B. Marangell, M.D., a Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist who was a co-principal investigator of the bipolar disorder study. "The mechanisms of action of drugs that work for bipolar disorder are not the same as those that work for ADHD. Lithium works for bipolar disorder but not ADHD. Stimulants don't stabilize bipolar disorder."

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