Immune System, ADHD: Should Children Take Omega-3 Supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids in our diets play multiple roles in building and maintaining all of our bodies, but they can be especially important for growing children. Let’s look at two ways: developing a strong immune system, and treating attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Children excel at scraping knees, getting dirty, making new friends on the playground, and putting things in their mouths that don’t belong there. All these activities expose them to a range of pathogens, and often for the first time. So their innate immune system – the nonspecific one they are born with – needs to be in top shape to help them develop a strong adaptive immune system too.
Of course, exposure to a variety of bacteria and viruses is key to building immunity, but that doesn’t mean parents should feed their kids dirt. Our role must focus on ensuring they are clean, get exercise, sleep well, avoid stress, and eat well. And a key part of feeding them right is giving them enough omega-3s (Source).
When your child bangs her head or gets stung, inflammation usually follows. That’s her immune system at work. Special cells rush to the site of the trauma and cause swelling by enlarging blood vessels and causing fluid and immune cells to course into the damaged tissue.
For most minor injuries, there’s nothing to worry about. The injury heals and the inflammation subsides. But when the inflammation lasts, it may be linked to a range of conditions including joint pain, arthritis, heart disease, asthma, and even some cancers. And lasting inflammation can actually cause damage all on its own.
True, these conditions are rare in children, but as parents we must plan ahead. Research shows that the omega-3s docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) regulate production of cytokines – the molecules that cause inflammation – suggesting they may be used to prevent or treat inflammation, and thereby help the immune system function better (Source). Fatty fish and seal oil are the best sources of DHA and EPA, while seal oil is an excellent source of DPA too, right up there with breast milk.
These omega-3s also provide support to a process called endothelial cell migration, essential in the repair of damaged blood vessels. And DPA has another amazing property: it boosts the levels of EPA and DHA already in the body and increases their accessibility.
Another thing kids excel at is catching viruses. For the worst ones we now have vaccines, but some parents don’t believe in them (especially for flu), or get lax and skip the boosters. And then there’s the common cold. There is no vaccine or cure for colds, but they can be miserable affairs. Also children on average get twice as many of them as adults.
But whether your child is vaccinated or not, if his immune system is healthy, he’s less likely to fall sick, and more likely to recover quickly if he does. And strengthening the immune system is exactly why parents give their children an omega-3 supplement.
Studies also indicate (source) that omega-3s can dissolve the envelopes that surround some viruses, even causing disintegration of the viruses themselves. A common enveloped virus in humans is herpes simplex.
ADHD is among the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in children, that often lasts into adulthood. It is now generally accepted to be a medical condition rather than a behavioral disorder, usually with a genetic component. However, its diagnosis remains controversial, and treatments are still being refined.
If you are concerned that your child might have ADHD, the US Centers for Disease Control advises looking for the following signs (source):
- daydreaming a lot
- forgetting or losing things a lot
- squirming or fidgeting
- talking too much
- making careless mistakes or taking unnecessary risks
- having a hard time resisting temptation
- having trouble taking turns
- having difficulty getting along with others
Management typically involves a combination of behavioral therapy, medication, and promoting a healthy lifestyle, which includes a good diet. And one of the key dietary intakes is omega-3s.
Our brains are about 60% fat, and two essential building blocks of this fat are DHA and EPA. So in general terms, these omega-3s are essential to the growth and maintenance of healthy brains. The evidence also suggests that they help in preventing and treating ADHD.
ADDitude Magazine, a leading source of information for people living with ADHD, explains the importance of omega-3s to brain function (source): “In short, just about every aspect of neurotransmission — the movement of information from brain cell to brain cell that supports every thought, emotion, and action — is affected by omega-3s. Omega-3s also protect the brain by decreasing low-grade inflammation, the chronic cellular fire that can singe brain cells.”
It goes on to say: “A deficiency of omega-3s is bad news for a child’s or adult’s brain. And that’s why there have been more scientific studies conducted on the link between ADHD and omega-3s than on any other nutrient.”
It then provides an extensive list of research with highly suggestive findings. For example, blood levels of omega-3s in children with ADHD were found to be 38% lower than in children without it (source). Another study looked at a genetic cause (source), and found that children with ADHD had a 60-70% greater likelihood of a variation in a gene necessary to metabolize fatty acids.
Regarding treatment, one meta-analysis found that supplementing ADHD children’s diets with omega-3s consistently reduced hyperactivity, as evaluated by parents and teachers. Another found that children with ADHD who took an omega-3 supplement every day for four months paid more attention, were less hyperactive, more obedient, less hostile, and better at spelling. Yet another study (source) found that EPA supplementation improved attention and vigilance in ADHD children with low endogenous EPA levels, but that children with high EPA levels may be negatively affected by this treatment. And another study (source) found that supplementing children’s diets with omega-3s improved “working memory” — the short-term recall that is key to learning.
Remember, though, that if you think your child may have ADHD, seek an expert diagnosis first, and then get them tested for an omega-3 deficiency. There’s a lot of evidence that an omega-3 supplement can help treat ADHD, and also that these supplements are beneficial to everyone in the correct doses. But do not self-diagnose ADHD, assume an omega-3 deficiency, and start giving supplements in large doses.
Gutiérrez, S.; Svahn, S.L.; Johansson, M.E. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Immune Cells. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2019, 20, 5028. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20205028
Choi, M., Ju, J., Suh, J. S., Park, K. Y., & Kim, K. H. (2015). Effects of Omega-3-Rich Harp Seal Oil on the Production of Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines in Mouse Peritoneal Macrophages. Preventive nutrition and food science, 20(2), 83–87. https://doi.org/10.3746/pnf.2015.20.2.83
Thormar, H., Isaacs, C. E., Brown, H. R., Barshatzky, M. R., & Pessolano, T. (1987). Inactivation of enveloped viruses and killing of cells by fatty acids and monoglycerides. Antimicrobial agents and chemotherapy, 31(1), 27–31. https://doi.org/10.1128/AAC.31.1.27
What is ADHD? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. January 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/facts.html
James M. Greenblatt et al. NATURAL REMEDIES FOR ADHD. “Omega 3s: The Ultimate (ADHD) Brain Food”, May 2021 https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-omega-3-benefits/
Elizabeth Hawkey, Joel T. Nigg. Omega—3 fatty acid and ADHD: Blood level analysis and meta-analytic extension of supplementation trials
Clin Psychol Rev. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2015 Feb 9. Published in final edited form as: Clin Psychol Rev. 2014 Aug; 34(6): 496–505. Published online 2014 Jun 2. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2014.05.005 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4321799/
Brookes, K. J., Chen, W., Xu, X., Taylor, E., & Asherson, P. (2006). Association of fatty acid desaturase genes with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Biological psychiatry, 60(10), 1053–1061. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.04.025
Chang, J.PC., Su, KP., Mondelli, V. et al. High-dose eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) improves attention and vigilance in children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and low endogenous EPA levels. Transl Psychiatry 9, 303 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0633-0
Widenhorn-Müller, K., Schwanda, S., Scholz, E., Spitzer, M., & Bode, H. (2014). Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and essential fatty acids, 91(1-2), 49–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004