An Alternative to ADHD Medication?

For children living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), new evidence suggests that it may be time to consider trading in the Ritalin for some fish.  

A study by Dr. Alexandra Richardson of Oxford and Bristol universities in the United Kingdom found that children with ADHD symptoms who received sufficient omega-3 nutrients—present in fish and seafood—showed significant improvements in reading, spelling and behaviour.

“The idea that nutrition plays a role in learning, behaviour and mood shouldn’t be rocket science,” says Richardson, director of Food and Behaviour Research. “We need the right balance of nutrients to build our brains, and omega-3 is often lacking from modern Western diets.”

Understanding ADHD

According to the Centre for ADHD Advocacy Canada, ADHD occurs in 5 to 12% of school-age children. Richardson says that ADHD has become the most common childhood developmental disorder. Yet she argues that the label doesn’t reveal much about children diagnosed with ADHD.

“ADHD is so broad that it’s often misunderstood; people think they’re dealing with a disease in the medical sense,” she says. “When it comes to behavioural and learning difficulties, diagnoses are descriptions, not explanations.”

In her view, changes in nutrition should be the first option, before considering any medication, to help children who exhibit symptoms of ADHD.

Taking a Second Look

Richardson’s study involved 117 children, ages 5 to 12, diagnosed with Developmental Coordination Disorder (which, like ADHD, is associated with difficulties in learning and behaviour). Some children received omega-3 supplements, some a placebo. Over three months, the children given omega-3 showed a marked improvement, equal to what would be expected from a drug like Ritalin.

One possibility: An omega-3 deficiency can lower the concentration of brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, which are related to attention and motivation. “It’s folk wisdom—fish is good for the brain.  That’s what neuroscience is showing,” says Richardson.

Surprising Solution: Omega-3

There are different types of omega-3, Richardson cautions, so read labels. All sorts of products tout benefits from omega-3, but “consumers are being misled,” claims Richardson. The most beneficial omega-3 is EPA or DHA, found in appreciable quantities in only fish and seafood. She recommends a few servings a week (e.g. a tuna sandwich for lunch or salmon for dinner). Failing that, omega-3 supplements can work, about 550 to 750 milligrams a day. 

Besides helping to reduce ADHD symptoms, Richardson says omega-3 benefits the heart, immune system and blood flow. So she recommends food or supplements rich in omega-3 for the population in general.

“The same diet that’s good for your brain,” she says, “is good for your body, too.”

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