ADHD Diet & Nutrition
“Let food be thy medicine”
(431 B.C. Hippocrates)
People often wonder whether ADHD is caused by their diet or whether certain foods in their diet can make their ADHD worse. Some deny that ADHD has anything to do with diet while others take the view that their ADHD can be cured through a specific diet.
We are all looking for a way in which to help our children overcome the difficulties that ADHD presents them with, whether that be concentration, hyperactivity, anxiety, sleep problems, digestive issues or depression.
With that in mind, presented on this page are some facts regarding ADHD diet & nutrition. I must point out that I am not a doctor, dietician, nutritionist or any other kind of healthcare professional qualified to give nutritional or medical advice and that the facts on this page are the result of my own research, reading and conversations with doctors and nutritionists in the course of the personal journey of my family towards improved health and wellbeing. I am just a mum who would like to share what I have learned over the course of a number of difficult years.
This is quite a complex area so I will try to simplify it as much as possible and provide links for you to do further research or reading of your own to decide for yourself whether this is an area you would like to investigate further.
We all care a great deal about our children’s health and usually do all we can to provide them with a nutritionally balanced diet. However, there has been a dramatic change in our diet since the 1970s with the advent of processed food. Many of today’s highly processed foods can be high in calories/kilojoules, contain the wrong types of fats (hydrogenated vegetable oils & trans fats), be rich in sugar, salt, artificial colours, flavours and preservatives.
It may not be a coincidence then that ADHD is now the most common childhood developmental disorder affecting about 14% of 6-12 year old children in Australia (ABS). Could there be a link between the rise in learning and concentration difficulties in children and the increase in these ‘new’ processed foods?
Paediatrition Dr Benjamin Feingold was the first to report a link between learning disabilities and artificial food flavours and colours and developed a strict low chemical eating plan – The Feingold diet. http://www.feingold.org
Here are two examples of more recent research in the area of nutrition and ADHD diets.
- Professor Wendy Oddy and her team from the Centre of Child Health in Western Australia have demonstrated that the typical western diet (highly processed) is associated with poor behaviour, aggression and depression.
- The Impact of Nutrition on Children with ADHD (INCA) study was conducted in the Netherlands and Belgium with results published in the prestigious Lancet Journal in 2011. In this study, the elimination diet (low chemical diet) had a significant beneficial effect on the symptoms of ADHD in 64% (32 of 50) of children.
Which Nutritional Deficiencies Affect ADHD?
There are many common nutritional deficiencies found in children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, learning difficulties and behavior problems as follows:
Vital to make the brain chemical dopamine, which supports concentration. Research has shown that low ferritin (iron storage) is linked to hyperactivity, poor concentration and poor behaviour. Children can exhibit headaches, dizziness, low immunity and they can be tired and irritable as a result of low iron levels. Once low iron levels are corrected behaviour, concentration and hyperactivity will improve. Ask your Dr for iron studies if you are concerned.
Zinc plays a key role in behaviour and in making the “feel good” brain chemical serotonin. Children with ADHD have been found to be zinc deficient with lower levels of zinc associated with more severe symptoms.
Decreased magnesium levels are associated with increased hyperactivity and impulsivity, poor sleep, poor school attention, constipation, anxiety and depression. Magnesium deficiency occurs more frequently in children with ADHD. Studies have shown that magnesium supplementation may benefit children with ADHD.
Vital for healthy brain function and intellectual development, research has linked low iodine levels with ADHD.
Omega 3 fats
The brain is made up of 60% fat. Omega 3 fats are vital for brain development and brain function. Research has shown Omega 3 fats to be of great support for mood and behavior. Insufficient intake of Omega 3 fats can result in children having difficulties with working memory, may experience poor concentration and be easily distracted. Their mood may even be negatively affected depressed/anxious/ moody. Omega 3 fats are also vital for language development.
So, supplementation may help ADHD symptoms BUT, and this is important to understand, if the gut is not functioning as it should, it may be the case that any amount of nutrient-rich food or supplements will not help because the gut is not absorbing nutrients properly.
Optimum Nutrition for the Mind by Patrick Holford sets out what nutrients are needed for optimum brain health and why they are often not being absorbed in the body. Another great book is Nutrient Power by Dr William Walsh. A summary of Dr Walsh’s research relating to ADHD and nutrition can be found in this article ‘Can Nutrients Cure ADHD?’ .
If your child experiences gut problems such as tummy aches, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, flatulence, bloating or indigestion on a regular basis this indicates something is wrong and should be investigated fully. It should not be written off as stress, IBS etc.
A great book that explains this in greater detail is Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride.
Gut problems can start for a number of reasons, which may include:
- Antibiotic use
- Prescribed drugs or over the counter drugs
- Food intolerances
- Chronic Stress
This is an autoimmune disease whereby the body reacts when foods containing gluten are consumed. The villi (finger-like projections which absorb nutrients into the blood from the gut) are damaged and no longer work properly meaning that nutrients are not absorbed. This is a serious condition, which can lead to a host of health problems such as anaemia or osteoporosis when older. It not only creates symptoms such as tummy aches and gut problems but can cause tiredness, lack of concentration and poor memory. A blood test will determine whether the antibodies are present. If they are a biopsy can confirm whether coeliac disease is present or whether it is a gluten intolerance.
If gut problems have persisted for some time it may also be possible that leaky gut is present. This is where the lining of the gut wall has become so damaged that it becomes more permeable than it should be and allows some molecules from the gut to escape into the blood stream. The body then sees these molecules as foreign bodies to be attacked and the sufferer can become sensitive to more and more foods.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
This is where there is an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. This can cause many gut problems and prevent nutrients from being absorbed. This can be diagnosed via a hydrogen breath test. The patient consumes a lactulose solution and then blows into a bag every 30 minutes over 3 hours with the results being analysed later. The bacteria in the gut will give off a particular gas which, if present, will be found in varying quantities in the breath test.
The makeup of flora in the gut is so complex modern scientists are still trying to figure out what is what. What we do know now is that an imbalance in this flora, from whatever cause, is detrimental to health. There are trillions of different bacteria living in our gut, some good and some not so good. They all serve specific functions within the digestive system. Professional advice should be sought as to what particular probiotics are needed to balance your gut flora. It may be necessary for a stool analysis to be performed in order to ascertain the position before certain strains of probiotic are prescribed.
This is a condition whereby an excess amount of Pyrroles are produced. These Pyrroles bind to and inhibit certain nutrients such as Zinc, Biotin, vitamin B6, and Omega 6 Fat GLA from reaching their targets within the body, effectively rendering these nutrients unavailable. There are many conditions related to Pyroluria and one of those symptoms is ADHD. The condition of Pyroluria is made worse where poor gut health such as leaky gut syndrome or gut dysbiosis is present.
So as you can see from the above, research and studies have convinced me that certain conditions predispose someone to not absorbing their nutrients properly and nutrient deficiency can cause various health problems including symptoms associated with ADHD. Whether or not healing gut issues, allowing the body to absorb nutrients and replenishing its supply to an optimal level will ‘cure’ ADHD is debatable but even if symptoms are lessened I believe it is worthing looking into.
The website below may contain useful information and a list of practitioners who would be able to help sort through the issues in individual cases.
Also Paula Tazzyman, Accredited Practicing Dietician, has a wealth of information on her website. She will be presenting at our meeting on 10th February 2012 – ‘Nourishing the ADHD Brain’.
See Vivian’s blog ‘A Gutful of ADHD‘ for more information on the connections between ADHD, Mental Illnesses, gut issues, food allergies and sensitivities, chronic fatigue and autoimmune diseases. Also on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/GutfulofADHD