Journal of Personal Science: Omega-3 and ADHD (Part 2 of 2)

by Allan Folz

My story of omega 3 and self-experimentation did not end with my wife and her pregnancy. As I mentioned, I discovered the paleo diet, Vitamin D, and fish oil all about the same time. Mostly for reasons of general good health we began supplementing with vitamin D and fish oil (Mega-EPA Omega-3 supplement). I ordered some of each from the same place online and we began supplementing both at the same time, around January-February of 2010.

At the time my son was in kindergarten and having problems socializing at school. He had them at home too, but we’d all adjusted to them at home. He exhibited a lot of what would be called typical spectrum issues, though I was certain he didn’t have anything approaching Asperger’s. Things that interested him, such as building with Legos playing outside with or without friends, he did quite well. It struck me that he was a high-energy boy who didn’t appreciate receiving directions, desk work, or anything requiring moderation and self-reflection. I like to joke that Tom Sawyer is hardly a modern archetype.

Nonetheless, he was having problems. The Vitamin D Council web site had a number of very persuasive anecdotes from parents about autistic children cured by Vitamin D. Our son wasn’t autistic, but autism involves several behaviors, and he had a few of them. He didn’t make good eye contact when talking or being talked to. He wouldn’t follow directions if he didn’t feel an intrinsic motivation to follow them. He could not fall asleep and would often lay in bed restless for an hour or more at night. The Vitamin D Council recommended 2000 IU per 50 lb/day, so that’s what we all took. We also took one fish oil capsule a week. At the time I thought of omega-3 only being for heart health. This made me a little skeptical about how much was really required. We seemed a healthy family, so I figured our needs were modest. One capsule a week seemed well beyond the norm so we should be good.

Almost immediately after beginning the supplements my son’s behavior improved. I was pleasantly surprised and attributed it to the Vitamin D based on what I’d read on the Vitamin D Council web site. It wasn’t a cure by any means, but it was a very noticeable improvement. He would still have bad days, and I was a little bummed that after the initial improvement the Vitamin D didn’t seem to be helping any further. However, I figured such is real-life outside of attention-grabbing headlines.

Two years later, January and February of 2012, second grade for him, and about a year and a half after the self-experiment with my wife during her third pregnancy, my son’s behavior dramatically worsened. We were all still taking D, but at that point it was obviously not showing any benefit for my son. He was in a worse place than when he was in kindergarten. I resigned myself to Vitamin D not being his problem, and at his teacher’s demand signed him up for outside testing.

I didn’t notice at the time, but we had run out of the “fish oil” over Christmas break. The second week of January we visited family in the Midwest. When we returned, school was a nightmare for him and us. My wife and I attributed it to too much TV, bad diet, and not enough sleep while we were visiting family. However, even two and three weeks after our return his problems were worsening. Around the beginning of February, I finally got around to ordering another bottle of the omega-3. I thought of it as mostly being for my wife, who was doing fine, so I didn’t feel any immediacy. When it finally arrived, we all started taking it again. Immediately his behavior improved. It was such a night and day difference the connection was impossible to miss. It was like kindergarten when he first started taking Vitamin D, only far more so. For the first time in two weeks he wasn’t angry and crying at the end of the day. That’s when it occurred to me that in kindergarten he started taking fish oil at the same time as Vitamin D. For the last two years I had been attributing to Vitamin D what was due to the omega-3 supplement. I felt like an idiot.

After that, I did some research on omega-3, fish oil, and ADHD. When I knew what to look for, I found that there were, in fact, a few studies about using omega-3 for ADHD treatment. It seemed that EPA was effectie while DHA was not, or at best, less effective than EPA. When I took a closer look at our “fish oil,” I remember thinking to myself, “Oh wow, this stuff is Mega-EPA. How lucky is that.” I had chosen it almost at random. It had the best per-dose price and was listed as a top seller.

