A mother’s diet in pregnancy may modulate the risk of a child developing ADHD, according to a study by researchers in Barcelona.

The study was led by a team from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a center supported by “la Caixa.” It was published in 2019 in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Researchers analyzed samples of umbilical cord plasma to quantify the levels of omega-6 and omega-3 that reach the fetus.

The statistical analysis showed a higher omega-6:omega-3 ratio to be associated with a higher risk of ADHD symptoms at seven years of age.


Diet in pregnancy plays a key role in the development of numerous conditions — including the number and severity of ADHD symptoms, the study suggests.

Omega-6 and omega-3 are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that play a crucial role in the function and architecture of the central nervous system, particularly during the later stages of gestation.

These two fatty acids compete for incorporation into cell membranes and are primarily obtained through diet.

Omega-6 and omega-3 have opposing physiological functions. Omega 6 former promotes systemic pro-inflammatory states. Omega 3, on the other hand, promotes anti-inflammatory states.

A balanced intake of these two fatty acids is important.

Previous research has shown that children with ADHD symptoms have a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.


The authors studied data from 600 children living in four Spanish regions (Asturias, Basque Country, Catalonia and Valencia) who are participating in the INMA Project.

The researchers analyzed umbilical cord plasma samples and data from questionnaires completed by the children’s mothers.

ADHD symptoms were assessed using two standard questionnaires: the first completed by the children’s teachers at age four years, and the second by their parents at age seven years.


The results showed that, at age seven years, the number of ADHD symptoms increased by 13% per each unit increase in the omega-6:omega-3 ratio in umbilical cord plasma.

What it means is this: when there is more omega 6 in relation to omega 3, there is a likelihood of more ADHD symptoms.

The more omega 3 in relation to omega 6, there is a likelihood of fewer ADHD symptoms.


The study analyzed the number of symptoms in the children who met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD (minimum six symptoms) and also in the children with a smaller number of ADHD symptoms.

The ratio of the two fatty acids was associated with the number of ADHD symptoms present but not with diagnosis of the disorder, and only in the assessment carried out at seven years of age.

The authors suggest that the assessment carried out at four years of age may have been affected by a measurement error because ADHD symptoms reported at early ages may be caused by a neurodevelopmental delay falling within the normal range.

“Our findings are in line with previous studies that established a relationship between the omega-6:omega-3 ratio in mothers and various early neurodevelopmental outcomes,” commented Mónica López-Vicente, ISGlobal researcher and lead author of the study.

implications for diet in pregnancy

“Although the association was not clinically significant, our findings are important at the level of the population as a whole,” noted López-Vicente.

“If a large proportion of the population is exposed to a high omega-6:omega-3 ratio, the distribution for ADHD symptom scores would likely move to the right and the prevalence of extreme values would increase, leading to a negative impact on the community’s health costs and productivity.”

“This study adds more evidence to the growing body of research on the importance of maternal diet during pregnancy,” commented ISGlobal researcher Jordi Júlvez, a co-author of the study.

“The nutrient supply during the earliest stages of life is essential in that it programs the structure and function of the organs, and this programming, in turn, has an impact on health at every stage of life.

As the brain takes a long time to develop, it is particularly vulnerable to misprogramming. Alterations of this sort could therefore lead to neurodevelopmental disorders.”

sources of omega 3 & omega 6

Not looking forward to swallowing Omega 3 dietary supplements? Here’s a list of foods which contain Omega 3 and Omega 6.

Omega-3 fats are found in:

  • fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, arctic char, herring, trout)
  • eggs (including those which are ‘omega-3 enriched)
  • flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • chia seeds
  • cod liver oil
  • walnuts
  • soybeans

fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, arctic char and trout, as well as eggs (including omega-3 enriched) flaxseeds and flaxseed oil.

Omega-6 fats are found in:

  • soybeans
  • corn and corn oil
  • safflower and sunflower oils
  • cashews, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds
  • meat, poultry, fish and eggs
  • evening primrose oil
  • borage oil

Both Omega 3 and Omega 6 are necessary for good health.

SOURCES: Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal, Healthline

Mónica López-Vicente, Núria Ribas Fitó, Natalia Vilor-Tejedor, Raquel Garcia-Esteban, Sílvia Fernández-Barrés, Payam Dadvand, Mario Murcia, Marisa Rebagliato, Jesús Ibarluzea, Aitana Lertxundi, Ana Fernández-Somoano, Adonina Tardón, M. Carmen López-Sabater, Dora Romaguera, Martine Vrijheid, Jordi Sunyer, Jordi Julvez. Prenatal Omega-6:Omega-3 Ratio and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder SymptomsThe Journal of Pediatrics, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2019.02.022

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