Study: Maternal Diet Linked to Risk of ADHD Symptoms in Children
A new study links a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in a pregnant mother’s diet to an elevated risk of ADHD in her child later in life. The data, however, is subject to reporting bias and the conclusions are far from iron clad.
Reviewed on May 16, 2019
April 9, 2019
A study published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics1 suggested that a mother’s diet during pregnancy may influence her child’s risk of developing symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD).
Researchers analyzed samples of umbilical cord plasma from 600 Spanish children to determine that high levels of omega-6 fatty acids relative to omega-3 fatty acids may be an indicator for ADHD risk later in life. This finding supported earlier research that linked ADHD symptoms in children with a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
To gauge the development and severity of symptoms, researchers collected questionnaires from the children’s teachers at age four and from their parents at age seven. The latter indicated that ADHD symptoms increased by 13% for each unit increase in the umbilical cord plasma’s ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Assessments at four years of age were considered potentially erroneous since age-typical neurodevelopmental delays may be misreported as ADHD symptoms, and vice versa.
Though the association between ADHD symptoms and a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was not clinically significant, it does contribute to a growing body of research on the importance of maternal diet during pregnancy. A 2018 study of Korean mothers2 found a similar, inverse relationship between a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids consumed during pregnancy and birth weight and height.
Research indicates that the two most beneficial omega-3 fatty acids for pregnant women are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which support cognitive function and healthy immune response, among other things. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold water fish like salmon and tuna, however patients concerned about high mercury levels in fish are often advised to take supplements with at least 300 mg of DHA daily. Dr. Sandy Newmark recommends taking twice as much EPA as DHA, and up to 2,500 combined milligrams per day.
Omega-6 fatty acids also contribute to a baby’s developing brain function, but can only be acquired through foods like walnuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds. Some medical professionals believe that the Western diet includes too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few omega-3 fatty acids; the ratio today may be as high as 16:1. Pregnant women, in particular, should consume a balanced amount of both.
1 Mónica López-Vicente, Núria Ribas Fitó, Natalia Vilor-Tejedor, … Jordi Julvez. Prenatal Omega-6:Omega-3 Ratio and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms. The Journal of Pediatrics. (Mar. 2019) 10.1016/j.jpeds.2019.02.022
2 Lee, E., Kim, H., Kim, H., Ha, E. H., & Chang, N. Association of maternal omega-6 fatty acid intake with infant birth outcomes: Korean Mothers and Children’s Environmental Health (MOCEH). Nutrition journal. (Apr. 2018) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5911376/