In retrospect, were it not for the pain and difficulty experienced by my son, it would be funny how the answer was under my nose the whole time. I was slow to appreciate it because of my own prejudice and not treating the problem as something to scientifically test. I thought of omega-3 as being for heart health. I’d never seen it mentioned in relation to emotional health or brain development, outside of the usual bromides about eating walnuts and so forth. Plus the recommendations are always couched in generalities without specific dosage guidelines. Even after I discovered it made a difference for my pregnant wife, it didn’t occur to me to test it seriously on my son. Their symptoms and nutritional needs seemed unrelated.

A few weeks later we saw the professional who had tested our son to go over the results. A few weeks had passed between the evaluation and when we met to discuss the results; it was during that time that I made the omega-3 discovery. I told the professional that our son was getting really good results from the omega-3 supplement. I said that after noticing his results I’d done some online searching and there were a few scientific studies supporting the use of omega-3 supplements for ADHD. The professional said he was aware of the studies, but the efficacy wasn’t as certain or as strong compared to the prescription drugs so most people choose the prescriptions. (He sent me the same Bloch & Qawasmi paper Seth linked to in his April 21 Assorted Links.) I wondered if most people were even made aware of the possibility of omega-3 deficiency — he certainly didn’t bring it up with us. I would not have found the research papers without first knowing what to look for. I knew what to look for only because of the discovery I made with my son.

The omega-3 supplement, while a huge improvement, was not an immediate cure. We started giving him two capsules daily which consisted of 800 mg EPA and 400 mg DHA. That seemed to me a lot of omega-3, relative to what one could consume through normal dietary intake.

I was not overly comfortable with that level of dose long-term despite it clearly working. So every couple months or so I’d have him skip a day or whole weekend. Without fail, his mood noticeably worsened. By the early evening he would be overwhelmed and frustrated to the point of tears by little things that weren’t going his way, things that were really just the usual complications of life in a household with two parents and two siblings.

A poignant instance of the effects of missing a dose happened in the Fall of the following school year, still 2012. My wife’s mother came for a visit. The break from routine caused my wife to forget to give our son his omega-3 supplement for three or four days in a row. He might have had them on Sunday, but not on any of the weekdays. By Thursday I had gotten a note and phone call from his teacher about his behavior at school. We had to go and meet with her the following week. At the meeting I shared that we had forgotten to give him the omega-3 capsules due to his grandmother visiting. I saw this as proof it was working. The teacher didn’t know we had forgotten, and yet his behavior had noticeably regressed. She did not share my awe, and tried to imply that he should be on a prescription. I said that kids can forget prescriptions just as easily and the side effects from a missed prescription are going to be far worse than three days off an omega-3 supplement.

Last month we again ran out of the omega-3 supplement. Except for the accidental occurrence when my wife’s mother was visiting, this is the first time he’s been off it for more than a few consecutive days in the two years and two months since I first discovered it helped him. I’m quite pleased that he seems to be doing OK. There’s been virtually no difference in his behavior since stopping. However, it’s not a true cold-turkey quit. We have some of the Green Pastures FCLO infused coconut oil, so he’s been taking that instead. The manufacturer is vague about its omega-3 content, but my rough estimate is that he’s taking, a third to a half of his previous dose with the Mega-EPA capsules. Then again, it’s in the triglyceride form which is supposed to be 50-70% better absorbed on a per-gram basis. Perhaps it’s a wash.

I’ve thought about having him try flax oil. There is considerable debate about the efficacy of flax oil and the body’s ability to synthesize EPA and DHA from ALA, the omega-3 in flax oil. It might be a little late to test efficacy now. The best time to test was one and two years ago when the Mega-EPA supplement was clearly working and had an “efficacy” half-life of 24 hours. The thought never occurred to me until recently when reading Seth’s blog.

