Could Mom’s Stress Affect Her Baby’s Health?

How Can You Minimize Stress During Pregnancy?

StressIf you are pregnant, the advice you see on the internet can be overwhelming. There are so many things you “must do” and so many things you “must avoid” if you want a healthy baby. It’s enough to stress you out.

As if that weren’t bad enough, we are probably living through the most stressful period in recent memory. So, the last thing you want to hear is that your stress during pregnancy can affect the health of your baby.

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that the studies I will discuss in this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” are intriguing, but they are preliminary. I don’t want to add to your stress.

Let me start by reviewing the literature:

  • Several studies suggest that stress during pregnancy is associated with preterm birth, low birthweight, and infant mortality.
  • Other studies suggest that stress during pregnancy is associated with suboptimal cognitive development, hyperactivity, and asthma in the offspring.

The big question, of course, is how a mom’s stress during pregnancy can affect the health of her child months or years later. One hypothesis is that stress affects the mom’s gut bacteria, and those gut bacteria are passed along to the child as he or she passes through the birth canal.

We know that stress can affect your gut bacteria, but can it affect your child’s gut bacteria? Studies in mice suggest it can. Today I will discuss the first large clinical study (AK Aatsinki et al, Pyschoneuroendocrinology, 119 (2020) 104754) designed to evaluate that hypothesis in humans.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was an offshoot of an ongoing FinnBrain Cohort Project, which aims to study the influence of stress exposures during pregnancy on later childhood development and health outcomes. This particular study was designed to investigate the role of chronic stress during pregnancy on the population of gut bacteria in infants. There were 399 mothers and their babies who completed this study.

All Participants in the FinnBrain Project:

  • Filled out self-reported prenatal questionnaires at gestational weeks 14, 24, and 34. These questionnaires provided background information about the health, weight, age, and education level of the moms, as well as whether they were taking antidepression medications during their pregnancy.
  • Were also asked about breast feeding 2.5 months after giving birth.
  • Duration of gestation, birth weight, and method of delivery information were obtained from Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare.

Participants in this study:

  • Were evaluated for depression and anxiety symptoms three times during pregnancy and at 3 months after giving birth. It should be noted that the questionnaires used to evaluate depression and anxiety symptoms did not measure the stressors (events causing the stress). Instead they were measuring the mom’s response to those stressors.
  • Cortisol levels were measured at gestational week 24 as another measure of the mother’s stress level.
  • Fecal samples were obtained from the offspring at the age of 2.5 months and analyzed for the population of gut bacteria.

Could Mom’s Stress Affect Her Baby’s Health?

Bad BacteriaThe results of this study were intriguing:

Infants born to mothers who experienced high levels of stress (such as depression and/or anxiety) during pregnancy had an increased abundance of potentially pathogenic gut bacteria such as:

  • Serratia, Haemophilus, Citrobacter, and Campylobacter from the Proteobacteria group of bacteria.
  • Veillonella and Finegoldia from the Firmicutes group of bacteria.

In addition, infants born to mothers with elevated cortisol levels (another measure of stress) had decreased abundance of potentially health promoting gut bacteria such as Lactobacillus.

In contrast:

  • Infants born to mothers who experienced low levels of stress had increased levels of potentially health promoting gut bacteria, such as Akkermansia.
  • Infants born to mothers with low cortisol levels had an increased abundance of Lactobacillus in their gut.

In short:

  • High levels of stress in the mother during pregnancy are associated with an increased abundance of unhealthy bacteria in their baby’s intestine.
  • Low levels of stress in the mother during pregnancy are associated with an increased abundance of healthy bacteria in their baby’s intestine.

The authors concluded:

“The observed fecal bacteria signature in the infants with exposure to chronic maternal stress, such as increased abundance of potentially inflammatory bacteria from the Proteobacteria group of bacteria, warrant future follow-up of these children, since similar alterations of fecal bacteria have previously been associated with adverse health outcomes such as asthma in children.

The results of this study describe only associations, yet corroborate certain interesting findings reported in earlier literature and offer hypotheses for future mechanistic studies.”

How Can You Minimize Stress During Pregnancy?

Simply put, this study shows that chronic stress during pregnancy increases populations of gut bacteria in the newborn that are associated with adverse health outcomes in children. More studies are needed to confirm and understand this observation, but it raises an issue that is often ignored.

Pregnancy can be a stressful time, especially if you are a first-time mom. Plus, we are living in the most stressful time any of us can remember. So, this study is particularly relevant today.

However, let’s put this into perspective. It’s not the stress in our lives that harms us. It is how we respond to the stress. This study did not measure stress, per se. It measured depression, anxiety, and cortisol levels associated with the stress.

Some of the women in this study had very low levels of all three. It wasn’t that they led stress-free lives. They simply coped better with stress. So, the real question isn’t how to minimize stress. It’s how to better cope with stress. Here are some suggestions.

1) Take time to relax. What you do with this time will be different for each of you. Think about what kind of activity relaxes you the most. Here are some suggestions.

    • Meditation or prayer.
    • Yoga or Tai chi.
    • Watching a comedy.
    • Listening to your favorite music.

2) Make time for hobbies. Again, these would be different for each of you. They should be something that you enjoy and engages your mind. Examples include:

    • Reading.
    • Creating your favorite art. It could be painting, pottery, or knitting, for example.
    • Playing your favorite sport such as golf or tennis.
    • Doing puzzles.
    • Playing cards or board games.
    • Watching a movie.

3) Exercise on a regular basis. Exercise produces endorphins that elevate your mood. It’s even better if you are exercising outdoors so you can enjoy nature or listening to your favorite music while you exercise.

4) Relax your muscles. This is particularly important after you have exercised. Examples include:

    • Do some stretching exercises.
    • Take a luxurious hot bath.
    • Set a regular time to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.
    • Get a massage.

5) Eat a healthy diet. Studies have shown that people who eat lots of junk and processed foods tend to be depressed and anxious. Aim for a whole food diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. That kind of diet is best for your baby as well.

6) Try deep breathing exercises.

7) Ask for support from your family members, especially if they are stressors in your life.

8) Talk with someone. Find a friend or family member who is willing to listen and support you.

In short, take care of yourself. Don’t let stress affect your health and the health of your baby.

The Bottom Line

Pregnancy can be a stressful time, especially if you are a first-time mom. Plus, we are living in the most stressful time any of us can remember. That is why a recent study is particularly relevant.

Simply put, the study showed that chronic stress during pregnancy increases populations of gut bacteria in the newborn that are associated with adverse health outcomes in children. More studies are needed to confirm and understand this observation, but it raises an issue that is often ignored.

However, let’s put it into perspective. It’s not the stress in our lives that harms us. It is how we respond to the stress. This study did not measure stress, per se. It measured depression, anxiety, and cortisol levels associated with the stress.

Some of the women in this study had very low levels of all three. It wasn’t that they led stress-free lives. They simply coped better with stress. So, the real question isn’t how to minimize stress. It’s how to better cope with stress.

For more details and a discussion on how to cope with stress, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Does Maternal Vitamin D Affect Childhood ADHD?

Can ADHD Be Prevented?

vitamin dIf you are pregnant, or of childbearing age, should you be supplementing with vitamin D? Increasingly, the answer appears to be yes.

1) Based on blood 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels (considered the most accurate marker of vitamin D status):

    • 8-11% of pregnant women in the US are deficient in vitamin D (<30 nmol/L).
    • 25% of pregnant women have insufficient vitamin D status (30-49 nmol/L).

In short, that means around 1/3 of pregnant women in the US have insufficient or deficient levels of vitamin D. The effect of inadequate vitamin D during pregnancy is not just an academic question.

2) The Cochrane Collaboration (considered the gold standard for evidence-based medicine) has recently concluded that supplementation with vitamin D reduces the risk of significant complications during pregnancy.

3) Another recent study found that inadequate vitamin D status during pregnancy delayed several neurodevelopmental milestones in early childhood, including gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and social development.

If neurodevelopmental milestones are affected, what about ADHD? Here the evidence is not as clear. Some studies have concluded that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of ADHD in the offspring. Other studies have concluded there is no effect of vitamin D deficiency on ADHD.

Why the discrepancy between studies?

  • Most of the previous studies have been small. Simply put, there were too few children in the study to make statistically reliable conclusions.
  • Most of the studies measured maternal 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in the third trimester or in chord blood at birth. However, it is during early pregnancy that critical steps in the development of the nervous system take place.

Thus, there is a critical need for larger studies that measure maternal vitamin D status in the first trimester of pregnancy. This study (M Sucksdorff et al, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2020, in press) was designed to fill that need.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study compared 1,067 Finnish children born between 1998 and 1999 who were subsequently diagnosed with ADHD and 1,067 matched controls without ADHD. There were several reasons for choosing this experimental group.

  • Finland is among the northernmost European countries, so sun exposure during the winter is significantly less than for the United States and most other European countries. This time period also preceded the universal supplementation with vitamin D for pregnant women that was instituted in 2004.

Consequently, maternal 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were significantly lower than in most other countries. This means that a significant percentage of pregnant women were deficient in vitamin D, something not seen in most other studies. For example:

    • 49% of pregnant women in Finland were deficient in vitamin D (25-hydoxyvitamin D <30 nmol/L) compared to 8-11% in the United States.
    • 33% of pregnant women in Finland had insufficient vitamin D status (25-hydroxyvitamin D 30-49.9 nmol/L) compared to 25% in the United States.
  • Finland, like many European countries, keeps detailed health records on its citizens. For example:
    • The Finnish Prenatal Study collected data, including maternal 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels during the first trimester), for all live births between 1991 and 2005.
    • The Care Register for Health Care recorded, among other things, all diagnoses of ADHD through 2011.

