Vitamins and Supplements
Commonly used to manage symptoms of ADHD and related conditions
What is it?
Vitamins — particularly zinc, iron, Vitamin C, Vitamin B, and magnesium — are critical to healthy brain function. Everyone should strive to eat a balanced diet and maintain healthy levels of these key nutrients, experts say. In some cases, however, eating well is not enough — particularly for people with ADHD, who may be naturally deficient in these critical nutrients. Supplements may be needed to make up for this deficiency, experts say, and improve attention and focus with minimal side effects.
How do vitamins and supplements work?
Zinc: Zinc is thought to help regulate the neurotransmitter dopamine — which occurs in insufficient levels in ADHD brains — and it may make methylphenidate more effective by improving the brain’s response to dopamine. Zinc levels have been found to be low in some children with ADHD, and studies have found that taking zinc supplements reduces hyperactivity and impulsivity. Foods high in zinc include beef, spinach, pumpkin seeds, and shrimp.
Iron: Some experts believe that low iron levels contribute to ADHD symptoms in some children. A small study found that children with ADHD had naturally lower ferritin levels, a protein needed to store iron in the blood. The same study found that the children showed symptom improvement after taking an iron supplement for 12 weeks. An important caveat, however: supplemental iron can be dangerous if too much is taken, so all patients should get their iron levels measured by a doctor before starting a supplement. Eating iron-rich foods — like red meat, dark chocolate, and leafy greens — can increase iron levels without the risk of toxicity.
Vitamin C: The brain uses Vitamin C — drawn out of the blood and cycled through the brain — to make neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. Foods such as oranges, red peppers, and kale are high in Vitamin C, but it’s also possible to take a daily supplement if dietary changes aren’t enough. However, Vitamin C can interfere with the absorption of ADHD medication, so it should not be taken an hour before or after administering ADHD meds.
Vitamin B: Deficiencies in B vitamins — particularly B6 — can cause irritability and fatigue in children and adults with ADHD. Adequate B6 levels — achieved through dietary changes or a supplement — can increase alertness and decrease anxiety-like symptoms. Foods high in B6 include wild-caught tuna, bananas, spinach, and salmon.
Magnesium: Magnesium is also used to make the neurotransmitters involved in attention. “Adequate levels of magnesium have a calming effect on the brain,” says Richard Brown, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Magnesium can be found in supplements and in foods including dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and beans.
Who are vitamins and supplements for?
Most studies on vitamins and minerals have been done on children, but both kids and adults can take most supplements. However, supplements can become dangerous if taken in excess, so a doctor should always check your or your child’s levels of each vitamin before you start a supplement.
How much does it cost?
Vitamins and supplements vary in cost, depending on brand, dosage, and delivery method.
What studies have been done on vitamins and supplements?
Zinc: A 2004 study, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, found that adding zinc to the diets of 44 children with ADHD improved their symptoms dramatically. Another study from that year found that children taking a zinc supplement showed improvement, when compared to others taking a placebo. A 2011 study, however, found mixed results for zinc, and cautioned against relying too much on zinc as an ADHD treatment.
Iron: A 2004 study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that 84 percent of children with ADHD had significantly lower-than-normal levels of iron, compared with just 18 percent of kids without ADHD. Another study, published in Pediatric Neurology, showed that symptoms improved when iron-deficient children with ADHD took an iron supplement.
Vitamin C: A 2006 study found that children taking a Vitamin C supplement experienced improved ADHD symptoms, particularly hyperactivity. However, the study also used flax oil — a source of Omega-3 fatty acids — so it’s difficult to tell which vitamin was responsible for the positive results. Other larger studies have shown Vitamin C to help significantly with iron absorption.
Vitamin B: One small study claimed to find that B6 supplements were more effective at treating ADHD symptoms in children than is Ritalin. However, the study used very high doses of Vitamin B6, which can be dangerous. Other studies have indicated moderately positive effects on hyperactivity in children, particularly when combined with magnesium.
Magnesium: A small 2016 study found that 72 percent of the children with ADHD had magnesium deficiencies, and that taking magnesium supplements for 8 weeks improved cognitive function in this group.
Where can I learn more?
The University of Maryland Medical Center outlines the pros and cons of several common supplements used to treat ADHD here: umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder.
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