I can’t end without sharing some of my frustrations with the state of health science. There is no doubt in my mind that omega-3 helped both my son and my wife deal with some severe and yet common mental health problems. I’m a pretty sharp, pretty well-read guy that’s always had an interest in biology and medicine. Outside of a few esoteric corners of the web where you have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it, omega-3 is something you take for heart health.

I think the comparison with statins is apt. When “heart-healthy whole-grains” don’t fix one’s blood makers, and why would they, it’s very quickly on to prescription drugs (statins). When “use your words” doesn’t fix a young boy’s interactions with classmates and teachers, and why would it, it’s on to prescription drugs. Boys especially are put on incredibly strong pharmaceuticals with well-established risk factors that include stunted growth and suicide. Pharmaceuticals should be tried last, but they are clearly being tried first by frustrated parents and suspect practitioners. It’s a national shame and a personal outrage.

Part 1, about using omega-3 to treat postpartum depression, appeared yesterday. Allan Folz is a software developer in Portland, Oregon. He recently co-founded Edison Gauss Publishing, a software house that makes academically rigorous educational apps for children in grades K-8. Their apps are suitable both classroom and home use, and have proven to be particularly popular among homeschoolers that appreciate a traditional approach to practicing math.

13 Responses to “Journal of Personal Science: Omega-3 and ADHD (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. Alex Says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Allan. I’ll be doing some trials.

  2. babar Says:

    thanks for sharing your story. your boy sounds a lot like mine with respect to where he sits with respect to “spectrum” behaviors. (my kid is 6.) we haven’t tried anything with omega-3 (and knowing him, he would refuse a new “vitamin”.)

    i’m glad you have found this link but in my brain the problem in many cases is with the school environment and not the kid. your kid is probably intrinsically fine and if he grows up with his self intact he will do quite well in life.

  3. Max Says:

    Thank you again. This is going to help a lot of people. My wife’s 8 year old boy is in a similar situation and I will encourage them to try EPA at these doses. One question: it’s hard to imagine a young boy being able to swallow the big capsules or liking the taste of the liquid. How do you manage delivery?

  4. C.M. Mayo Says:

    An especially interesting read. Thank you for your generosity in sharing this story.

    My own sense is that oily fish must have been a more important part of the human diet, so our bodies need that oil and with the modern diets we have, we usually don’t get it unless in a pill. Ditto fermented vegetables.

    I share the frustration at how quick-on-the-trigger so many doctors are to prescribe pharmaceuticals, many of them on the market with very dubious data behind them, and when there are alternatives without dangerous side effects.

  5. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Interesting story. You were very wise to avoid psychotropic drugs. If you are interested, you should check out a book called, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker. A portion of the book deals with the harmful effects of drugging children.

    See here for an interesting Ritalin-related excerpt from that book.

  6. Adam Says:

    To offer something of a counterpoint, for those of us without ADHD or Depression, there is an argument that supplementing with Fish oil may be harmful:

    http://chriskresser.com/when-it-comes-to-fish-oil-more-is-not-better

    http://www.westonaprice.org/know-your-fats/precious-yet-perilous

  7. Andrew Says:

    Max, Carlsons “Very Finest Fish Oil” with lemon flavor in the pint bottles, while expensive, is surprisingly good tasting.

    I recently read someone on the net recommending just drinking small gulps of the Carlsons directly from the bottle. I haven’t done that yet, but it definitely seems more convenient than pouring it out every time I want to take a dose.

  8. Mehmet Says:

    In a bbc documentary, i have seen a child’s school problems are resolved by omega 3:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/intelligenceandmemory/omega_three.shtml

  9. dearieme Says:

    We are regular eaters of mackerel pate, sardines on toast, and smoked salmon. We also enjoy the occasional kipper. I trust that these will satisfy our needs for fish oil.

    As for other fish, I had a nice piece of whiting yesterday. Yum, yum.

  10. Allan Folz Says:

    Thanks everyone. I really appreciate it. I prefer to be the private type, but I feel helping people by getting the word out about O3 is important.