Thus, this study was ideally positioned to compare maternal 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels during the first trimester of pregnancy with a subsequent diagnosis of ADHD in the offspring. The long-term follow-up was important to this study because the average age of ADHD diagnosis was 7 years (range = 2-14 years).

Does Maternal Vitamin D Affect Childhood ADHD?

Child With ADHDThe answer to this question appears to be a clear, yes.

If you divide maternal vitamin D levels into quintiles:

  • Offspring of mothers in the lowest vitamin D quintile (25-hydroxyvitamin D of 7.5-21.9 nmol/L) were 53% more likely to develop ADHD than offspring of mothers in the highest vitamin D quintile (49.5-132.5 nmol/L).

When you divide maternal vitamin D levels by the standard designations of deficient (<30 nmol/L), insufficient (30-49.9 nmol/L), and sufficient (≥50 nmol/L):

  • Offspring of mothers who were deficient in vitamin D were 34% more likely to develop ADHD than children of mothers with sufficient vitamin D status.

The authors concluded: “This is the first population-based study to demonstrate an association between low maternal vitamin D during the first trimester of pregnancy and an elevated risk for ADHD diagnosis in offspring. If these findings are replicated, they may have public health implications for vitamin D supplementation and perhaps changing lifestyle behaviors during pregnancy to ensure optimal maternal vitamin D levels.”

Can ADHD Be Prevented?

Child Raising HandI realize that this is an emotionally charged title. If you have a child with ADHD, the last thing I want is for you to feel guilty about something you may not have done. So, let me start by acknowledging that there are genetic and environmental risk factors for ADHD that you cannot control. That means you could have done everything right during pregnancy and still have a child who develops ADHD.

Having said that, let’s examine things that can be done to reduce the risk of giving birth to a child who will develop ADHD, starting with vitamin D. There are two aspects of this study that are important to keep in mind.

#1: The increased risk of giving birth to a child who develops ADHD was only seen for women who were vitamin D deficient. While vitamin D deficiency is only found in 8-11% of pregnant mothers in the United States, that is an average number. It is more useful to ask who is most likely to be vitamin D deficient in this country. For example:

  • Fatty fish and vitamin D-fortified dairy products are the most important food sources of vitamin D. Fatty fish are not everyone’s favorite and may be too expensive for those on a tight budget. Many people are lactose intolerant or avoid milk for other reasons. If you are not eating these foods, you may not be getting enough vitamin D from your diet. This is particularly true for vegans.
  • If you have darker colored skin, you may have trouble making enough vitamin D from sunlight. If you are also lactose intolerant, you are in double trouble with respect to vitamin D sufficiency.
  • Obesity affects the distribution of vitamin D in the body. So, if you are overweight, you may have low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in your blood.
  • The vitamin D RDA for pregnant and lactating women is 600 IU, but many multivitamin and prenatal supplements only provide 400 IU. If you are pregnant or of childbearing age, it is a good idea to look for a multivitamin or prenatal supplement that provides at least 600 IU, especially if you are in one of the high risk groups listed above.
  • Some experts recommend 2,000 to 4,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D. I would not recommend exceeding that amount without discussing it with your health care provider first.
  • Finally, for reasons we do not understand, some people have a difficult time converting vitamin D to the active 25-hydroxyvitamin D and 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D in their bodies. If you are pregnant or of childbearing age, it is a good idea to have your blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels determined and discuss with your health care provider how much vitamin D you should be taking. Many people need more than 600 IU to reach vitamin D sufficiency status.

#2: Maternal vitamin D deficiency has a relatively small effect (34%) on the risk of the offspring developing ADHD. That means assuring adequate vitamin D status during pregnancy should be part of a holistic approach for reducing ADHD risk. Other factors to consider are:

  • Low maternal folate and omega-3 status.
  • Smoking, drug, and alcohol use.
  • Obesity.
  • Sodas and highly processed foods.

Alone, each of these factors has a small and uncertain influence on the risk of your child developing ADHD. Together, they may play a significant role in determining your child’s risk of developing ADHD.

In closing, there are three take-home lessons I want to leave you with:

1) The first is that there is no “magic bullet”. There is no single action you can take during pregnancy that will dramatically reduce your risk of giving birth to a child who will develop ADHD. Improving your vitamin D, folate, and omega-3 status; avoiding cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol; achieving a healthy weight; and eating a healthy diet are all part of a holistic approach for reducing the risk of your child developing ADHD.

2) The second is that we should not think of these actions solely in terms of reducing ADHD risk. Each of these actions will lead to a healthier pregnancy and a healthier child in many other ways.

3) Finally, if you have a child with ADHD and would like to reduce the symptoms without drugs, I recommend this article.

The Bottom Line

A recent study looked at the correlation between maternal vitamin D status during the first trimester of pregnancy and the risk of ADHD in the offspring. The study found:

  • Offspring of mothers who were deficient in vitamin D were 34% more likely to develop ADHD than children of mothers with sufficient vitamin D status.

