Research says fish oil supplements don’t seem to improve ADHD symptoms. But there can be other benefits as well.
If you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you may be looking for natural or alternative treatments to complement your current regimen.
About 7% of children and 3% of adults worldwide have ADHD. Some common symptoms of this condition are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Typically, treatment for ADHD involves a combination of medications and therapy, as well as certain lifestyle changes. However, researchers have also spent several decades looking for supplements that could benefit ADHD.
Until recently, scientists thought that omega-3 fatty acids were a promising supplement that could help reduce ADHD symptoms. However, recent research has shown that they don’t seem effective for this purpose – although they can be beneficial in a number of ways.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that are important for the brain and body.
Researchers believe this PUFA can improve cognitive function and provide other benefits. The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are oily fish and fish oil supplements.
On the other hand, scientists believe that an imbalance in omega-3 and omega-6 (other PUFAs) can increase the risk of many chronic health conditions.
For example, research has shown that people who eat a Western diet tend to consume around 20 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. This has been linked to an increase in obesity.
Recent research has shown that taking fish oil has little to no beneficial effect on ADHD symptoms.
However, you may have heard the opposite. That’s because several studies in the past suggested that fish oil might be beneficial for ADHD. However, recent research has shown the opposite.
To understand why opinions have changed, it can be helpful to understand how that idea originally came about.
What scientists used to think about ADHD and fish oil
Researchers first began to wonder if fish oil would help people with ADHD based on various research findings, such as:
- The front part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for your thoughts and behaviors, is immature or inflamed in people with ADHD.
- People with ADHD may have lower levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than people without ADHD.
- A 2005 study of children with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) concluded that children who took omega-3 and omega-6 supplements showed improvements in reading, spelling, and behavior over a 3-month period.
Based on this research, scientists hypothesized that:
- Because omega-3 supplements can reduce inflammation, and some people with ADHD have an inflamed prefrontal cortex, omega-3 supplements can reduce inflammation, thereby relieving symptoms.
- The omega-3 deficiency in people with ADHD can cause or worsen symptoms. So increasing someone with ADHD’s omega-3 levels could potentially reduce their symptoms.
- If children with DCD showed improvements in reading, spelling, and behavior when taking omega-3s, perhaps the supplement could improve behavior in children with ADHD as well.
In 2012, a study looked at whether omega-3s would benefit children with ADHD as well as those with DCD.
For this study, the researchers used algae oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids and is an algae-based substitute for fish oil. They concluded that taking omega-3s improved reading and ADHD-like behavioral symptoms.
A 2014 study found that parents and teachers believed that taking omega-3 supplements improved symptoms of hyperactivity. Parents also said that omega-3s also improved their children’s ability to concentrate, but teachers disagreed.
What newer findings say
When scientists conducted more studies, they disproved the initial results suggesting that fish oil might help with ADHD. For example, a 2017 study of children ages 6 to 15 with mild symptoms of ADHD found that the children had no beneficial effects when they took omega-3 supplements.
In 2018, researchers examined a second time whether omega-3 could improve reading, working memory, and behavior. In this study, the researchers provided the children with fish oil supplements.
The children who were in the lower quarter of reading proficiency were tested before and after by both their parents and their teachers. The results showed no improvement in reading or working memory and only very little improvement in behavior.
Because of this conflicting research, researchers have also conducted multiple literature searches on the subject – that is, they have reviewed and combined the results of numerous previous studies.
In 2019, a group of researchers reviewed 126 studies published between 1980 and 2019 on the use of PUFAs to treat a variety of conditions. They found that omega-3s were most beneficial for people with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.
There were only “small to modest” benefits in people with ADHD.
A review of 31 high quality studies in 2021 found that taking PUFAs had no effect on ADHD symptoms.
The researchers concluded that there is no evidence that people with ADHD benefit from taking PUFAs. However, they said the evidence is not certain and based on their results, they cannot offer conclusive guidance.
Since research has found that taking fish oil does not seem to help with ADHD, there is no established dosage that healthcare professionals recommend for people with the condition.
However, if you are still considering consuming omega-3 fatty acids, follow the recommended dosage on the label.
It’s a good idea to find out how much docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) a particular type of supplement contains per serving – this should be written on the bottle. DHA and EPA are two main types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.
The European Food Safety Authority’s 2012 recommendations suggest having a daily reference intake (RDI) of 250 to 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined.
Generally, if you want to try omega-3s to see if they improve your ADHD symptoms, they are safe for children and adults. However, many people find that these supplements tend to have an unpleasant fishy taste and cause bad breath.
While most of the side effects are minimal, they can include:
It is also possible that taking omega-3 supplements can cause problems with certain medications that affect blood clotting. If you have any health issues, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor about whether it is safe for you to take it.
If you have a seafood allergy, researchers are unsure whether it is safe to take a fish oil supplement.
While some studies have shown that fish oil can reduce hyperactivity in people with ADHD, overall research has found that fish oil has very little, if any, real benefits in people with the disease.
However, if you are interested in trying a fish oil supplement, there are a variety of fish oil supplements available in both tablet and liquid form.
If you have other health issues or are taking prescription medications, it is always best to see a doctor before adding fish oil to your daily routine.
You can read more about popular fish oil supplements here.