DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I recently read an article that said giving children certain supplements, such as omega-3, can help them do better in school. Are omega-3 supplements safe for kids? What are the risks and benefits?
ANSWER: The evidence on this topic is mixed. In healthy school-age children, taking an omega-3 supplement seems to have little effect on cognitive ability and school performance. In children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, there appears to be more benefit. In general, few side effects are associated with taking an omega-3 supplement. But, as with all supplements, talk with your child’s health care provider before your child begins taking an omega-3 supplement to make sure it’s a good choice.
Omega-3 fatty acids are substances the body needs for a wide variety of functions, from muscle activity to cell growth. But your body can’t make omega-3 fatty acids on its own. It gets them through the food you eat or a dietary supplement. Dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, such as salmon, trout and mackerel, and shellfish, such as oysters, crabs and mussels. Fish oil is a common dietary supplement people use to increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Some nuts, seeds and vegetable oils also contain a form of omega-3 fatty acids.
Because they play a role in brain development and brain function, particularly learning and memory, it’s been suggested that increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that school-age children get can improve performance in school.
Results from clinical research studies looking at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive ability have varied significantly. Some have shown no difference in school performance when healthy children take an omega-3 supplement. Others have noted some improvement in reading, learning and memory. The effects were most notable in children who had low literacy rates and those who were malnourished.
In school-age children diagnosed with ADHD, the evidence for taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help ease ADHD symptoms also varied. Overall, though, those study results appear to indicate that when children in this population regularly take an omega-3 supplement, they reduce their symptoms and improve school performance. It’s important to note, however, that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids alone did not lead to positive results. Improvement was only seen in children who already had been taking a stimulant medication to treat ADHD and then added the omega-3 fatty acid supplement.
Dietary supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids — the most common is fish oil — generally are considered safe. Side effects of taking fish oil can include a fishy aftertaste, bad breath, indigestion, nausea, loose stools and a rash. Taking fish oil in high doses may increase a person’s risk of bleeding and could increase the risk of stroke. Generally, the risk of health problems associated with taking this supplement is low.
If you’re interested in having your child take an omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplement, make an appointment to talk to your child’s health care provider first. He or she can review your child’s medical history, current medications and overall health, and, based on those factors, discuss with you in more detail the potential benefits and risks for your child associated with using this supplement. — Dr. Brent Bauer, Complementary and Integrative Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota