There’s solid evidence that the oil in fatty fish like salmon may help adults ward off all kinds of health ailments—from heart disease to rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. The proof is so strong that organizations like the American Heart Association recommend fish oil supplements to people who don’t get enough in their diet.
But should kids also be downing fish oil capsules along with their Flintstones chewables? A growing number of experts say yes. “Most of the conversation centers around whether getting more fish oil from diet or supplements can help kids with mental challenges such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism,” says registered dietitian Jill Castle, author of the upcoming book, Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.
A new study from Australia, for instance, found that fish oil supplements were helpful in children ages 6 to 13 who had ADHD and learning differences. Four months of supplementation with 1032mg of DHA and 264mg of EPA per day resulted in improvements in reading, spelling and ability to focus, as well as hyperactivity.
Research also finds that teens with depression, anxiety, eating disorders or bipolar disorder have lower levels of DHA and EPA. In one study, teens with bipolar disorder who took 360mg of EPA and 1560mg of DHA a day showed significant improvements. Research in adults indicates that fish oil can help antidepressant drugs work better and, in some cases, lift depression on its own.
And “fish oil has been shown to have some benefit in children with asthma due to its anti-inflammatory effects,” says pediatrician Dr. Hilary McClafferty of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
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The average American gets about 100 to 200mg of fish oil a day, and children likely less. Most kids can get what they need by eating one to two age-appropriate servings a week of fish like wild salmon, sardines, halibut or pole-caught albacore tuna, Castle says. Some foods are also fortified with DHA, such as eggs and toddler yogurts.
Although fish oil capsules have a good safety record, it’s best to talk with your doctor before giving your child any supplement—especially for depression, anxiety or allergies, since treatment dosages are higher than normal doses. Experts consider 200mg to 400mg per day to be safe and adequate for children ages 2 to 4; 300mg to 400mg for children ages 4 to 8; and 500mg to 1200mg for children over age 8. Choose supplements with the words “pharmaceutical grade,” “molecularly distilled” or “distilled for purity” on the label. This ensures low levels of toxins.