The authors concluded: “This is the first population-based study to demonstrate an association between low maternal vitamin D during the first trimester of pregnancy and an elevated risk for ADHD diagnosis in offspring. If these findings are replicated, they may have public health implications for vitamin D supplementation and perhaps changing lifestyle behaviors during pregnancy to ensure optimal maternal vitamin D levels.”

In the article above I discuss what this study means for you and other factors that increase the risk of giving birth to a child who will develop ADHD.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

 

What Supplements Help Mental Health?

Do Omega-3s Reduce Depression?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

depressionWe are in the midst of a mental health crisis. According to the latest statistics:

·       19% of adults in the United States have some form of mental illness.

·       16.5% of youth ages 6-17 have some form of mental illness.

·       The 5 most commonly diagnosed forms of mental illness are anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disease, and ADHD.

Even worse, mental illness appears to be increasing at an alarming rate among young people. For example:

·       Between 2005 and 2017 depression increased 52% among adolescents.

·       Between 2002 and 2017 depression increased 63% in young adults.

·       Between 1999 and 2014 suicides have increased 24% in young adults. In the past few years suicides have been increasing by 2% a year in this group.

Much has been written about the cause of this alarming increase in mental illness. The short answer is that we don’t really know. But the most pressing question is what do we do about it?

The medical profession relies on powerful drugs to treat the symptoms of mental illness. These drugs don’t cure drug side effectsthe illness. They simply keep the symptoms under control. Plus, if you have ever listened closely to the advertisements for these drugs on TV, you realize that they all have serious side effects that adversely affect your quality of life.

My “favorite” example is drugs for anxiety and depression. You are told that one of the side effects is “suicidal thoughts”. That means that the very drug someone could be prescribed to prevent suicides might actually increase their risk of suicide. Why would anyone take such a drug?

If drugs are so dangerous, what about supplements? Do they provide a safe, natural alternative for reducing the symptoms of mental illness? Some supplement companies claim their products cure mental illness. Are their claims true or are they just trying to empty your wallet?

How is a consumer to know which of these supplement claims are true and which are bogus? Fortunately, an international team of scientists has scoured the literature to find out which supplements have been proven to reduce mental health symptoms.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical-studyThis was a massive study (J. Firth et al, World Psychiatry, 18: 308-324, 2019.  It was a meta-review of 33 meta-analyses of randomized, placebo-controlled trials with a total of 10,951 subjects. The clinical trials included in this analysis analyzed the effect of 12 nutrients, either alone or in combination with standard drug treatment, on symptoms associated with 10 common mental disorders.

To help you understand the power of this meta-review, let me start by defining the term “meta-analysis”. A meta-analysis combines the data from multiple clinical studies to increase the statistical power of the data. Meta-analyses are considered to be the gold standard of evidence-based evidence.

However, not all meta-analyses are equally strong. They suffer from the “Garbage-In, Garbage-Out” phenomenon. Simply put, they are only as strong as the weakest clinical studies included in their analysis.

That is the strength of this meta-review. It did not simply combine the data from all 33 meta-analyses. It used stringent criteria to evaluate the quality of each meta-analysis and weighted the data appropriately.

What Supplements Help Mental Health?

omega-3 fish oil supplementThe strongest evidence was for omega-3 supplements. In the worlds of the authors:

·       “Across 13 independent randomized control clinical trials in 1,233 people with major depression, omega-3 supplements reduced depressive symptoms significantly.”

o   The average dose of omega-3s in these studies was 1,422 mg/day of EPA.

o   The effect was strongest for omega-3 supplements containing more EPA than DHA and for studies lasting longer than 12 weeks.

o   There was no evidence of publication bias in these studies. This is a very important consideration. Publication bias means that only studies with a positive effect were published while studies showing no effect were withheld from publication. That makes the effect look much more positive than it really is. The fact there was no evidence of publication bias strengthens this conclusion.

o   Omega-3 supplements were more effective when used in combination with antidepressant drugs, but there was some evidence of publication bias in those studies.

·       “Across 16 randomized control clinical trials reporting on ADHD symptom domains, significant benefits were observed for both hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention.”

·       Omega-3s had no significant effect on schizophrenia or bipolar disorder other than a mild reduction in depressive symptoms.

There was strong, but not definitive, evidence for folic acid and methylfolate supplements for depression.

·       When used in conjunction with antidepressants both folic acid and methylfolate supplements “…were associated with significantly greater reductions in depressive symptoms compared to placebo, although there was large heterogeneity between trials.”

·       The largest effects were observed with high dose methylfolate. In the words of the authors: “Two randomized control clinical trials examining a high dose (15 mg/day) of methylfolate administered in combination with antidepressants found moderate-to-large benefits for depressive symptoms.” However, to put this into perspective:

o   15 mg/day is 3,750% of the RDA. This is a pharmacological dose and should only be administered under the care of a physician.

o   A smaller dose of 7.5 mg/day is ineffective.

o   No comparison was made with folic acid at this dose, so we do not know whether folic acid would be equally effective.

