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Integrative Therapies for ADHD - Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oils)

Scott Olson, ND

Omega-3 essential fatty acids (oils), which include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found primarily in fish (such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) and some plants. While they are necessary for the proper functioning of our bodies, the levels necessary for health benefits are more than can readily be achieved through diet alone. These oils are used as supplemental treatments for an array of conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. These oils also play a role in brain development and function.

It is fairly clear that EPA and DHA are essential for normal brain development and growth, but whether there is a cause/effect relationship between a lack of EPA/DHA in early childhood and ADHD is unclear. Preliminary research shows that children with ADHD do have low levels of EPA/DHA in their blood. DHA is now being added to infant formulas to ensure that babies get the required amounts of this essential fatty acid.

The results of studies using EPA/DHA supplements to treat children with ADHD have been mixed, with some children responding well, while others do not. Given the necessity of these oils for brain and body development, it seems reasonable to routinely supplement with these nutrients in all children. There have been no studies on treating adults who have ADHD with EPA/DHA, but, once again, it seems a reasonable therapy with very little potential for side effects.

Safety and Dosing

Normal dosing for the omega-3 fatty acids in adults is between 1-4 grams a day. Most fish-oil supplements contain about 18% EPA/DHA, so to get a gram of EPA/DHA, one has to take approximately five 1-gram supplements. Studies in children have used about 1 gram of fish oil a day. Consult your health-care provider for guidance in using EPA/DHA in very small children.

Fish oils have been shown to interact with medications for diabetes and heart disease in adults. However, these interactions have not been shown in children. While it is rare for a child to be on cardiovascular medications, diabetes medications are more common. Consult with your health-care provider before beginning any supplementation of EPA/DHA in a child with diabetes.


Side Effects of Omega-3 Oils

  • Stomach upset
  • Nosebleeds
  • Loose stools


Most side effects from taking fish oils are mild. Taking fish oils may act as an anticoagulant (blood thinner), so consult with your health provider if you are taking any blood-thinning medications.