Vitamins & Minerals

6 Essential (and Often-Overlooked) Supplements for ADHD

Omega-3s for concentration. Zinc for impulsivity. Iron for better behavior. Plus three more ADHD supplements shown to improve symptoms. How to augment your treatment plan with vitamins and minerals that work — and skip those that don’t.

ADHD vitamins and supplements
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Beyond Food

Most ADHD experts recommend eating a diet full of fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, and some lean protein with every meal to help manage symptoms.

"Nutrition can really make a huge difference in the success of both adults and children with ADHD,” says Dr. Sandy Newmark, founder of the Center for Pediatric Integrative Medicine in San Francisco, and the author of ADHD Without Drugs: A Guide to Natural Care of Children with ADHD. “I've seen time and time again in my practice that simple nutritional changes, like adding protein to breakfast or lunch, can really, really make a difference."

It’s true that not everyone eats the right foods to achieve beneficial levels of certain nutrients. But it’s also true that our bodies don’t always produce the nutrients we need, so we have to get some of them from supplements. Find out which diet changes, vitamins, herbs, and supplements may diminish ADHD symptoms.

Donuts and sugar
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Why Complex Carbs Matter

Carbohydrates are not innately evil. In fact, they are essential. When digested, carbs turn into sugar, or glucose, which is crucial to many bodily processes. “Your brain works exclusively on glucose,” Newmark adds. “So, [glucose] is very, very important.”

However, when carbohydrates are converted to sugar too fast — which is the case with simple carbohydrates like white bread, pancakes, or waffles — blood sugar goes up very quickly and then bottoms out quickly after insulin is released. Studies confirm that this results in a hyperglycemic, stressed-out individual who is then unable to concentrate and work well.

Eating complex carbohydrates balanced with protein is a great way to avoid a glycemic rollercoaster.

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Protein and Complex Carbs for Breakfast

Artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives are troublesome for individuals with ADHD. “Across the board, [artificial additives] cause people to be more hyper and less attentive,” Newmark says. Studies show that almost all children “are more hyper and less attentive when given certain artificial colors and flavors and certain preservatives. I think this is even more striking for some individuals with ADHD.”

Where do many of these artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives hide? Your child’s breakfast cereal, cereal bar, or toaster pastry. When a child eats a breakfast of processed foods, it causes his blood sugar to go up and then drop. “Then, halfway through the morning, we have a child with low glucose, low blood sugar,” Newmark says. “Stress hormones are being released, and things are not good.”

Newmark recommends a breakfast containing some protein, some fat — which slows digestion of carbohydrates — and unprocessed, low glycemic carbohydrates, also called complex carbohydrates.

Fish oil supplement for managing ADHD symptoms
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Omega-3s for Brain Function

Besides being good for heart health, omega-3 fatty acids improve symptoms of ADHD, including behavior, cognitive skills, and focus. A comprehensive look at many studies showed that ADHD-optimized doses of omega-3s are about 40 percent as effective as stimulants in relieving symptoms. Research also suggests that striking the right balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is important, and should be undertaken with a physician’s help.

Optimal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, fish oil, reduce ADHD symptoms, making them an ideal ADHD supplement.
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Take Optimal Amounts of Omega-3s

ADHD expert Dr. Edward Hallowell typically recommends up to 5,000 milligrams of an omega-3 supplement for adults each day and up to 2,500 milligrams a day for children. According to Newmark, children between four and eight years old should take between 1,000-1,500 milligrams a day.

One study backing the efficacy of omega-3s in ADHD treatment was published in Pediatrics by lead author Paul Montgomery, D.Phil., a researcher in the psychiatry department at the University of Oxford in England. Montgomery recommends choosing a fish oil supplement that contains a high ratio of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA) to omega-6 fatty acids (DHA). "The right ratio of 3s to 6s seems to be about four to one," he says. Look for a product that has twice the amount of EPA to DHA — the two main types of omega-3s.

Liquid or capsule forms of omega-3s are best. Other versions have lower amounts of EPA and DHA. (See our recommended omega-3 supplements for kids who hate pills.)

Zinc
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Zinc for Impulsivity

Some studies have shown that people with ADHD may naturally have lower levels of zinc. Taking zinc supplements may reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity, but not inattentiveness. High levels of zinc, however, may be dangerous.

Have your doctor check your or your child’s zinc levels before starting a supplement. If you do add a zinc supplement, Newmark suggests that children with ADHD take no more than 20 milligrams daily.

Iron for managing ADHD symptoms
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Iron for Better Behavior

Some experts believe that iron deficiencies may contribute to ADHD symptoms. A 2008 study showed that children who were not anemic but had low ferritin levels — a protein needed to store iron in the blood — showed improvement of symptoms after taking iron supplements for 12 weeks.

Before starting an iron supplement, Newmark recommends that you speak with your doctor or your child’s doctor about checking iron levels first: High iron levels can be dangerous.

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Magnesium for Relaxation and Sleep

Healthy levels of magnesium in the blood can help relax individuals with ADHD. Some small studies have shown that adding magnesium supplements decreases some symptoms of ADHD. Magnesium certainly helps with sleep and relaxation – big challenges for adults and children with ADHD — and should be discussed with your doctor.

Benefits of vitamin C for ADHD
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Vitamin C for Dopamine

Vitamin C is important in modulating the neurotransmitter dopamine at the synapses in the brain, Hallowell says. (ADHD stimulants are effective because they increase dopamine levels in the brain.) Hallowell recommends getting vitamin C from food, but if you or your child doesn't eat a healthy diet, try a daily supplement.

