It’s pretty well-understood by psychiatrists that classical stimulants are the most effective treatment for ADHD. Those are methylphenidate, amphetamine, and their close relatives. That said, these medications are dangerous. Stimulant addiction tends to lead to more rapid degeneration (decline in quality of life) than other drugs. They also, especially in the case of amphetamine derivatives, can cause serious brain damage.

There are other pharmaceuticals indicated for, or that are used for, ADHD – medications that aren’t recreational. But not everyone has access to medication.

Though it’s not the philosophy of this website to promote treating mental illness without the guidance of a doctor, studies exist that have found some beneficial effects of various purified chemicals on people with ADHD.

Without further ado…

Fish Oil

Fish oil has two active chemicals in it, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid); these are “omega-3 fatty acids”.

A recent review of the evidence from 16 studies found mixed evidence for omega-3’s, but also positive evidence for zinc and iron.

Another meta-analysis (a meta-analysis is one study that looks at several studies on a topic), concluded “modest improvements in symptoms, after supplementation.

A meta-analysis conducted at Yale University analyzed ten trials of children with ADHD. They found a “small but significant effect in improving ADHD symptoms” of children taking omega-3’s. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) was particularly highly associated with fewer symptoms of ADHD.

Additionally, a study that may have limited access, Nutritional Supplements for the Treatment of ADHD, analyzed many different studies on many interventions. The table below summarizes their conclusions. It appears that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is at least moderately effective.

Treatment Dosing Recommendations Duration Comment
Level 1 evidence for efficacy (based on systematic review of randomized controlled trials)
Omega-3 fatty acids 1–2 g/d (>400 mg eicosapentaenoic acid) 12–16 wk Smaller treatment benefits compared with psychostimulants.
Level 2 evidence for efficacy (based on multiple randomized controlled trials)
Melatonin (for sleep) 3–6 mg (30 min before bed) As needed Effective in reducing sleep-onset latency. No evidence of benefit in ADHD.
Level 3 evidence for efficacy (based on nonrandomized studies or single randomized controlled trial prone to possible bias)
Zinc 30–150 mg/d 8–12 wk Limited evidence in US and Western European populations. Some evidence of efficacy in areas with prevalent zinc deficiency.
Iron 10 mg/d (prevent deficiency) – 80 mg/d (repletion) 12 wk Indicated for patients with ADHD with evidence of iron deficiency.
Pycnogenol 1 mg/kg/d 12 wk Small, positive, placebo-controlled randomized controlled trial. Unclear biological mechanism of action.
Ningdong 5 mg/kg/d 8 wk Small, underpowered trial without statistical separation from MPH. No placebo-controlled trials.
Level 4 evidence for efficacy (case series and mechanism-based reasoning)
Magnesium 100–350 mg/d 12 wk Toxic in high doses.
Best available evidence suggests ineffective with potential adverse effects
St. John’s Wort: Hypericum perforatum
G biloba
Carnitine

A review including studies, as well as meta-analyses and systematic reviews, that were published from May 2014 to May 2015, meaning fairly current evidence, found that those with ADHD tended to have lower levels of omega-3’s; that supplementation with omega-3’s produced a “small-medium effect”; that EPA seems to be most effective;, but that DHA is also important. In sum, omega-3’s demonstrated a “relatively mild side-effect profile and evidence of modest efficacy”.

And yet there’s a study, though not directed to just those with ADHD, that found only benefits with infants, not in children, adults, or the elderly.