ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a rapidly growing problem in the Western world. It is estimated that 5-10% of school-age children (mostly boys) in Europe suffer from the disorder. Comparative figures for the USA and Australia are 3-7% and 11%. Major symptoms of the disorder are difficulty in sustaining attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. ADHD is also associated with learning difficulties in reading, spelling, and math and may involve psychiatric problems that follow the child into adulthood. There is considerable evidence that ADHD is linked to a fatty acid deficiency or imbalance. Long-chain fatty acids such as EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectfully) are essential to proper brain functioning and several studies involving children with ADHD have shown that they are deficient in these essential fatty acids. Researchers at the University of South Australia report that an EPA and DHA-containing supplement (such as fish oil capsules) is effective in reducing ADHD symptoms.
Their clinical trial involved 103 Australian children (74% boys) between the ages of 7 and 12 years. The children had all been diagnosed with ADHD and had scores two standard deviations or more above the general population on the Conners abbreviated ADHD Index. The trial participants were randomized to receive either placebo capsules (palm oil), fatty acid capsules (providing 560 mg/day of EPA, 175 mg/day of DHA, 60 mg/day of gamma-linolenic acid, and 10 mg/day of vitamin E), or fatty acid capsules + a multivitamin tablet containing low (RDA) amounts of vitamin and minerals.
After 15 weeks all children were given fatty acid capsules + daily multivitamin for a further 15 weeks. They were evaluated for ADHD symptoms after 15 and 30 weeks. At 15 weeks their scores on the Conners Parent Rating Scale were significantly reduced in regard to hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity, and improvement was also noted in the sub-scores for perfectionism and social problems. There was no indication that adding the multivitamin to the fatty acid regimen had any additional benefits. Improvements continued until the end of the trial at week 30 at which time 40-50% of the treated children showed improvements corresponding to at least one standard deviation on the Conners ADHD Index. This improvement is equivalent to, or slightly better than, the improvement observed after 4 weeks of treatment with short-acting methylphenidate (Ritalin).
According to Canadian researchers who performed a meta-analysis of 62 randomized trials of Ritalin, there is no evidence that this drug is effective beyond 4 weeks, and there is considerable evidence of its many adverse effects including decreased appetite, insomnia, headaches, stomach aches, drowsiness, anxiety, irritability, and dizziness.
Sinn, N. and Bryan, J. Effect of supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients on learning and behavior problems associated with child ADHD. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, Vol. 28, April 2007, pp. 82-91
Schachter, HM, et al. How efficacious and safe is short-acting methylphenidate for the treatment of attention-deficit disorder in children and adolescents? Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 165, November 27, 2001, pp. 1475-88