Primary care clinicians have come to realize that a large percentage of patients use alternative or complementary approaches to many types of health problems, including emotional-behavioral ones.
Families often are reluctant to bring up these interventions in primary care appointments for fear that their doctor will criticize them for using unproven and sometimes risky treatments. When it comes to dietary supplements, the evidence for many is rather weak, while others have been studied in controlled trials and now may deserve a closer look. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for various types of psychiatric disorders and problems may be leading the pack as an alternative treatment that has earned the right to be on the radar screen of all pediatricians. This article briefly summarizes what scientific evidence exists about the efficacy of omega-3s in pediatric emotional-behavioral problems and where significant gaps in our knowledge remain.
Samantha is an 11-year-old girl who was adopted into a loving and supportive family at the age of 4 years after having suffered a tumultuous early childhood that included domestic violence as well as physical and emotional abuse. Despite a much improved home environment, she has continued to struggle for many years with difficulties including inattention, emotional dysregulation, and aggression toward others. Samantha and her family have worked with a mental health counselor, and her pediatrician also has started her on pharmacotherapy with a stimulant medication and an alpha-agonist. Despite some gains, significant difficulties remain. At a follow-up visit, Samantha’s mother states that she has done some research on the Internet and has heard positive things about omega-3 fatty acid supplements. She wonders if this might be appropriate for Samantha and if so, how specifically the treatment would be administered.
The possible benefits of omega-3s in the treatment of behavioral problems has been discussed for decades, and good evidence from rigorous trials has slowly been accumulating. In October 2015 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers in a clinical trial called Omega-3 and Therapy Studies (OATS) presented some preliminary results to see if omega-3s could augment response in children aged 7-14 years with depression and bipolar spectrum disorders who also were receiving evidence-based psychotherapy. The daily dose was 2,000 mg, consisting of 1,400 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), 200 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and 400 mg of other omega-3s. Significant improvement of small to medium effect was found for omega-3s, particularly for depressive symptoms, and side effects were minimal.
Another relatively recent study from 2014 used a randomized double-blind design in 200 youth between the ages of 6 and 18 years from the island nation of Mauritius, near Madagascar (J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2015 May;56:509-20). The active treatment here was 1,000 mg of omega-3s (300 mg DHA, 200 mg EPA, 500 mg of others). After subjects were followed for a year, significant and fairly large improvements were found for omega-3s, relative to placebo, across a wide range of problems including aggression in addition to anxiety and depressive symptoms. One very interesting side note of this study was that the improvement in child behavior seemed to be partially mediated by improvements in the parents’ behavior, even though parents did not receive the supplements.
In attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a meta-analysis of 10 clinical trials also was positive (J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011 Oct;50:991-1000). The effect size was small, but there seemed to be a dose effect with more positive trials related to higher daily doses of EPA. Side effects again were few.
The mechanism for improvement remains to be fully understood, although evidence points to changes in cell membrane fluidity and possible anti-inflammatory properties. The biggest question mark that remains from a practical standpoint is dose, both in absolute numbers and with regard to ratios of EPA to DHA. Given the vast number of suppliers of omega-3 supplementation and the wide range of quality with regard to accurate dosing and impurities, it also is important to help families identify a specific product that can be trusted.
Somewhat to the surprise of Samantha’s mother, the pediatrician supports a trial of omega-3 supplementation, given the increasing evidence of efficacy and the favorable side effect profile. They discuss reasonable expectations, dosing, and ways that the family can obtain a high-quality supplement. Six months later, the family reports noticeable further improvements in Samantha’s behavior to the point that more aggressive psychopharmacologic treatment is not indicated currently.
In sum, it is reasonable to conclude at this point that evidence supporting omega-3 use for a variety of emotional-behavioral problems now equals or exceeds that for many off-label prescription medications that are now used in similar situations. This increasing evidence, combined with the low risk for most patients, would seem to warrant pediatricians considering omega-3 supplementation as a more mainstream and evidence-based intervention that deserves a place in one’s treatment algorithm for several emotional-behavioral concerns.