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podcast

Essential Fatty Acids — Nutrient Deficiencies in Children with Symptoms of ADHD (Part 2)

 

Several studies have linked essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiencies to symptoms of ADHD, like hyperactivity. 1 2 3 Fatty acids play many important roles in our bodies, some which aren’t as obvious as others.  

This overview of essential fatty acid deficiencies in children with ADHD will help you understand how crucial these nutrients are, and what happens when they are out of balance. Simple steps can be taken to identify and correct an EFA deficiency and improve your child’s nutrition status so that he or she can thrive.

in a nutshell
  • Fatty acids are one of three macronutrients, and provide nutrition for the body. They play a role in many functions throughout the body, including as the main component of the cells wall, which protects the cell and regulates what goes into and out of the cell.
  • Essential fatty acids (EFAs) must be obtained from the diet and cannot be produced by the body. Linoleic acid (LA) is an essential omega-6 fat. Alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential omega-3 fat.
  • The standard American diet is imbalanced in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, providing high amounts of potentially inflammatory omega-6 oils and low amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3 oils.
  • EFA deficiencies have been linked to ADHD symptoms.
  • Children with ADHD have higher levels of inflammation.
  • Eating a diet high in anti-inflammatory EFAs and lower in inflammatory fats, supporting digestion, and supplementing with EFAs when necessary can help improve the body’s EFA balance.

What nutrients are often found to be deficient in children with ADHD

Through this seven-part series, we discuss the science behind nutrient deficiencies linked to ADHD, and what steps you can take to correct them. Key nutrients that have been found to be deficient in children with ADHD symptoms include vitamin D, essential fatty acids (EFAs), and minerals including selenium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

Understanding the function of these nutrients in the body and why the deficiency may have developed in the first place, along with how to identify and address the deficiency are crucial steps to helping your child.  

Keep in mind an entire book could be written about each of these nutrients. Here we will stick to the highlights to give you the best overview.

The importance and role of fatty acids in the body

Fatty acids (also known simply as fats) are one of three macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate) that provide nutrition for the body. They play a role in many functions throughout the body:

  • Provide a source of energy. When properly digested, fats are an excellent source of raw materials for the mitochondria to produce consistent energy (more on fat digestion later).
  • Make up cell membranes. The outer membrane of the cell is made up of a lipid bilayer. This bilayer protects the cell’s contents from harm, and facilitates the transport of nutrients into the cell and waste out of the cell.
  • Promote liver function by building cholesterol and bile. Fats make up cholesterol and bile, both key to liver function. And liver function is key to detoxification. Many of our children’s symptoms come from the inability to properly detox.
  • Required for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins: A,D,E,K. Part 1 of this series discusses the role of vitamin D deficiency in children with ADHD symptoms.
  • Required for the adequate use of proteins. The building blocks of proteins are amino acids which are an essential element of neurotransmitters which are often out of balance (dopamine, epinephrine) in children with ADHD symptoms. Fatty acids are required for the body to use proteins.
  • Slow the absorption of food for proper energy regulation. Fat-containing meals slow the absorption of carbohydrates when consumed together. Blood sugar dysregulation is an often-overlooked contributor to our children’s behaviour.
  • Imperative to managing inflammation. In many studies, inflammation has been tied to children affected with ADHD symptoms. 4

What are essential fatty acids?

Our bodies are capable of producing certain fatty acids, while others must be obtained from the diet. Ensuring an adequate supply of EFAs in our children's diets will allow their bodies to produce other fatty acids required to maintain health.  

The two essential fatty acids are linoleic acid (LA), which is an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which is an omega-3 fatty acid.

The standard American diet is abundant in omega-6 (LA) fats, found in most cooking oils and many processed foods, and deficient in omega-3 fats (ALA), found in foods like flaxseed oil. Both fats are essential to the diet, but because the ratio highly favors inflammatory omega-6 fats over anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, the body’s ability to manage the inflammatory response is decreased.

How do you know if your child is EFA-deficient?

There are many potential signs and symptoms of an EFA deficiency:

  • Dry or flaky skin
  • Dry or unruly hair
  • Dandruff or cradle cap
  • Gallbladder issues, poor bile production that results in light-coloured stools
  • Decreased growth in children
  • Increased susceptibility to infection
  • Poor wound healing
  • Symptoms of ADHD, like hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention  5

In addition to looking for the signs above, you can check for fatty acid deficiencies by running a fatty acid profile panel with your functional/integrative medicine practitioner.

Reasons why so many children have a fatty acid deficiency

There are many reasons why some children are at higher risk for an EFA deficiency.  Here are a few main reasons:

  • Poor fat digestion. Your child may be eating a diet full of the appropriate amounts and types of fat but is unable to break them down, absorb, and assimilate them.
  • Eating an imbalanced amount of omega-3 to omega-6 fat-containing foods. The standard American diet does not provide the right balance of EFAs.
  • Missing the nutrient cofactors and stimulators for the body to properly utilize the fatty acids. Cofactors and stimulators, including vitamin B6, B3, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc, and proper liver function and appropriate enzyme production (delta-6-desaturase) are required for the body to properly utilize the fatty acids.
  • Exposure to fatty acid inhibitors. Non-essential fatty acids, like GLA, EPA, and DHA, which provide crucial anti-inflammatory functions in the body, can be inhibited by substances like aspirin, NSAIDs (e.g. Advil), steroids, and trans fats.  

What you can do now to correct an essential fatty acid deficiency?

    1. Encourage your child to eat a diet that balances the intake of EFAs to promote a healthy inflammatory response. Recommended LA-to-ALA balance is 1:1, however children with symptoms of ADHD have shown benefits of having higher doses of EPA, ALA and DHA. One study showed doses of 1500 mg of EPA and DHA to be safe.  6 7
    2. Support digestion.  More information on how to support your child’s digestion can be found here.
    3. Consider supplementing with EPA and DHA (fish oils).
    4. Consider supplementing with GLA (black currant seed, evening primrose, and borage oils).
    5. Avoid aspirin, NSAIDs (e.g. Advil), steroids, and trans fats when possible.

 

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Articles Related to Essential fatty acids — Nutrient deficiencies in children with symptoms of ADHD (Part 2)

Vitamin D – Nutrient deficiencies in children with symptoms of ADHD (Part 1)

Iron – Nutrient deficiencies found in children with symptoms of ADHD (Part 3)

Magnesium – Nutrient deficiencies found in children with symptoms of ADHD (Part 4)  

Zinc – Nutrient deficiencies found in children with symptoms of ADHD (Part 5)

References/Sources

  1. (Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: April 2007
  2. (Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry: Volume 26, Issue 2, February 2002, Pages 233-239
  3. (Inflammation in Children and Adolescents With Neuropsychiatric Disorders: A Systematic Review: Volume 53, Issue 3, March 2014, Pages 274-296
  4. (Inflammation in Children and Adolescents With Neuropsychiatric Disorders: A Systematic Review: Volume 53, Issue 3, March 2014, Pages 274-296
  5. (Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry: Volume 26, Issue 2, February 2002, Pages 233-239
  6. (Omega-3 Fatty Acids Supplementation in Children with Autism: A Double-blind Randomized, Placebo-controlled Pilot Study
  7. (Effects of an open-label pilot study with high-dose EPA/DHA concentrates on plasma phospholipids and behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder