Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA) are essential fats, because unlike other types of fat, our body can’t make omega-3s from scratch. We must include them in our diets. Omega-3s are used in cell membranes throughout our bodies. They are a critical component for cell receptors to function. You can read more detailed information about this here.
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So, what is the link between Omega-3 Supplements and ADHD?
I hope I don’t lose you over the next few paragraphs. Bear with me while I do my best to explain this as simply as I can.
The Link Is Dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brain that helps carry messages across neurons. Basically it is used to deliver messages across our brain and other parts of our bodies. Dopamine also helps us control our emotions and helps us to feel motivated to work towards a reward. Our body needs DHA in order to produce dopamine. ADHD is linked to dopamine deficiency.
ADHD medication, stimulants, work in one of two ways. They either increase dopamine production in the brain, or they block the re-uptake of dopamine. Dopamine re-uptake inhibitors slow down our body’s process of absorbing or breaking down dopamine, so the effect is there is more present. I’m trying to keep this as simple as possible without going into the science, if you’d like to read in-depth about how stimulants work you can visit the NIH website here.
So the goal of ADHD medications are to increase dopamine, improving concentration and reducing the negative symptoms associated with ADHD. It is critical that your child’s body is not DHA deficient so their brain can produce adequate levels of dopamine. The AAP published an article in their journal, Pediatrics, after conducting a double-blind study in which 40% of parents noted some improvement in symptoms, 15% noticing a significant improvement. Omega 3 supplements can work alongside ADHD medication nicely, or on its own if you do not medicate. (Always consult a doctor before making medication changes – I am not suggesting you stop medications at all)
Thinking about the brain, imagine dopamine as little messengers – carrying messages across your brain, from one cell to the next, delivering them to where they need to go. When you have a thought, they shoot that message through connected neurons in your brain to form a functional circuit. This is how your brain is wired. As your brain processes everything that is happening around you, it is creating associations and forming circuits. So, if you bring your toddler home a bag of candy from the grocery store, don’t be surprised if she asks for candy again the next time you come home from the grocery store. Her brain created an association between you returning from the grocery store and her getting candy, so a ping was sent through that circuit again, reminding her of the candy. This is why a certain smell, or song may suddenly remind you of something that happened in your childhood.
Now, if your brain doesn’t have enough dopamine ( its little workers delivering messages) when that “ping” happens to shoot a message across the circuit … it loses momentum. It might take too long to reach the end of the circuit, or never make it there at all. The results are:
- Poor concentration
- Memory Loss
- Mood swings
- Inability to concentrate
- Lack of motivation/Not responding to rewards
These are all symptoms of ADHD, as well.
My Son, and ADHD
My son has a lot of trouble staying motivated and at times it seems like even his favourite activities and rewards are meaningless to him. During school this issue came up time and time again with staff while working on his IPP. It wouldn’t matter what reward he had the chance to work for, sometimes he just did not care.
My son’s executive functions are also delayed, which affect his ability to plan ahead, make goals, etc. There are connections between all of these things. Everything needs to be in sync in order to have a well-regulated, normally developing child.
Shortly after being diagnosed with ADHD and Autism, he started taking biphentin (a stimulant used to treat ADHD) and I began searching for the perfect omega-3 supplement.
Foods With High Omega-3 Content
Anyone with a child with autism knows how hard it can be to make their child eat a well-balanced diet. Trust me, my child is no exception. Some foods with high omega-3 include:
- Fatty Fish
- Chia seeds
Yeah — my kid won’t eat any of that, and yours probably wont either. Am I right?
The only way I have been able to hide omega-3 in my sons food is with ground flaxseed. I only purchase Bob’s Redmill brand, which is available on amazon. It’s flavorless and odourless. I throw a tablespoon into his food as I’m cooking (when he’s not looking of course) and he can’t tell the difference. It really doesn’t change the flavour of food what so ever. My son would notice a pinch of extra garlic in his chili, there’s normally no fooling his taste buds.
Flaxseeds are great, a bag lasts forever and it’s good for a month if you keep it refrigerated. They’re also super high in fiber and great if your child deals with constipation. But – flaxseed alone is not going meet his daily requirements for omega-3s (I wonder how much DHA is in French Fries and Ramen?)
The best way to get enough DHA into your child’s diet is with Omega-3 supplements. You need to make sure you find the right supplement. It is recommended that Omega-3 supplements contain 4 times as much Omega-3 as it does Omega-6. And with a picky eater you also need to choose a supplement they will actually take.
First of all, I reccomend you do not use a multivitamin for this purpose. They generally contain much less omega-3 in them compared to a regular omega-3 supplement, you won’t be getting enough out of it.
My son won’t take fish oil (obviously), so I recommend a gummy. It can even be tricky to find a gummy he will eat. We first bought some Disney Finding Dory gummies. The had the right ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6, and promised a great taste, but my son wouldn’t eat them. They almost had this film or coating over them. So now I take those ones, They were like $16, I’m not letting them go to waste.
I also tried a store brand version which he didn’t like either. I contemplated buying the oil and trying to hide it in his food, but in the end I didn’t even go there. The supplement that has been the best for us is OLLY The Mega Omega-3 Supplement. I order these on Amazon as well, and a bottle lasts a month. These gummies have a sugar-coating on them, making them taste more like candy. They also have flaxseed oil and fish oil, but the supplements I had purchased at the grocery store only had fish oil.
He started these supplements over the summer, and it can take 3 months to see the full benefits of a vitamin supplement. School started a week ago, and today the learning center teacher asked me if we changed medications over the summer (we did not). He said “He’s like a completely different student. He’s getting so much done, hes a little silly but that’s nothing” So it is definitely helping improve focus and concentration.
If you’re interested in other natural ways to help your child, that they can take with Omega-3 supplements, I recommend reading my posts Four Natural ADHD Treatments Backed By Science, and The Best Essential Oils for Autism and ADHD. Which contains a ton of great information on how certain essential oils can help your child focus, reduce anxiety, stay calm, sleep better and improve inattention.