by Allan Folz
My story of omega 3 and self-experimentation did not end with my wife and her pregnancy. As I mentioned, I discovered the paleo diet, Vitamin D, and fish oil all about the same time. Mostly for reasons of general good health we began supplementing with vitamin D and fish oil (Mega-EPA Omega-3 supplement). I ordered some of each from the same place online and we began supplementing both at the same time, around January-February of 2010.
At the time my son was in kindergarten and having problems socializing at school. He had them at home too, but we’d all adjusted to them at home. He exhibited a lot of what would be called typical spectrum issues, though I was certain he didn’t have anything approaching Asperger’s. Things that interested him, such as building with Legos playing outside with or without friends, he did quite well. It struck me that he was a high-energy boy who didn’t appreciate receiving directions, desk work, or anything requiring moderation and self-reflection. I like to joke that Tom Sawyer is hardly a modern archetype.
Nonetheless, he was having problems. The Vitamin D Council web site had a number of very persuasive anecdotes from parents about autistic children cured by Vitamin D. Our son wasn’t autistic, but autism involves several behaviors, and he had a few of them. He didn’t make good eye contact when talking or being talked to. He wouldn’t follow directions if he didn’t feel an intrinsic motivation to follow them. He could not fall asleep and would often lay in bed restless for an hour or more at night. The Vitamin D Council recommended 2000 IU per 50 lb/day, so that’s what we all took. We also took one fish oil capsule a week. At the time I thought of omega-3 only being for heart health. This made me a little skeptical about how much was really required. We seemed a healthy family, so I figured our needs were modest. One capsule a week seemed well beyond the norm so we should be good.
Almost immediately after beginning the supplements my son’s behavior improved. I was pleasantly surprised and attributed it to the Vitamin D based on what I’d read on the Vitamin D Council web site. It wasn’t a cure by any means, but it was a very noticeable improvement. He would still have bad days, and I was a little bummed that after the initial improvement the Vitamin D didn’t seem to be helping any further. However, I figured such is real-life outside of attention-grabbing headlines.
Two years later, January and February of 2012, second grade for him, and about a year and a half after the self-experiment with my wife during her third pregnancy, my son’s behavior dramatically worsened. We were all still taking D, but at that point it was obviously not showing any benefit for my son. He was in a worse place than when he was in kindergarten. I resigned myself to Vitamin D not being his problem, and at his teacher’s demand signed him up for outside testing.
I didn’t notice at the time, but we had run out of the “fish oil” over Christmas break. The second week of January we visited family in the Midwest. When we returned, school was a nightmare for him and us. My wife and I attributed it to too much TV, bad diet, and not enough sleep while we were visiting family. However, even two and three weeks after our return his problems were worsening. Around the beginning of February, I finally got around to ordering another bottle of the omega-3. I thought of it as mostly being for my wife, who was doing fine, so I didn’t feel any immediacy. When it finally arrived, we all started taking it again. Immediately his behavior improved. It was such a night and day difference the connection was impossible to miss. It was like kindergarten when he first started taking Vitamin D, only far more so. For the first time in two weeks he wasn’t angry and crying at the end of the day. That’s when it occurred to me that in kindergarten he started taking fish oil at the same time as Vitamin D. For the last two years I had been attributing to Vitamin D what was due to the omega-3 supplement. I felt like an idiot.
After that, I did some research on omega-3, fish oil, and ADHD. When I knew what to look for, I found that there were, in fact, a few studies about using omega-3 for ADHD treatment. It seemed that EPA was effectie while DHA was not, or at best, less effective than EPA. When I took a closer look at our “fish oil,” I remember thinking to myself, “Oh wow, this stuff is Mega-EPA. How lucky is that.” I had chosen it almost at random. It had the best per-dose price and was listed as a top seller.
In retrospect, were it not for the pain and difficulty experienced by my son, it would be funny how the answer was under my nose the whole time. I was slow to appreciate it because of my own prejudice and not treating the problem as something to scientifically test. I thought of omega-3 as being for heart health. I’d never seen it mentioned in relation to emotional health or brain development, outside of the usual bromides about eating walnuts and so forth. Plus the recommendations are always couched in generalities without specific dosage guidelines. Even after I discovered it made a difference for my pregnant wife, it didn’t occur to me to test it seriously on my son. Their symptoms and nutritional needs seemed unrelated.
