Blog written by Wenonah Oliver (student dietitian)
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3s, also known as n-3s for short, are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that our bodies use for many functions. There are three types of these fatty acids
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and
- Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)
These are considered essential fatty acids and it is important that we include these in our diet to allow our body to function at its best! Unfortunately, ALA cannot be created by our bodies and whilst our bodies can change ALA into EPA and DHA, the rate of this is very low. If we don’t include them in our diet, our bodies will not be able to perform to our potential.
Omega-3 fatty acids and brain function
We are constantly told that that Omega-3 fatty acids are important for our heart health but research is now showing they play an important role in our brain health as well. These fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, play an important role in forming the layers that provide protection for our brain. These protective layers are important in facilitating one of the biggest roles our brain plays, communication. Not having enough Omega-3s can lead to a decrease in the speed of communication, the production of our brain’s communication molecules (our neurotransmitters) and the channels they use to get the important messages to where they need to go. Low levels of Omega-3s can also influence the shape of the receptors that read the message, potentially leaving it lost in translation. Understanding all of this has given scientists a reason to investigate if increasing Omega-3 fatty acids in our bodies can have an effect on neurological disorders, including Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The effect of these fats on ADHD symptoms
By not providing the essential building blocks to our brain, our brains are not able to function efficiently or to their potential. Emerging research is showing that Omega-3 fatty acids can play a role in the development and treatment of ADHD. Research has shown that there is a link between a lack of Omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and infancy and an increased risk of the development of ADHD in children.
Studies are now showing that children and adults that are diagnosed with ADHD have, on average, lower levels of Omega-3s in their system. Knowing the importance that they play in our brain function, higher levels of Omega-3s would allow for those with ADHD to improve their brain’s functioning and therefore decrease some of the symptoms seen. There have been promising signs that increasing the intake of Omega-3s improves ADHD symptoms such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity and sleep patterns.
What foods are good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids?
We have all heard of the idea that children should have a spoonful of cod liver oil everyday, and there is good reason for that! It is a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, but good luck getting anyone, adult or child alike, to willingly have it. But don’t worry there are many other sources of these essential fatty acids that can be included within our diets.
The most common source of Omega-3 fatty acids comes from fish, with higher amounts found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, prawns and sardines. Other good sources of these fatty acids include
- Nuts and seeds (particularly walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds)
- Plant based oils (flaxseed oil)
- Kidney beans
- Soybeans and soy-based products such as tofu
- Foods that have been fortified with Omega-3s
Enjoy some of our recipes that are rich in Omega-3!
- Easy Salmon Bowl
- Salmon Sesame Rice Bowl
- Smoked Salmon Bagel
- Warm Salmon & Roast Vegetable Salad
- Garlic & Lemon Baked Salmon
- Protein Blueberry Chia Pudding
Should you include a fish oil supplement in you or your child’s routine?
Do you need to drastically change your diet and force yourself or your child to eat these foods on a daily basis? The short answer is no. Start small by switching to cooking oils that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and switch foods that you regularly consume to those that have been fortified with Omega-3s. When introducing new foods, make sure it is an enjoyable experience by making the meal simple and with familiar aspects that are apart of you or your family’s normal routine.
However, whilst looking to include these foods in our diet is our first strategy, supplementation is also generally a safe option when taken properly. Adding a fish oil supplement to you or your child’s routine is a simple addition that could improve ADHD symptoms for yourself or your child.
How much do we need?
The recommended intakes of Omega-3 fatty acids for improving ADHD symptoms are higher than the general guidelines for children and adults. It is important to consider the total amount of these fatty acids in a supplement and specifically the amount of EPA and DHA included. Intakes of over 1g/day and ideally between 1g/day and 3g/day are recommended. It is best to speak to your doctor to determine the best dose and balance of DHA and EPA in a supplement and how the addition to you or your child’s current ADHD medication routine may be benefitted.
Read more about the link between ADHD & binge eating next!
Agostoni, Nobile, M., Ciappolino, V., Delvecchio, G., Tesei, A., Turolo, S., Crippa, A., Mazzocchi, A., Altamura, C. A., & Brambilla, P. (2017). The role of omega-3 fatty acids in developmental psychopathology: A systematic review on early psychosis, autism, and ADHD. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 18(12). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms18122608
Chang, Su, K.-P., Mondelli, V., & Pariante, C. M. (2018). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in youths with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials and biological studies. Neuropsychopharmacology, 43(3), 534–545. https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2017.160
Greenblatt, J. M. (2021, May 05). Omega 3s: The ultimate (ADHD) brain food. Additude: Inside the ADHD Mind. https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-omega-3-benefits/
National Institute of Health (NIH). (2021). Omega-3 fatty acids: Fact sheet for health professionals. National Institute of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/