10 Foods (and Supplements and Vitamins!) to Boost Your ADHD Brain
Medication improves ADHD symptoms in most people, however some individuals seek out natural remedies — particularly food and nutrition, ADHD supplements, herbal remedies, and vitamins — as complementary or alternative treatments. Could these natural remedies reduce ADHD symptoms? Learn what the research says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends treating ADHD in children and adolescents with FDA-approved medications, plus parent training in behavior modification and behavioral classroom interventions. Likewise, research confirms that “stimulant medications are most effective, and combined medication and psychosocial treatment is the most beneficial treatment option for most adult patients with ADHD.” Still, many individuals seek to augment their ADHD treatment plans with natural therapies ranging from nutrition and vitamins and herbs and fish oil.
“Parents and adults see me either because the ADHD 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 co-author of the recent book How to Use Herbs, Nutrients, and Yoga in Mental Health Care.
Here are 10 of the most popular natural ADHD remedies — including foods, ADHD supplements, and herbs — and research findings for each.
All ADHD treatment decisions should be made in consultation and coordination with a licensed medical provider.
Foods for ADHD 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.
Protein for ADHD Control
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 for Attention-Deficit Disorders. “Don’t stop there. Look for ways to slip in lean protein during the day, as well.”
Balanced Meals for ADHD
Edward Hallowell, M.D., coauthor of the best-selling Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood, recommends dividing 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 in people with ADD.
Dopamine-Boosting ADHD Supplements and Vitamins
“Many people’s daily meals are deficient in key vitamins and minerals that may improve attention and alertness,” says Brown. Supplements meant to boost dopamine levels (fish oil, viatmin D, etc.) can often fill in the nutritional gaps.
Multivitamins/Multiminerals for ADHD
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.
- To purchase: Hero’s Yummi Bears Multi-Vitamin & Mineral are free of artificial colors and flavors, which increase hyperactivity in some children with ADHD.
B Vitamins for ADHD
Studies1 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 ADHD used a Swiss formulation called Bio-Strath (available at vitacost.com. It comes in pill and liquid forms.)
Zinc, Iron, and Magnesium for ADHD
Zinc synthesizes dopamine and augments the effects of methylphenidate2. Low levels of this mineral correlate with inattention.
Iron is also necessary for making dopamine. In one small study3, 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 food intake 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.
Omega-3s for ADHD
One study suggested that a subgroup of boys with ADHD are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids compared with those who have no symptoms of the condition.
Another study4 showed that omega-3s found in cold-water, fatty fish, such as sardines, tuna, and salmon-tend to break down more readily in the bodies of patients with ADHD than in those without the condition. “Individuals with ADHD who have low blood levels of omega-3s will show the biggest improvement in mental focus and cognitive function,” says Brown. Talk to your physician about the best omega 3 supplement for you or your child.
- To purchase: Ned Hallowell recommends supplements from OmegaBrite and Zone Labs.
- Brown also recommends Nordic Naturals. If your child has trouble swallowing pills, try the Barleans Omega Swirl smoothie.
Ginkgo and Ginseng for ADHD
“Some children and adults derive moderate benefits from the vitamin-mineral approach,” says Brown. “Those with more significant ADHD may need stronger stuff — namely, herbs.”
“These herbs are cognitive activators,” says Brown. They act like stimulants without the side effects. Typically, adults and children who take ginkgo and ginseng improve on ADHD rating scales, and are less impulsive and distractible. Asian ginseng may overstimulate younger children. If this happens to your child, switch to American ginseng.
Ginkgo biloba has been associated with improved cognitive performance in a number of studies. There have been a few small studies on ginkgo and ADHD in the past, some positive and some not. A recent well-designed, placebo-controlled study, published in April 2015, looked at the effects of ginkgo added to existing methylphenidate treatment on children with ADHD. 5 The results showed that ginkgo increased the effectiveness of methylphenidate by 35 percent, but mainly for inattentive, not hyperactive, symptoms. Ginkgo is a reasonable option for those looking for an alternative treatment, with or without medication. Talk with a doctor who routinely uses herbs in her practice.
Rhodiola Rosea for ADHD
Adaptogens (supplements that may help your body withstand stress) could support cognitive function6. One well-known adaptogen is rhodiola rosea, which may improve alertness, attention, and accuracy. However, it can be too stimulating for young children. It is most useful, says Brown, for students in junior high, high school, and college, who have to complete long papers and spend hours reading.
- To purchase: Rhodiola rosea is available from Ameriden International and Swedish Herbal Institute-ProActive.
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1 Mousain-Bosc, M., M. Roche, A. Polge, D. Pradal-Prat, J. Rapin, and J. P. Bali. “Improvement of Neurobehavioral Disorders in Children Supplemented with Magnesium-Vitamin B6.” Magnesium Research, vol. 19, no. 1, 2006, pp. 53-62.
2 Akhondzadeh, Shahin, Mohammad-Reza Mohammadi, and Mojgan Khademi. “Zinc Sulfate as an Adjunct to Methylphenidate for the Treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children: A Double Blind and Randomized Trial [ISRCTN64132371].” BMC Psychiatry, vol. 4, 2004, pp. 9.
3 Konofal, Eric, Michel Lecendreux, Isabelle Arnulf, and Marie-Christine Mouren. “Iron Deficiency in Children With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, vol. 158, no. 12, 2004, pp. 1113.
4 Young, Genevieve, and Julie Conquer. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Neuropsychiatric Disorders.” Reproduction Nutrition Development, vol. 45, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1–28., doi:10.1051/rnd:2005001.
5 Shakibaei, Fereshteh, et al. “Ginkgo Biloba in the Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents. A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Trial.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, vol. 21, no. 2, Apr. 2015, pp. 61–67., doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2015.04.001.
6Dimpfel, W., Schombert, L., Keplinger-Dimpfel, I. K., & Panossian, A. (2020). Effects of an Adaptogenic Extract on Electrical Activity of the Brain in Elderly Subjects with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Two-Armed Cross-Over Study. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 13(3), 45. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph13030045