Food and Behaviour Research

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Omega-3 fatty acids in boys with behavior, learning, and health problems

Stevens LJ, Zentall SS, Abate ML, Kuczek T, Burgess JR. (1996) Physiol-Behav 59 915-920. 

Web URL: View this abstract via PubMed here


The purpose of the study reported here was to compare behavior, learning, and health problems in boys ages 6 to 12 with lower plasma phospholipid total omega-3 or total omega-6 fatty acid levels with those boys with higher levels of these fatty acids.

A greater frequency of symptoms indicative of essential fatty acid deficiency was reported by the parents of subjects with lower plasma omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acid concentrations than those with higher levels.

A greater number of behavior problems, assessed by the Conners' Rating Scale, temper tantrums, and sleep problems were reported in subjects with lower total omega-3 fatty acid concentrations. Additionally, more learning and health problems were found in subjects with lower total omega-3 fatty acid concentrations. (Only more colds and more antibiotic use were reported by those subjects with lower total omega-6 fatty acids).

These findings are discussed in relation to recent findings for omega-3 experimentally deprived animals.


This study involved the same 96 boys (aged between 6 and 12 years) first reported on by Stevens et al, 1995. In that paper they showed that highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA) in red blood cell membranes and plasma were lower in 53 boys with ADHD than in 43 matched controls.

Here, they ignored the clinical diagnoses and analysed data from the combined sample of ADHD boys and controls together. Children were simply classified according to whether they had 'low' or 'high' concentrations of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in blood plasma. In each case, parental reports of the children's behaviour, learning and general health were then compared between these groups.

Low omega-6 fatty acid status was associated only with some physical health measures, including classic fatty acid deficiency signs (such as excessive thirst, frequent urination or rough, dry skin and hair), frequency of colds, and antibiotic use. No relationships were found with parental ratings of behaviour or learning.

By contrast, low omega-3 fatty acid status was associated not only with physical signs of fatty acid deficiency (particularly excessive thirst, frequent urination and dry skin) but also with both behavioural problems (including conduct disorder, hyperactivity-impulsivity, anxiety, temper tantrums and sleep problems) and learning difficulties in these children.

These findings are consistent with other evidence that omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for brain function, and that low omega-3 concentrations can have negative effects behaviour, learning and mood.


Laura Stevens has also written a book for parents of ADHD children, available from our online bookstore. For details, please click on the title below:

12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child: Drug-free Alternatives for Attention-deficit Disorders