Published on ADDitudeMag.com
The ADHD Food Fix
Studies show that a high-protein, low-sugar, no-additive diet, combined with ADHD-friendly supplements, can improve ADHD symptoms.
By Sandy Newmark, M.D.
Food for Symptom Relief
I've used nutritional interventions for
hundreds of people with ADHD during the past 24 years. Dietary changes can result
in significant improvements in symptoms of hyperactivity, concentration,
impulsivity, and even oppositional behavior.
Many people are eager to try foods and supplements to help manage
ADHD symptoms, but often don’t know where to start. Here are dietary
changes that, I have found, deliver the most symptom relief.
Go with Protein
Foods rich in protein—lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs,
beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products—may have beneficial effects on ADD
symptoms. Protein-rich foods are used by the brain to make
neurotransmitters—chemicals that help brain cells talk with each other. Eating
protein for breakfast will help a child build brain-awakening
neurotransmitters. Protein also prevents surges in blood sugar, which increase
Cut Back -- Way Back -- on Sugar
The single most important thing I recommend is to decrease
the amount of sugar in the ADHD diet. Eating simple processed carbohydrates,
like white bread, waffles, or white rice, is almost the same as feeding you or
your child sugar. They can make you irritable, stressed, and unfocused. Serve
breakfasts and lunches high in protein, complex carbs, and fiber instead to
increase concentration and better behavior.
Get Plenty of Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, can improve
hyperactivity, impulsivity, and concentration. Research suggests that kids with
ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3’s than kids without the condition. One
recent study showed that 25 percent of kids with ADHD had a decrease in
symptoms after three months. Fifty percent showed improvement by six months.
Omega-3s: Optimum Dose and Form
The two main omega-3 fatty acids contained in supplements
are EPA and DHA. It appears that most benefits are derived from supplements that
contain more EPA versus DHA. In general, a total dose of 700 to 1,000 mg seems
good for younger children; 1,500 to 2,000 mg. for older children. Because the
chewable forms of omega-3’s—gummies, say—don’t have that much fish oil in them,
it is best to take a capsule or liquid.
Maintain Iron Levels
Many people are unaware of the important role iron plays in
controlling ADHD symptoms. A 2004 study found that the average iron level of
ADHD children (measured as ferritin) was 22, compared with 44 in non-ADHD
children. Another study showed
that increasing ADHD children's iron levels improved their symptoms almost as much as
taking a stimulant. Because too much iron is dangerous, have your pediatrician
test ferritin levels before giving iron.
Check Zinc and Magnesium Levels
These minerals are essential to normal health and may play
an important role in controlling ADHD symptoms. Many children, with and without
ADHD, don’t get enough of them. Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine
and may help methylphenidate work more effectively. Magnesium is also used to
make neurotransmitters and has a calming effect on the brain. Have your doctor
test your child’s mineral levels.
Weed Out Food Chemicals
Several studies suggest that artificial additives make
non-ADHD kids more hyperactive, and make hyperactive children worse. Gatorade,
cheese puffs, and candy contain artificial colors and preservatives, but are
found in other foods as well. Read food ingredient labels to find additive-free
foods. Fresh unprocessed foods are your best bet. Avoid colorful cereals, and
substitute 100-percent fruit juice for soft drinks.
Watch for Food Sensitivities
Many children with ADHD are sensitive to certain foods in
the diet, making their symptoms worse. The most common culprits are dairy,
wheat, and soy. If there are two foods that you suspect are exacerbating your
child’s ADHD symptoms, eliminate one for two or three weeks. Observe your
child’s symptoms during that time to see if they improve. Find a professional
to guide you if your child needs to be on a restrictive diet.
Check for Problems with Gluten
An allergy to gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley and
rye—can worsen ADHD symptoms, in addition to causing a whole other set of
problems. Many of ADHD patients improve on gluten-free diets. If you suspect
you have a gluten allergy, see your doctor and ask about going on an
elimination diet. If you are allergic, your doctor will help you switch to a
Try Helpful Herbs
Most herbs that have been recommended for managing ADHD
symptoms have been poorly researched. The ones that have research behind them
and work are a combination of valerian and lemon balm, which seems to relax
ADHD children by reducing anxiety. To improve attention, a product called
Nurture & Clarity may help. These is some evidence that pycnogenol, made
from pine bark, improves concentration in some children. Look for standardized
herbs that are free of contaminants.
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