A few weeks later we saw the professional who had tested our son to go over the results. A few weeks had passed between the evaluation and when we met to discuss the results; it was during that time that I made the omega-3 discovery. I told the professional that our son was getting really good results from the omega-3 supplement. I said that after noticing his results I’d done some online searching and there were a few scientific studies supporting the use of omega-3 supplements for ADHD. The professional said he was aware of the studies, but the efficacy wasn’t as certain or as strong compared to the prescription drugs so most people choose the prescriptions. (He sent me the same Bloch & Qawasmi paper Seth linked to in his April 21 Assorted Links.) I wondered if most people were even made aware of the possibility of omega-3 deficiency — he certainly didn’t bring it up with us. I would not have found the research papers without first knowing what to look for. I knew what to look for only because of the discovery I made with my son.
The omega-3 supplement, while a huge improvement, was not an immediate cure. We started giving him two capsules daily which consisted of 800 mg EPA and 400 mg DHA. That seemed to me a lot of omega-3, relative to what one could consume through normal dietary intake.
I was not overly comfortable with that level of dose long-term despite it clearly working. So every couple months or so I’d have him skip a day or whole weekend. Without fail, his mood noticeably worsened. By the early evening he would be overwhelmed and frustrated to the point of tears by little things that weren’t going his way, things that were really just the usual complications of life in a household with two parents and two siblings.
A poignant instance of the effects of missing a dose happened in the Fall of the following school year, still 2012. My wife’s mother came for a visit. The break from routine caused my wife to forget to give our son his omega-3 supplement for three or four days in a row. He might have had them on Sunday, but not on any of the weekdays. By Thursday I had gotten a note and phone call from his teacher about his behavior at school. We had to go and meet with her the following week. At the meeting I shared that we had forgotten to give him the omega-3 capsules due to his grandmother visiting. I saw this as proof it was working. The teacher didn’t know we had forgotten, and yet his behavior had noticeably regressed. She did not share my awe, and tried to imply that he should be on a prescription. I said that kids can forget prescriptions just as easily and the side effects from a missed prescription are going to be far worse than three days off an omega-3 supplement.
Last month we again ran out of the omega-3 supplement. Except for the accidental occurrence when my wife’s mother was visiting, this is the first time he’s been off it for more than a few consecutive days in the two years and two months since I first discovered it helped him. I’m quite pleased that he seems to be doing OK. There’s been virtually no difference in his behavior since stopping. However, it’s not a true cold-turkey quit. We have some of the Green Pastures FCLO infused coconut oil, so he’s been taking that instead. The manufacturer is vague about its omega-3 content, but my rough estimate is that he’s taking, a third to a half of his previous dose with the Mega-EPA capsules. Then again, it’s in the triglyceride form which is supposed to be 50-70% better absorbed on a per-gram basis. Perhaps it’s a wash.
I’ve thought about having him try flax oil. There is considerable debate about the efficacy of flax oil and the body’s ability to synthesize EPA and DHA from ALA, the omega-3 in flax oil. It might be a little late to test efficacy now. The best time to test was one and two years ago when the Mega-EPA supplement was clearly working and had an “efficacy” half-life of 24 hours. The thought never occurred to me until recently when reading Seth’s blog.
I can’t end without sharing some of my frustrations with the state of health science. There is no doubt in my mind that omega-3 helped both my son and my wife deal with some severe and yet common mental health problems. I’m a pretty sharp, pretty well-read guy that’s always had an interest in biology and medicine. Outside of a few esoteric corners of the web where you have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it, omega-3 is something you take for heart health.
I think the comparison with statins is apt. When “heart-healthy whole-grains” don’t fix one’s blood makers, and why would they, it’s very quickly on to prescription drugs (statins). When “use your words” doesn’t fix a young boy’s interactions with classmates and teachers, and why would it, it’s on to prescription drugs. Boys especially are put on incredibly strong pharmaceuticals with well-established risk factors that include stunted growth and suicide. Pharmaceuticals should be tried last, but they are clearly being tried first by frustrated parents and suspect practitioners. It’s a national shame and a personal outrage.
Part 1, about using omega-3 to treat postpartum depression, appeared yesterday. Allan Folz is a software developer in Portland, Oregon. He recently co-founded Edison Gauss Publishing, a software house that makes academically rigorous educational apps for children in grades K-8. Their apps are suitable both classroom and home use, and have proven to be particularly popular among homeschoolers that appreciate a traditional approach to practicing math.