Medication helps many adults and children with ADHD, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
"Parents and adults see me either because the medication isn’t doing the job, or they want more improvement and can’t increase the dosage without increasing side effects,” says Richard Brown, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and coauthor of the recent book How to Use Herbs Nutrients and Yoga in Mental Health Care.
Medication does not cure ADHD, and it should never be the only treatment, says Edward Hallowell, M.D., coauthor of the best-selling Driven to Distraction. “Diet and nutrition play key roles in how well the ADD brain operates.” Toward that end, here are 10 foods, supplements, and herbs that you should add to your treatment plan. As always, talk with your doctor first before doing so.
Food for Focus
Poor nutrition can cause a child or adult with ADHD to become distracted, impulsive, and restless. The right foods, on the other hand, can lessen those symptoms.
Foods rich in protein — lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and dairy products — are used by the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other. Protein can prevent surges in blood sugar, which increase hyperactivity.
“Because the body makes brain-awakening neurotransmitters when you eat protein, start your day with a breakfast that includes it,” says Laura Stevens, M.S., a nutritionist at Purdue University and author of 12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child: Drug-Free Alternatives. “Don’t stop there. Look for ways to slip in lean protein during the day, as well.”
Hallowell suggests that you divide your lunch and dinner plate in the following way: Half of the plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables, one fourth with a protein, and the remaining fourth with a carbohydrate, preferably one rich in fiber — whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread, brown rice.
This combination of foods will minimize swings in behavior caused by hunger or by a shortfall of a particular nutrient. Fiber prevents blood-sugar levels from spiking and plummeting, which can increase inattention.
“Many diets are deficient in key vitamins and minerals that may improve attention and alertness,” says Brown. Supplements can often fill in the dietary gaps.
If your child is a picky eater or eats lots of take-out food, he won’t get the daily recommended value of vitamins and minerals. A daily multivitamin/multimineral will ensure that he does, no matter how finicky he is.
Studies suggest that giving children who have low levels of B vitamins a supplement improved IQ scores (by 16 points) and reduced aggression and antisocial behavior. “Vitamin B-6 seems to increase the brain’s levels of dopamine, which improves alertness,” says Brown.
>> To purchase: Drugstore chains offer inexpensive high-quality, store-brand B-vitamin formulations. Many of the studies on vitamin B and ADD used a Swiss formulation called Bio-Strath (available at vitacost.com. It comes in pill and liquid forms.
ZINC, IRON, and MAGNESIUM
Zinc synthesizes dopamine and augments the effects of methylphenidate. Low levels of this mineral correlate with inattention.
Iron is also necessary for making dopamine. In one small study, ferritin levels (a measure of iron stores) were low in 84 percent of ADHD children compared to 18 percent of the control group. Low iron levels correlate with cognitive deficits and severe ADHD.
“Adequate levels of magnesium have a calming effect on the brain,” says Brown. While diet is the safest way to increase mineral levels, a multivitamin/multimineral with iron will ensure that you or your child will get the daily reference value (DRV) of all three.