One caution: Don't take vitamin C within an hour before or after taking ADHD meds. Its ascorbic acid prevents the medication from being absorbed fully in the blood stream.

Protein smoothie for ADHD-friendly breakfast
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Protein for Focus

If you or your child doesn’t eat high-protein foods, which are key to increasing attentiveness and focus, or is a picky eater, try a protein-powder drink. Look for brands that are low in sugar and free of artificial flavors and preservatives. Organic whey protein is one popular source of lactose-free, soy-free protein that is found unsweetened and free of artificial ingredients.

A daily multivitamin is optimal for brain health, ideal as an ADHD supplement.
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Cover Your Nutritional Bases

A daily multivitamin, containing the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals, is important for optimal brain health. However, many of the multivitamin/multimineral products on the market contain sugar, preservatives, and artificial colors, which may increase hyperactivity. Look for brands that are low in sugar with no artificial colors or flavors. Newmark recommends Carlson, Nordic Naturals, Nature’s Plus, and Child Life.

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Valerian for Sleep

Some limited evidence supports the idea of using herbs to treat ADHD. The herb valerian, for example, can calm hyperactivity and may reduce anxiety, but it doesn’t improve concentration.

Valerian also helps with sleep problems and lessens the “rebound effect” that some people experience when stimulants wear off. Talk with your doctor or a nutritionist who specializes in herbs about valerian. Newmark recommends Valerian Super Calm, by Herbs for Kids.

Melatonin supplement can help children and adults with ADHD fall asleep.
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Melatonin for Sleep

Melatonin is a natural hormone produced in our bodies to help us get to sleep. When we turn off the television, dim the lights, and settle down for bed, our body produces melatonin and we become sleepy. But for those with ADHD, racing brains can often stave off sleep. Melatonin supplements can help and are safe to take. Always start with the smallest possible dose.

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Research Ginkgo and Ginseng

Some small studies show that Ginkgo biloba helps improve memory and, when taken with ginseng, can decrease impulsiveness and distractibility. Other studies have shown no or minimal improvement.

Talk with your doctor or a nutritionist before trying them. These herbs can cause health problems, especially for those with a history of diabetes, seizures, or certain mental health disorders.

Vitamins can be helpful in treating ADHD symptoms
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Heed the Warning

“All natural” is not synonymous with “safe.” Many herbs and supplements have side effects, may cause or worsen health problems, or interfere with prescription medications.

Talk with your doctor before taking any supplements or giving any to your child. When your doctor asks if you are taking any medications, be sure to tell him about all vitamins and supplements you take on a daily basis.

Silhouette of sad ADHD teenage girl looking out the window on a cold autumn day
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Listen to Your Body

No substantial research exists to determine the recommended daily dose of most supplements. Pay attention to your body and adjust the dosage if you notice something is wrong. For example, you may be taking zinc supplements and find yourself getting stomachaches. Discontinue or cut back on the supplement to see if the stomachaches disappear.

2 comments

  1. We take algae-derived DHA and EPA because our oceans are so polluted, and toxins could affect behavior adversely. Algae-derived DHA and EPA is bioequivalent to those in fish oil (source:(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18589030). (In fact, algae are where the fish get them from in the first place.)

    Here’s some supporting evidence:

    “[T]he fish oil distillation process was found ineffective at removing all the industrial contaminants from fish oil, so even “PCB-free” fish oil may be anything but.

    Isn’t there a law in California, though, that makes it illegal to sell toxic substances that cause cancer or birth defects without at least a warning label? I’ve never seen such a label on fish oil, and neither did the Environmental Justice Foundation, and so they sued CVS, GNC, Rite-Aid, along with the major fish oil manufacturers.

    To do so, of course, they had to prove the fish oil you find in stores actually contains PCBs, so they went out and grabbed ten, and tested them. Some had 70 times the PCBs of others, and 240 times the toxicity.

    This is why we should get our long chain omega-3s without any risk of toxins by choosing microalgae or yeast-based EPA/DHA supplements—nutritionally equivalent; a safe and convenient source, without the toxic waste.” =>Nutritionfacts.org, citing this study:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19265383

    “Researchers recently looked at 13 over-the-counter children’s dietary supplements containing fish oil to assess potential exposure to PCBs, toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans. PCBs were detected in all products. Could you just stick to the supplements made from small, short-lived fish like anchovies instead of big predator fish like tuna, or use the purified fish oils? No, they found no significant difference in PCB levels between the supplements labeled as molecularly distilled or how high up the food chain the fish were.

    So while children’s dietary supplements containing the long-chain omega-3’s from fish oils may claim to benefit young consumers, daily ingestion of these products may provide a vector for contaminant exposure that may off-set the positive health effects.” =>Nutritionfacts.org, citing this study:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23281830

    Just thought I would pass along a safer, bioequivalent source of the essential fatty acids in fish oil, DHA and EPA.

  2. This is all great information. However, you recommend tests for deficiencies or discussing taking the supplements with your doctor first which is just not possible in all areas of the country. The doctors in this area (Southwest MO) treating ADHD DO NOT believe in any of the things recommended in this article. “silly” “there are no legitimate studies to back up these findings” “ineffective” “waste of money” These are just a few of the comments we have heard when asking about the recommendations in the article. So, when faced with this what should parents do? Just start giving these supplements one at a time and see what happens? Unfortunately, we cannot try doctors outside of this area in K.C. or St. Louis because they will not take patients outside of their metro area. We have tried repeatedly.

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