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Prevention of ADHD can begin in the womb. The children of women who consume the highest amounts of omega-3 essential fatty acids like those found in fish oil and DHA from microalgae show benefits for as long as eight years after birth.
Brain Building DHA
The most essential of the omega-3 essential fatty acids for expectant mothers is decosahexaenoic acid, better known by its abbreviation DHA. The mother’s body can make DHA from non-essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in fish oil, or from the essential fatty eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in fish oil. Up to 90% of ALA and up to 70% of EPA is lost in the conversion process, however, so the developing fetus benefits most from preformed DHA offered by fish oil and microalgae products.
What are the immediate benefits of supplementing an expectant mother’s diet with DHA? For the mother herself DHA ensures higher probability of carrying the baby to term and reduced risk of post-partum depression.
Studies of women in the Faroe Islands, where fish is eaten at nearly every meal, have found that DHA increases the production of prostacyclins, which stop uterine spasms and premature labor. DHA also counteracts the hormones that trigger the “ripening” and dilation of the cervix before delivery. The longer the child is carried in the womb, the more time it has to develop nerve connections.
Children whose mothers suffer post-partum depression usually experience developmental issues as a result. The Mothers, Omega-3, and Mental Health Study, which is currently in progress, will determine whether DHA or the other fish oil essential fatty acid EPA is more important for preventing depression in mothers after giving birth.
Children born to mothers who consume the most DHA during pregnancy are less likely to suffer ADHD at the age of 7 and more likely to have fluent vocabularies and good eye-hand coordination, measured by the ability to tie shoes and catch a ball, by the time they are ready for elementary school.
Babies who receive more DHA in the womb, scientists have observed, experience benefits nearly as soon as they are born. At the age of two months, children who received more DHA in utero have better scores on eye tests. Babies who receive DHA-enriched formula score higher on intelligence tests at the age of nine months.
But what if despite your best efforts your child reaches the age of five, six, or seven, and is showing signs of ADHD? A combination of DHA and EPA from fish oil can still help.
Omega-3 for ADHD
German researchers have found that children who develop ADHD can still be helped by essential fatty acids, although they usually need other simple, safe, inexpensive supplements. A study of 810 German children aged 5 to 12 who had ADHD or “hyperactivity/impulsivity disorder” who were given the essential fatty acids in fish plus magnesium and zinc found:
30% of children diagnosed as having ADHD were sufficiently improved to be diagnosed as no longer having ADHD at the end of 8 weeks,
70% of children diagnosed as having “hyperactivity/impulsivity disorder” were sufficiently improved to be diagnosed as no longer having the condition at the end of 8 weeks, and
Parents of 40% of children in the study reported better sleep at night, better sleep for the children and for themselves!
The “catch” in using essential fatty acids to treat ADHD is that the essential fatty acid EPA is needed along with DHA for children to get better. There are no plant sources of EPA. This essential fatty acid is only found in fish oil.
DHA is used to prevent ADHD, but both DHA and EPA are needed to treat ADHD. The human body can turn EPA into DHA, but it cannot turn DHA into EPA. DHA for kids is not enough for treating ADHD, but DHA for kids with the EPA from fish oil is.
Chewable fish oil supplements are the easiest way to give children with ADHD the essential fatty acids they need to improve. A child between 5 and 12 should receive 200 mg of EPA, 20 mg of DHA, 40 mg of magnesium, and 2.5 mg of zinc every day to support recovery from symptoms. Hyperactivity is usually improved before attention deficit.
Reference: Frölich J, Döpfner M. The treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders with polyunsaturated fatty acids – an effective treatment alternative?Z Kinder Jugendpsychiatr Psychother.2008;36:109–116. doi: 10.1024/1422-4918.104.22.168.