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Omega-3 Fatty Acids & ADHD: Promising Evidence for a Nutritional Cure

"ADHD children also tend to have more allergies, eczema, asthma, headaches, stomachaches, ear infections and dry skin than non-ADHD youngsters," note Donald Rudin, M.D. and Clara Felix, authors of Omega-3 Oils: A Practical Guide (Avery 1996). Both Rudin and Felix claim that these problems, including ADHD, are part of a modernization-disease syndrome, which arises from malnutrition centered on an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.

Their contention is supported by growing scientific evidence. The connection between omega-3 fatty acid deficiency and ADHD has been confirmed by studies in which youngsters with ADHD, when compared with non-ADHD children had much lower blood levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid necessary for normal function of the eyes and the cerebral cortex (the brain region that handles higher functions such as reasoning and memory).

Scientific Evidence

Two types of fatty acids are considered essential. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids cannot be synthesized in the body, and must be obtained from the diet. The omega-6 fatty acids are distributed evenly in most tissues and easily obtained through food sources commonly found in the American diet, but omega-3 fatty acids are concentrated in a few tissues including the brain. Because of their relative scarceness in the American diet, many children - perhaps the majority of children today - are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. Learning specialists now believe omega-3 fatty acid deficiency leads to unique symptoms during childhood, including behavioral problems. The evidence is certainly suggestive:

  • In 1981, researchers first hypothesized that children with ADHD may have reduced nutritional status of essential fatty acids because they showed greater thirst (a symptom of essential fatty acid deficiency) compared to children without ADHD.

  • These results were further confirmed in 1983. When essential fatty acids were examined in 23 maladjusted children and 20 normal children, essential fatty acid blood levels in poorly behaved children were significantly lower.

  • In 1987, researchers further documented that 48 children with ADHD reported significantly greater thirst, more frequent urination, and more health and learning problems than children without ADHD. Significantly lower levels of two omega-6 fatty acids and one omega-3 fatty acid (DHA) were found in the subjects with ADHD symptoms.

  • In a 1995 study comparing plasma essential fatty acid levels in 53 boys with ADHD to a control group of 43 boys without ADHD, researchers found significantly lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

  • In the April - May 1996 issue of Physiology & Behavior, Laura J. Stevens, of the Department of Foods and Nutrition, Purdue University, and co-investigators reported that boys with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood showed more problems with behavior, learning, and health than those with higher levels of total omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Also, in 1996, researchers from the Department of Psychiatry, Technical University, Faculty of Medicine, Trabzon, Turkey, reported that levels of free fatty acids as well as zinc were severalfold lower in ADHD children compared to non-ADHD children.

The Doctor's Prescription

"We shouldn't be prescribing medicine simply because that's the easiest way to go," notes Dr. Mark Stein, who runs a University of Chicago clinic for children and adults with the disorder.

While all children with ADHD are not deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, we believe that the addition of omega-3 fatty acids to the diet may be important for some ADHD children.

In fact, studies show that children whose treatment program includes only medication, educational and psychological therapy continue to be at high risk for vandalism, petty crime, frequency of alcoholic intoxication, and possession of marijuana. Dietary improvements may be the key to fostering long-term health and acceptable behavior.

Parents of ADHD children and ADHD adults who wish to utilize omega-3 fatty acids as a method of modifying their behavior should use both flax and seafood sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Flax provides alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the master omega-3 fatty acid from which other omega-3 fatty acids are synthesized. Seafood provides DHA directly which appears to be a vital omega-3 fatty acid for modifying behavior of ADHD children and adults. The rate of conversion of ALA to DHA is quite low. However, alpha-linolenic acid may be important to behavioral improvements as well. Therefore, a combination of flax and seafood is best.

DHA is available in pill form and various formulas can be recommended by your health food store retailer.

On the other hand, flax, which can be inconspicuously incorporated into children's meals, holds many benefits.

Flax can be used in baking (e.g., muffins and bread), salad dressings and in smoothies - as well as many other tasty dishes. Although many persons believe that flax is too fragile to be used as a cooking oil, "recent studies show little or no loss of [alpha-linolenic acid] when milled flaxseed is baked as an ingredient in muffins or breads," says Felix.

[The Doctor's Prescription for Healthy Living, Vol. 4, Number 9 pgs. 12-13]

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