The Link Between Omega 3 and ADHD/ADD, Part 1

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The Link Between Omega 3 and ADHD/ADD, Part 1

Ask parents to list the most common behavioral disorders a parent may have to face today and they will say Autism, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Dyspraxia which is characterized by slight clumsiness, and dyslexia, where problems in reading and recognizing numbers can make learning a nightmare, may also make it to the list.

According to an article in The Independent, five years ago Elliot Best’s report cards said, “Could do better.” He was eight years old, apathetic in school, found reading “boring,” and at home preferred to lie on the sofa and watch TV than to do his homework.

In the space of a few weeks in 2002, however, all that changed and Elliot became a bookworm who tore through Harry Potter and developed a passion for classical music and a talent for story telling. Within three months, his reading age advanced eighteen months and he gained top marks in his SAT tests at the end of the school year.

The catalyst for this apparently miraculous change was half a gram of EPA-rich fish oil, delivered daily at Elliot’s school by researchers undertaking the largest ever investigation into the link between intelligence, behavior, and nutrition. Elliot was one of 117 underachieving children ages between five through twelve, from twelve Durham schools who took part in a ground breaking study to test the impact of a daily dose of omega-3 rich fish oil.

The children were selected on the basis that they were not fulfilling their potential, but their general ability was normal. They were subjected to regular tests to measure their coordination, concentration, and academic ability.

The study followed an experimental method called randomized double-blind controlled trial. Half the children were given capsules of omega-3 fatty acid containing 500 milligrams of EPA for three months, while the other half received a placebo (olive oil). Neither the children nor those evaluating their progress knew which group was taking which treatment.

Treatment for three months in parallel groups was followed by a one-way crossover from placebo to active treatment for a further three months. Following the cross-over, similar changes were seen in the placebo-active group, while children continuing with active treatment maintained or improved their progress.

The Durham Trial was conducted by Dr. Alex Richardson, a senior research fellow in physiology at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Madeline Portwood, a special educational psychologist for Durham Local Education Authority (LEA).

Dr. Richardson’s research is based on the premise that people with dyslexia and related conditions may be deficient in essential fatty acids, which are important for brain function, possibly because of a dependence on heavily processed foods or a failure to metabolize them properly.

The results of the trial, published in the US Journal Pediatrics in May 2005, were very clear. Compared with the expected progress for normal children, the recipients of the supplements improved their reading ability more than three times the normal rate; and more than twice the rate in spelling, over three months of treatment. There was also significant improvement in their ADHD symptoms.

Essential Fatty Acids and the Brain
Although the diagnoses of ADHD and other learning disorders is on the rise, it is comforting to know there may be a natural alternative to drug therapy for children. Current practice within our education and health care systems involves separate diagnostic labels for each of the various disorders. And, because of the different ways in which these conditions are defined, identification and management of each is usually by different professional specialists. If you were told your child was ADHD then you could find yourself at the door of a pediatric psychiatrist, with stimulant medication as the standard treatment.

The link between these conditions first came to light when researchers realized that few kids presented with just one or the other disorder and that the overlap between them was high. Between ADHD and dyslexia, for example, the overlap ranges from 30 percent to 50 percent; between ADHD and dyspraxia and between dyslexia and dyspraxia it is 50 percent. More boys (4:1 with dyspraxia) are affected than girls.

So all along it may turn out that your child should have been seeing a nutritionist, as what the new research is suggesting is that all of these behavioral problems may be linked by an underlying inability to convert essential fatty acids (EFAs) in the diet into the highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs)—which are critical to healthy brain functioning and thus behavior and performance.

New Research
Several research projects in the past years have brought our attention to the biological basis of these struggles, specifically a difficulty with fatty metabolism. They have highlighted the relationship between learning, behavior, and attention disorders and essential fatty acid deficiency in children. The more recent studies corroborate the ones done twenty years ago suggesting omega-3 deficiency might contribute to hyperactive attention deficit disorder.

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