·       The authors concluded that there is emerging evidence for positive effects of vitamin D (>1,500 vitamin d supplementationIU/day) for major depressive disorders and N-acetylcysteine (2-3 gm/day) in combination with drugs for mood disorders and schizophrenia. The term “emerging evidence” means there have been several recent studies reporting positive results, but more research is needed.

·       The authors did not find evidence supporting the use of other vitamin and mineral supplements (E, C, zinc, magnesium, and inositol) for treating mental health disorders.

·       The authors did not find enough high-quality studies to support claims about the effects of prebiotics or probiotics on mental health disorders.

Do Omega-3s Reduce Depression?

Happy WomanThe evidence supporting the effectiveness of omega-3s in reducing symptoms of depression is strong. In the words of the authors: “The nutritional intervention with the strongest evidentiary support is omega-3, in particular EPA. Multiple meta-analyses have demonstrated that it has significant effects in people with depression, including high-quality meta-analyses with good confidence in findings…”

However, before you throw away your antidepressants and replace them with an omega-3 supplement, let me put this study into perspective for you.

·       Depression can be a serious disease. If you just feel a little blue from time to time, try increasing your omega-3 intake. However, if you have major depression, don’t make changes to your treatment plan without consulting your physician.

·       The best results were obtained when omega-3s were used in combination with antidepressants. This should be your starting point.

·       Ideally, adding omega-3s to your treatment plan will allow your doctor to reduce or eliminate the drugs you are taking. That would have the benefit of reducing side effects associated with the drugs. However, I would like to re-emphasize this is a decision to take in consultation with your doctor. [My only caveat is if your doctor is unwilling to even consider natural approaches like omega-3 supplementation, it might be time to find a new doctor.]

·       Finally, omega-3 supplementation is only one aspect of a holistic approach to good mental health. A healthy diet, exercise, supplementation, and stress reduction techniques all work together to keep your mind in tip-top shape.

The Bottom Line

There are lots of supplements on the market promising to cure depression and other serious mental health issues. Are they effective or are the claims bogus? Fortunately, a recent meta-review of 33 meta-analyses of high-quality clinical trials has answered that question. Here is their conclusion:

·       The evidence is strongest for omega-3s and depression.

o   The average dose of omega-3s in these studies was 1,422 mg/day of EPA.

o   The effect was strongest for omega-3 supplements containing more EPA than DHA and for studies lasting longer than 12 weeks.

·       There is fairly strong evidence for folate/folic acid supplements and depression, although there was large heterogeneity between trials.

·       There is emerging evidence for vitamin D (>1,500 IU/day) and depression and N-acetylcysteine (2-3 gm/day) for depression and schizophrenia.

·       Evidence for other supplements is currently inconclusive.

However, before you throw away your antidepressants and replace them with an omega-3 supplement, let me put this study into perspective for you.

·       Depression can be a serious disease. If you just feel a little blue from time to time, try increasing your omega-3 intake. However, if you have major depression, don’t make changes to your treatment plan without consulting your physician.

·       The best results were obtained when omega-3s were used in combination with antidepressants. That should be your starting point.

·       Ideally, adding omega-3s to your treatment plan will allow your doctor to reduce or eliminate the drugs you are taking. That would have the benefit of reducing side effects associated with the drugs.

·       Finally, omega-3 supplementation is only one aspect of a holistic approach to good mental health. A healthy diet, exercise, supplementation, and stress reduction techniques all work together to keep your mind in tip-top shape.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

Do Omega-3 Supplements Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

Will The Omega-3 Controversy Continue?

adhd symptoms childrenThe prevalence of ADHD has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades. One study reported that the percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased by 42% between 2003 and 2011. Another study reported an increase of 67% between 1997 and 2015. Currently, 10-12% of American schoolchildren are diagnosed with ADHD. That amounts to around 6 million children with ADHD, at a cost to taxpayers of over $45 billion.

An estimated 65% of children with ADHD are taking medications to control their symptoms. Unfortunately, those medications don’t work for 20-40% of patients with ADHD. Even worse, ADHD medications come with serious side effects like loss of appetite and delayed growth, sleep disorders, nausea & stomach pains, headaches, moodiness and irritability.

Even more worrisome is that many children say they “just don’t feel right” while they are on the drugs. Finally, there is the unintended message we are sending our children that drugs are the solution to their problems.

It is no wonder that millions of parents are looking for more natural solutions for their child’s ADHD. One of the most popular natural approaches is supplementation with omega-3s. But do omega-3 supplements work, or is this just another myth created by supplement companies to lighten your wallet?

The scientific evidence is conflicting. Some clinical studies support the efficacy of omega-3 supplements for reducing ADHD symptoms. Other studies claim they have no benefit.

In today’s issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, I review a recent meta-analysis (JP-C Chang et al, Neuropsychopharmacology, 43: 534-545, 2018) that attempts to provide a definitive answer to this question.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was designed to answer three questions:

1)    Does omega-3 supplementation reduce ADHD symptoms?

