Benefits of Omega-3s Called Into Question
Existing studies linking omega-3 fatty acids to improved symptoms of ADHD are inconsistent and unreliable, says a research team in the Netherlands. To back up claims of the supplement’s effectiveness, larger double-blind studies are needed.
Reviewed on April 5, 2017
July 29, 2016
Omega-3 fatty acids have long been considered an effective alternative for managing daily symptoms of ADHD — in conjunction with or instead of stimulant medications. But now, a new analysis of 25 studies calls into question the real effectiveness of omega-3s — highlighting the need for more expansive and well-designed studies on this alternative ADHD treatment.
A team at the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands reviewed 25 studies on omega-3s and ADHD, conducted over the last 15 years. Twenty were traditional double-blind studies, while the remaining five were conducted without placebos. The studies’ subjects ranged in age from 3 to 18, with most falling between 6 and 13, the majority were male (syncing up with the gender divide of ADHD diagnoses across the world), and most had an official diagnosis of ADHD — though several studies included children who were technically undiagnosed, but showed symptoms indicative of ADHD.
The analysis indicated that most of the studies linking better symptom control to omega-3s were non-placebo-controlled, making their results less reputable. All five of the non-placebo studies showed improved behavior with omega-3 consumption; three also showed improved levels of fatty acids in the subjects’ blood.
The double-blind, placebo-controlled studies had far more inconsistent results: a few showed significant improvement, while some showed none at all. The study that makes the strongest case for treatment with omega-3s (Sorgi et al) was so small (it had just nine participants), that researchers hesitate to draw larger conclusions from it.
Overall, the Netherlands researchers write, the study results are too inconsistent to make a strong case for omega-3s. For example, none of the studies varied the dose levels of omega-3s among participants, making it difficult to determine an optimal therapeutic level. The lack of placebos in many of the positive studies was troubling as well, and simply doesn’t stand up to normal scientific rigor.
This analysis does not condemn or dismiss the use of omega-3s to control symptoms of ADHD. But it does conclude that, in order to get a clearer grasp of omega-3’s benefits as a supplement or alternative to stimulant medications, larger, double-blind studies are needed.