The Usefulness of Fish Oil in Treating Hyperactivity in Young Children


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Since 1987, researchers have investigated the possibility of using omega-3 fatty acids, typically derived from fish oil, in treating hyperactivity in young children. Current recommendations concerning fish oil for ADHD or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder may arise, at least in part, from research conducted at Oxford University in 2005. Researchers investigating the possible benefits of fish oil in children with developmental coordination disorder, a condition affecting approximately 5% of school age children, concluded that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may be a safe and effective treatment option for educational and behavioral problems.

There are several types of fats in the human diet. Two of these are referred to as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that the average diet is too high in omega-6 fatty acids, found in most meats and dairy products, and too low in omega-3 fatty acids, found primarily in fish. By eating fish three to five times per week, instead of other types of meat, nutritionists believe that this imbalance can be corrected. In addition, many experts recommend daily fish oil supplements.

Dosage recommendations for fish oil supplements vary, depending on several factors. Body weight is of course a primary consideration for children. For healthy adults and teenagers over the age of 14, the daily recommended intake of omega-3 fatty acids is 1600mg for men and 1100mg for women. For adults with heart disease or arthritis, the dosage recommendation is usually higher.

Dosage recommendations for fish oil in treating hyperactivity in young children have not been established. Nor is there an accepted dosage of fish oil for ADHD. But, acceptable intake levels of omega-3 fatty acids for children have been defined. From one to three years of age the omega-3 recommendation is 700mg/day, for ages 4-8 900mg/day and for ages 9-13 1200mg/day.

If after evaluating your child’s normal diet, you do not believe that he or she is getting enough omega-3s, supplementation may be advisable. These fatty acids are important to both growth and neurological development.

The fish oil supplements used in the Oxford study contained a total of 732mg of omega-3 fatty acids, given on a daily basis to children between the ages of 5 and12 years of age. Researchers had hoped to see improvement in motor skills after 3 months of active treatment, but there was no improvement in this area.

The areas that did show a significant improvement were in reading and spelling. A reduction in behavioral problems typically associated with ADHD was also noted. The researchers had not planned to evaluate the effectiveness of fish oil for ADHD, only for developmental coordination disorder.

None of the children had been formally diagnosed with ADHD, but their scores on assessment tests placed them within the range for a clinical diagnosis of this disorder. Confirmation of the presence of ADHD would have required a complete psychological assessment and was not feasible during the study.

Most people are aware of the many health benefits of fish oil supplements. But, the role of fish oil in treating hyperactivity in young children has not been defined. The Oxford researchers suggested that further research should be conducted concerning fish oil for ADHD and similar behavioral and education problems.

Although most doctors are aware of the health benefits of fish oil, the majority do not prescribe it, according to surveys. Reasons for not prescribing or recommending fish oil supplements typically revolve around the amount of time that the doctor has to spend with the patient.

As a parent of a child who was diagnosed with ADHD while he was still in elementary school, I know that if any of his doctors had suggested a fish oil supplement, I would have tried it. If, I had known that there was some research supporting fish oil for ADHD, I would have run right out and bought some cod liver oil. My mother gave it to me when I was a child, though I do not remember why. I do know that I suffered no ill effects from it and I did well in school.

No adverse side effects were reported in the Oxford study. No health risks are associated with fish oil supplements, except in the case of those people who are taking prescription blood thinners or who have bleeding disorders.

Over the years, results of research concerning fish oil in treating hyperactivity in young children have been mixed. Likewise for studies focused on fish oil for ADHD. There could be many reasons for this variation. One possibility is the popularity of Ritalin and other prescription drugs for treating ADHD.

I know that when my son was taking Ritalin, he came home from school and cried every day. He was taking the lowest available dosage and the drug depressed my happy, otherwise healthy, active child.

We never ate fish, because I do not like fish and at the time I did not understand the importance of fish or omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. Now that he is an adult, he eats fish on a regular basis, because he likes it and he suffers from none of the problems found in adults with ADHD.

Could it have been that my son suffered from a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids? I will never know the answer to that question, but the majority of evidence indicates that reading ability and other literacy skills may be improved by increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Many health care professionals, including me, support the use of fish oil in treating hyperactivity in young children . The same is true of fish oil for ADHD. To learn more about fish oil supplements, please visit the Fish Oil Guide .

Patsy Hamilton was a health care professional for over twenty years before becoming a freelance writer. Currently she is writing a series of articles about omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil supplements. Read more at


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