2)    Does omega-3 supplementation improve cognitive skills in children with ADHD?

3)    Is there an association between omega-3 status and ADHD?

Previous meta-analyses on these topics had design flaws such as:

·       Including both children and adult subjects.

·       Including subjects with diagnosis other than ADHD.

·       Including trials that supplemented with vitamins and other nutrients in addition to omega-3s.

The authors of this study tried to avoid these limitations by using the following criteria for the studies that were included in their meta-analysis.

1)    The studies were randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of omega-3 supplementation with DHA and EPA alone or in combination.

2)    The participants were school-aged children (4-12 years) and adolescents (13-17 years) who had a diagnosis of ADHD.

3)    The study measured the effect of omega-3 supplementation on clinical symptoms of ADHD or measures of cognitive performance (omission errors, commission errors, forward memory, backward memory, and information processing).

4)    The studies were large enough to measure statistically significant differences.

5)    The studies were published in peer-reviewed journals.

With these criteria there were:

·       Seven studies with 534 children looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

·       Three studies with 214 children looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognitive performance.

·       Twenty studies with 1276 children looking at the association between omega-3 status and ADHD.

Do Omega-3 Supplements Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

adhd symptoms omega-3sThe results of this meta-analysis were as follows:

1)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced ADHD symptoms reported by parents.

2)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly improved cognitive measures associated with attention span (omission and commission errors). [Note: Omission errors consist of leaving important information out of an answer. Commission errors consist of including incorrect information in an answer.]

·       Omega-3 supplementation did not improve cognitive measures associated with memory and information processing. This has also been reported in most previous studies.

·       The best way to think of this is that children with ADHD are fully capable of learning their schoolwork. However, they may have trouble demonstrating what they have learned on exams because of omission and commission errors.

·       In this context, omega-3 supplementation may help them perform better on exams and reduce test-taking anxiety.

3)    For hyperactivity, only studies with EPA dosages of 500 mg per day or greater showed a significant reduction in symptoms.

4)    Children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of DHA, EPA, and total omega-3s.

The authors concluded: “In summary, there is evidence that omega-3 supplementation … improves clinical symptoms and cognitive performances in children and adolescents with ADHD, and that these youth have a deficiency in omega-3 levels. Our findings provide further support to the rationale for using omega-3s as a treatment option for ADHD.”

They also said: “Our paper shows that EPA supplementation dosage >500 mg should be considered when treating youth with ADHD, especially those with predominantly hyperactivity/impulsivity presentation.”

Will The Omega-3 Controversy Continue?

ArgumentThis is an excellent study, but it is unlikely to be the final word on this subject. That is because there is a fundamental flaw in all previous studies on this important subject, including the ones included in this meta-analysis.

In the words of the authors: “In terms of ‘personalized medicine’, it is tempting to speculate that a subpopulation of youth with ADHD and low levels of omega-3s may respond better to omega-3 supplementation, but there are no studies to date attempting this approach.”

Until studies of omega-3 supplementation and ADHD symptoms include measures of omega-3 status before and after supplementation, those studies are likely to continue giving conflicting results. That is because:

·       If most of the children in the study have low omega-3 status, we are likely to see a positive effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

·       If most of the children in the study have high omega-3 status, we are likely to see a negative effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

confusionWhile this study is unlikely to end the omega-3 controversy, it is a very well-designed study that combines the results of multiple double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. In short, it is a very strong study.

Omega-3s have no side effects and multiple health benefits. If your child suffers from ADHD, omega-3 supplementation is worth a try.

However, we need to keep omega-3 supplementation in perspective:

·       Not every child with ADHD will respond to omega-3 supplementation.

·       Omega-3s alone are likely to reduce, but not eliminate, the symptoms.

·       There are other natural approaches that should be considered.

You will find details on omega-3s and other natural approaches for reducing ADHD symptoms in an earlier issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

The Bottom Line

A recent meta-analysis looked at the effect of omega-3 supplementatation on ADHD symptoms. Here is a brief summary of the data:

1)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced ADHD symptoms reported by parents.

2)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly improved cognitive measures associated with attention span (omission and commission errors). [Note: Omission errors consist of leaving important information out of an answer. Commission errors consist of including incorrect information in an answer.]

·       Omega-3 supplementation did not improve cognitive measures associated with memory and information processing. This has also been reported in most previous studies.

·       The best way to think of this is that children with ADHD are fully capable of learning their schoolwork. However, they may have trouble demonstrating what they have learned on exams because of omission and commission errors.

·       In this context, omega-3 supplementation may help them perform better on exams and reduce test-taking anxiety.

3)    For hyperactivity, only studies with EPA dosages of 500 mg per day or greater showed a significant reduction in symptoms.

4)    Children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of DHA, EPA, and total omega-3s.

The authors concluded: “In summary, there is evidence that omega-3 supplementation … improves clinical symptoms and cognitive performances in children and adolescents with ADHD, and that these youth have a deficiency in omega-3 levels. Our findings provide further support to the rationale for using omega-3s as a treatment option for ADHD.”

