Can Fish Oil Help Kids With ADHD?

By Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD
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Q

I’ve heard a lot about fish oil being a treatment for ADHD. Does it really work, and if so, how can I get it for my child?

A

I hear this question often from parents of kids with ADHD who are looking at different types of ADHD treatment. But it’s not really the fish oil that has a potential benefit to some kids with ADHD. It’s the omega fatty acids found in fish oil that seem to have some effect on ADHD symptoms. Omegas are also found in other foods, including vegetables, flaxseed, and krill oils.

Parents sometimes think that because these oils are natural, it’s not a problem to give fish oil supplements sold at stores to their child. But fish oil supplements can have side effects, and there’s no set dosage that’s right for all kids. So it’s important to talk to your child’s doctor first. There are prescription supplements that you can discuss.

Omegas are important for general health. They help our bodies function properly. However, a 2014 study found that kids with ADHD have a lower level of omega-3 than kids without ADHD. Low levels can cause kids to have trouble with attention, focus and working memory, and other ADHD symptoms.

Research shows that omega supplements increase a low level of omegas in the blood. That boost can be somewhat helpful in treating ADHD symptoms. One study found that omega-3 helps neurons in the brain communicate better. That may improve attention, focus, motivation and working memory for kids with ADHD.

More studies are being done on the impact of omegas on ADHD. At this point, the fatty acids aren’t meant to be a substitute for ADHD medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). But they may be taken along with medication, as long as your child’s doctor gives the OK. Omegas can also be taken while your child does CBT.

You don’t need a prescription to get fish oil and other forms of omegas. They’re widely available over the counter at pharmacies and grocery stores. It’s a good idea to have them prescribed, however.

One reason is that supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA. Omega products that are sold over the counter can have different percentages of omegas from brand to brand. Also, one study found that some fish oil products had misleading information on their label. Six of the products had 30 percent less omega-3s than what was stated. At least 12 of them had 14 percent less than what was on the label.

Prescription omegas are regulated. This means that manufacturers have to follow strict rules about dosage and quality. There’s a stronger quality control when omegas are prescribed. That means you have a much, much greater chance of getting exactly what you’re paying for.

The other reason to get prescription omegas is that you need to talk to your child’s doctor before starting them. The doctor can explain possible side effects like blood thinning and stomach upset. You can also talk about whether your child should even be taking omegas.

Your child’s doctor can also tell you appropriate dosing for your child. It’s important to never guess at dosing. Giving your child too much omegas can cause an upset stomach. Dosing depends on a number of factors:

  • Your child’s weight

  • The strength of the omegas

  • Other medications your child is taking

  • Other health issues your child has

There can be a side effect of “fish burp” when your child takes omega fish supplements. This is exactly what it sounds like—a burp that tastes like fish. It’s pretty unpleasant.

Talk to your doctor about liquid omegas, enteric-coated omegas, or other forms of omegas besides fish. Enteric-coated supplements have a thicker “outside” and have been found in some cases to reduce fish burp.

Some parents find the liquid omegas don’t cause fish burp. Other parents put the capsules in the refrigerator or freezer. Always check with your doctor before trying any of these options.

Taking omega supplements is more complicated than it might sound to many parents. If you’re considering it, be sure to talk to your child’s doctor.


Learn more about ADHD and diet and ADHD supplements. Find out if mindfulness training could help your child. And read about the benefits of behavior therapy for kids with ADHD.

About the Author

About the Author

Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD 

is an ADHD/ASD expert and a best-selling author.

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