    @babar — I feel very much the same way about schools’ treatment of boys today. However, he was not functioning well at home either. To a certain extent I’m sure school wore him down and that spilled over into home life, but life wasn’t grand prior to kindergarten either. Regardless, O3 makes a huge, noticeable difference.

    @babar & max — Concerning delivery, they are large pills that the kids chew up. Our oldest son has always been adventurous towards foods and eating, and the others started young enough they didn’t know a difference. When our youngest was a baby I would pierce it with a fork and let him suck it out while I held the capsule. Seemed gross to me but he loved it. The capsules pop loudly and squirt in your mouth when you bite into them. I call them firecrackers and they like that, complaining even when they occasionally don’t get a good pop for whatever reason. Finally, though we take fermented cod liver oil straight and quickly chase it with food, I’ve read of people mixing it with just enough peanut butter, yogurt, or ice cream to carry it across the tongue and down the gullet. I think the same should work for any liquid oil.

    @Alex & Mehmet — Thanks, I’ll check them out. One thing I’ve learned is that many parents who have gone the prescription drug route really don’t like hearing about alternatives.

    @Adam — While I haven’t seen those specific links, I do share concern about over-doing the O3. It’s partly why I was under-dosing for so long, and repeatedly testing my son’s response to taking him off it every couple or few months. My preference is for as small a dose as he can tolerate, though I see Seth has discovered what seems to be large, bordering on incredible, doses make a commiserate improvements. It’s also possible unrefined flax seeds are metabolized differently whereby overdosing it not a concern.

    @Andrew — I guess whatever works for somebody, but if one is aiming for a specific physiological effect, I think the dose needs to be more carefully measured than a “swig.” :)

  11. Deb Says:

    Great article. I’m going to try it with my 12 yr old son. And that Adam dude who posted fish oil harmful articles obviously does not have a child with ADHD. If he did he would understand that you will try ANYTHING to help your child.

  12. Charles Says:

    I was taking Wellbutrin for “adult” ADD. It had pretty much saved my life when I finally realized that I had ADD when I was 40, and had been experiencing it for most of my life. After a number of year,though, I wanted to get off the drug, and read a Purdue study that indicated 50% of boys with ADD had Omega-3 deficiencies. So I started taking fish oil caps, and was able to stop the Wellbutrin. It’s true that it’s probably not great to take unlimited amounts of fish oils. But given the alternatives, I would recommend erring on the side of getting enough, then start cutting back until you find the correct amount. And adding fatty fish to the diet, as well as getting the gut microbiota in good shape with pre- and probiotics. 90% of the neurotransmitters produced in the body are produced by intestinal bacteria. If your gut is screwed up, your brain will be, too.

  13. Dave Says:

    Awesome article Allan.

    I (and my family, co-workers, etc.) also notice (!!!) when I stop taking my fish oil. I’ve been through several cycles of self-experimentation on this, and I can say w/o a shadow of a doubt that it makes for a large positive difference in my mood, outlook, level of anxiety, speed of thought, etc. I’m 50 y/o now and often wonder what life would have been like if I would have discovered Omega-3 supplementation sooner. My first-born son is the “spitting image” of me at that (teen)age, both good and bad, and this article FINALLY put it all together for me regarding my son’s behavioral challenges. So, while I’m still able to have a strong influence over his choices, I’m going to insist that he start supplementing as well.

    With all of the information out there (now) on ADHD and the “spectrum”, I recognize some of those symptoms in myself and son, so there seems to be some of that correlation with us as well.

    Finally, I’ve found Krill Oil to be particularly effective for me. I do think the “phospholipid carrier” (vs. triglyceride) marketing of Krill Oil suppliers is more than hype in my case.

    BTW – Is there a strong Northern European component to you or your wife’s lineage? If so, I would not be surprised. I gather others have noticed a correlation of omega-3 / behavior / mood for people w/ that ancestry as well.