They also said: “Our paper shows that EPA supplementation dosage >500 mg should be considered when treating youth with ADHD, especially those with predominantly hyperactivity/impulsivity presentation.”

For more details on the study and a perspective on omega-3 supplementation compared to other natural approaches for reducing ADHD symptoms, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Are Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms Affected By Diet?

What Can You Do To Reduce ADHD Symptoms In Your Child?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

attention deficit hyperactivity disorderAttention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder rates for American children are skyrocketing. One study reported that the percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased by 43% between 2003 and 2011. Another study reported an increase of 67% between 1997 and 2015. Currently, 10-12% of American schoolchildren are diagnosed with ADHD. That amounts to around 6 million children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

The reason for the rapid increase in ADHD symptoms is controversial.

  • Some experts claim the increase simply reflects more accurate diagnostic protocols.
  • Others say the increase is driven by aggressive marketing of ADHD drugs by pharmaceutical companies.
  • Others feel the cause is environmental, with the worsening American diet and increased exposure to toxins in everyday consumer products being named as the most likely culprits.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Side Effects

 

62% of children diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder are taking ADHD medications. These medicines reduce, but do not eliminate, ADHD symptoms. But the improvements come at a high price. Side effects include:

  • Sleeping problems.
  • Reduced taste perception.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Anxiety, moodiness, and irritability.
  • Headaches and stomachaches.

Because of the side effects of ADHD medicines, parents often look for more natural solutions. Many of them report that improving their child’s diet reduces their child’s ADHD symptoms as well or better than ADHD medications. Are their opinions accurate, or do the child’s ADHD symptoms improve just because their parents are paying more attention to them?

The latest headlines proclaim that improving a child’s diet does not reduce their ADHD symptoms. Are those headlines correct, or do parents know something that the scientists missed?

To answer those questions, we should start by looking at the study (https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxy273) behind the headlines.

 

How Was The Study Done?

 

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder studyThe authors of this study analyzed data from 3680 children who were involved in the Generation R Study in Rotterdam, Netherlands. This study measured the association between Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms and diet quality.

However, this was not a simple association study. It was something called a prospective cohort study. That means rather than measuring the association at a single time like most studies, this study measured ADHD symptoms at age 6 and 10 and diet quality at age 8.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms were assessed by using parent-reported questionnaires. Dietary intake was assessed by using a validated food frequency questionnaire filled out by the parents. Diet quality was based on comparing a child’s dietary intake to the Dutch dietary recommendations for children (Which are not significantly different from the US dietary recommendations).

 

Are Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms Affected By Diet?

 

The results of the study were confusing:

  • ADHD symptoms at age 6 were associated with poorer diet quality at age 8.
  • However, there was no association between diet quality at age 8 and ADHD symptoms at age 10.

The author’s conclusions, which generated the headlines you may have seen, were even more confusing.

Based on the first finding (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms at age 6 associated with poorer diet quality at age 8), they concluded “…children with more ADHD symptoms may be at a higher risk of an unhealthy diet.” They hypothesized:

  • ADHD symptoms may cause “…impulsive eating of highly palatable foods or no patience to eat vegetables…”
  • “…parents try to soothe difficult behavior of their children by offering meals, snacks, and beverages children prefer instead of healthy choices.”

Based on the second finding (diet quality at age 8 having no relationship with ADHD symptoms at age 10), they concluded “…overall diet quality does not affect ADHD risk.”

In short, they concluded that Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder caused poor diets, but poor diets did not cause ADHD.

 

Are The Conclusions Of This Study Accurate?

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder thumbs downThe authors identified several important limitations of their study. For example, they acknowledged:

  • They relied on parent reporting of both ADHD symptoms and dietary intake.
    • Parents may have found it difficult to assess ADHD behavior in their children.
    • Parents may not have known what their children consumed at school or during after-school care.
  • Both dietary intake and ADHD symptoms may change over time.
    • ADHD symptoms are different at age 6 and 10, so two different ADHD assessment questionnaires were used.
    • Parents have less control (and knowledge) of their child’s diet at age 10 than at age 8. The dietary assessment at age 8 might not have been valid for the children two years later.

However, to me the two biggest weakness of the study were:

  • All the children in the study had ADHD symptoms at both ages 6 and 10. These were the same children! That makes the fact that ADHD symptoms correlated with diet quality at age 6, but not at age 10 highly suspect.
  • ADHD symptoms and diet quality were measured at different times. This is a bizarre experimental design. The study would have been much stronger if the authors had measured both diet quality and ADHD symptoms at each age.

In short, this study is fatally flawed. The conclusions of the study are inaccurate. You should ignore the headlines.

 

What Can You Do To Reduce Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms In Your Child?

 

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder questionThe recent study does illustrate the difficulty in proving diet-ADHD interactions. The truth is ADHD is a complex condition. It is affected by genetics, environment, family interactions, and food. This is best illustrated by a review written by two pediatricians specializing in ADHD that I featured in ADHD Diet vs Medication of “Health Tips From The Professor.”

