ADHD – is fish oil better than prescription drugs?

Fish oil continues to receive a lot of media publicity regarding its positive effect on our mood and behaviour and has been reported as having therapeutic value for the treatment of many conditions including ADHD, but is it better than prescription drugs? Yes it is according to one trial from the University of South Australia who found it more effective than Ritalin for treating ADHD.

The randomised, double blind, placebo-controlled study was led by researcher Natalie Sinn over a period of 30 weeks. In the first 15 weeks, more than 100 children between the ages of 7 and 12 were given either fish oil or a placebo. The ones who received fish oil showed a significant improvement in their symptoms of ADHD compared to those children receiving the placebo. Then at 15 weeks the placebo group were also given fish oil and they showed similar improvements over the following 15 weeks to the original fish oil group, which also continued to improve. All in all, around 40% of the children showed a significant improvement over the 30 week period.

ADHD is characterised by inattentiveness, impulsivity, distractibility and hyperactive behaviour and as such, can inhibit learning in school, so this is exciting news indeed, particularly as the number of children being prescribed Ritalin is increasing at an alarming rate both in the UK and the USA. The Durham trials here in the UK have conducted intensive studies using fish oil on schoolchildren, including those with symptoms of ADHD, and they also reported a positive effect on behaviour and learning in the classroom.

So what is it that is so special about fish oil?

First of all, fish oil contains the Omega 3 fatty acids Eicosapentaenoic acid and Docosahexaenoic acid or EPA and DHA. These fatty acids should already be included in the diet as they are essential for healthy brain development and brain function on a day to day basis as well as having an impact on just about every area of physical health. DHA is necessary for healthy structure of the brain so extremely important during pregnancy and in the first few years of a child’s life when their brains are developing rapidly. After that, it is mostly EPA that is required for optimum function of the brain. Both the Australian study and the Durham trials used fish oil that was high in EPA.

The sad thing is, our diets just don’t give us enough Omega 3 and the consequence of this is a number of health problems ranging from heart disease, inflammatory conditions, skin problems and allergies to all types of depressive disorders. As far as our mental health is concerned, if we don’t get enough of these fatty acids then our brain is forced to use replacement fatty acids that aren’t ideal and so it isn’t hard to imagine that this is likely to have a negative impact on our mood and on our behaviour and so could play a major part in the development of ADHD.

Children with ADHD have been found to have high levels of replacement fatty acids in their blood. Interestingly, boys need more fatty acids than girls and this might be why far more boys than girls are diagnosed with ADHD. Obviously the ideal way to get enough Omega 3 would be to include it naturally in the diet. However, and this is the major problem, EPA and DHA can only be found in high enough quantities in oily fish and we are advised not to eat too much of that due to the potentially high levels of mercury and other toxins they can contain. What are we supposed to do as we need the Omega 3 fatty acids but the only main source we have is not fit to eat in large quantities? Some may claim that there are plant sources of Omega 3. This is true, but they don’t contain EPA and DHA, only ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) and our bodies just cannot convert ALA into EPA and DHA efficiently although we are able to convert EPA to DHA, if we get enough EPA in the diet.

The good news is that there is a safe way to get enough EPA and it is by supplementing with fish oil, but only pharmaceutical grade fish oil as the lower grade ones haven’t been through the same processes so can still contain high levels of mercury.


The most commonly prescribed drug for ADHD is the controversial Ritalin, which carries many unpleasant side effects, including sleeplessness, dizziness, and heart problems, it is also highly addictive. Fish oil has none of these problems and so obviously can be considered a much safer option, but only if it works. If the Australian study and the Durham trials are anything to go by then fish oil does offer promise as a possible alternative to Ritalin in the future, although more research is required to substantiate this claim.

In the meantime, it is important to remember that we all require the fatty acids found in fish oil and if we don’t get enough the result can be poor health, both physical and mental. Regardless of whether fish oil is better than Ritalin or not or whether someone has ADHD or not, it is a supplement that is worth considering by everyone.