The authors of the review described multiple nutritional approaches that reduce ADHD symptoms. The catch was each nutritional intervention only worked for some children. Parents needed to be willing to find what works best for their child by trial and error. Let me give some examples.

  • Eliminating Food Additives: The idea that food additives cause ADHD symptoms originated with the Feingold diet which was popularized in the 1970s. The Feingold diet eliminated food additives, foods with salicylates (luncheon meats, sausage, hot dogs), drinks containing artificial colors and flavors, and chemical preservatives (e.g. BHA and BHT). After clinical studies showed that only 6% percentage of children benefitted from this diet, it fell out of favor.

However, the experts who pooh-poohed the diet missed a key point. Yes, 6% is a very small percentage of the general population. However, if you are one of those parents whose child is in the 6%, this approach works wonders. A recent study showed that when children with suspected sensitivity to food additives were challenged with food colors, 65-89% of them displayed ADHD sensitivities.

My recommendation: Food additives are not one of the five essential food groups. There is no reason not to eliminate food additives from your child’s diet, and it might make a world of difference for their ADHD symptoms.

  • Adding Omega-3 Fatty Acids: The authors of the review reported that several studies have shown children with ADHD tend to have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. They also cited several studies which showed significant improvement in reading skills and reductions in ADHD symptoms when children with ADHD were give omega-3 supplements. It was usually the children with the lowest omega-3 status who showed the biggest improvement in ADHD symptoms.

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptomsThe pediatricians who wrote the review routinely use doses of 300-600 mg of omega-3s with their ADHD patients. They find that this intervention reduces ADHD symptoms in many children but does not completely eliminate the need for medications.

My recommendation: Whether adding omega-3s will help your child is anyone’s guess. However, it is a natural approach with no side effects. It is definitely worth trying.

  • Adding Iron and Zinc: Some studies have suggested that iron and zinc deficiencies may be associated with ADHD symptoms.

My recommendation: A good children’s multivitamin should be sufficient to eliminate these deficiencies.

  • Eliminating Sugar: This recommendation is controversial, but the authors of the review said it helps some of the children they treat reduce their ADHD symptoms.

My recommendation: Reducing intake of refined sugars in your child’s diet makes sense for many reasons, especially considering the role of sugar intake in obesity. If it also reduces ADHD symptoms, that is an added benefit.

  • Eating A Healthy Diet: Several studies have shown that children eating “Healthy” diets (fish, chicken, vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains & low fat dairy products) have fewer ADHD symptoms than children eating “Western” diets (Fast foods, red meat, processed meats, processed snacks, high fat dairy products & soft drinks).

My recommendation: Again, this is an approach that makes sense for many reasons. If you and your family were to follow a “Healthy” diet instead of a “Western” diet, it would likely have numerous health benefits. Plus, you would automatically remove ADHD triggers such as food additives and sugar from your child’s diet.

  • Eliminating Food Sensitivities: If you have tried everything and your child’s ADHD symptoms are as bad as ever, your child may have a sensitivity to a perfectly healthy food. Even natural foods can be a problem for children with food sensitivities, and it appears that there may be a large percentage of hyperactive children with food sensitivities. The authors of the review reported that elimination diets (diets that eliminate all foods which could cause food sensitivity) improve behavior in 76-82% of hyperactive children.

Even though this approach can be very effective they don’t normally recommend it for their patients because it is difficult and time-consuming. The elimination diet is very restrictive and needs to be followed for a few weeks. Then individual foods need to be added back one at a time until the offending food(s) are identified. (They also reported that antigen testing is not a particularly effective way of identifying food sensitivities associated with hyperactivity).

My recommendation: I view this as something to be tried after all other natural approaches have failed. However, if there is a particular food that causes hyperactivity in your child, identifying it and eliminating it from their diet could be something that would benefit them for the rest of their life.

 

The Bottom Line

 

You may have seen recent headlines suggesting that healthy diets do not reduce ADHD symptoms. In fact, the study behind the headlines concluded that ADHD may cause poor diets, but poor diets do not cause ADHD.

My mission in writing “Health Tips From the Professor” is to analyze the studies behind the headlines and tell you whether you can believe the headlines or not.

In this case my analysis is clear-cut.

  • The study is fatally flawed.
  • Its conclusions are inaccurate.
  • You can forget the headlines.

However, the study does illustrate the difficulty in proving diet-ADHD interactions. The truth is ADHD is a complex condition. It is affected by genetics, environment, family interactions, and food.

There are multiple nutritional approaches that reduce ADHD symptoms. The catch is each nutritional intervention only works for some children. Parents need to be willing to find what works best for their child by trial and error. Here are some of the nutritional approaches that have merit:

  • Eliminate food additives.
  • Add omega-3s.
  • Add a children’s multivitamin.
  • Eliminate added sugars.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Eliminate food sensitivities.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor