If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, I’m here to tell you medicine is not the only solution out there. The prevalence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is increasing exponentially in our culture today. In less than a decade, the number of children diagnosed with this disorder has doubled. To top it off, a staggering 4.2 million kids are on prescription psychostimulants, regardless of diagnosis. But is conventional western medicine really the best way to help your child cope with this disorder? Here’s a surprising fact: diet, nutrition and lifestyle may play a bigger role in the prognosis of ADHD than you might think.
So how does your child’s diet come into play when it comes to an ADHD diagnosis? Some experts, myself included, believe the single most important factor is lack of proper nutrition. Doctors, however, are often quick to overlook this fact. When it comes to the developing brain of a growing child, nutrition and sleep are the two principal pillars. So since these two factors play such a key role in brain growth and health, optimizing nutrition and sleep is absolutely crucial for your child.
Something you should know now: I am absolutely not against medication, as it can be an important component of the treatment of a child with ADHD. But conventional Western medicine should go hand in hand with diet and lifestyle. When we optimize a child’s health so the brain can function properly, the medications actually work better. Nutrition is the first step in the optimization of brain and body function, especially in a growing child.
For a complex diagnosis such as ADHD, a comprehensive, multidimensional treatment approach is vital. Below I have outlined many areas of consideration for a child with ADHD. Take a look, and see if you might be able to make some of these simple adjustments for your child with ADHD.
A healthy whole food based diet is key
- For body and brain to develop and function, a child requires optimal nutrition. This means appropriate amounts and proportions of protein, healthy fats, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Consider eliminating added sugars and processed foods.
- Breakfast in particular should be carefully considered as a specific component of the diet. Sugar and simple starches (think, refined white flour), like those in cereals, breads and other typical breakfast foods should be limited, if not completely eliminated. These processed foods are quickly broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. Consequently, this creates blood sugar spikes and resulting drops, leading to low blood sugar by mid-morning. Low blood sugar then leads to irritability, inattentiveness, and fatigue. If your child already has ADHD, these qualities will only be exacerbated. Therefore, a wholesome protein-rich breakfast is crucial. Think fruit, dairy and whole grains as the most ideal carbohydrate sources.
- To stabilize the blood sugar, shoot for small frequent nutritious snacks. This is also a great way to pack in more nutrition throughout the day, making the diet more varied and nutrient-dense. Avoid junk food, candy, baked goods, etc. A proper snack should reflect the same standards as a meal: protein, healthy carbs, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats.
- Oftentimes, children do not take in enough water, which can lead to dehydration. Without sufficient water, the body and the brain can be adversely affected. Make sure your child has plenty of water throughout the day!
Watch out for food sensitivities
- The most common food sensitivities are gluten, dairy, tree nuts, peanuts, seafood, corn, eggs, and soy.
- Food sensitivities can cause skin rashes, fatigue, digestive symptoms, respiratory symptoms, as well as mood and behavior changes. A whopping 50% of kids with ADHD suffer from food sensitivities, which are not to be mistaken with food allergies. An allergy causes an immediate immune system reaction (like those requiring an epi-pen). Sensitivities cause a slow inflammatory response and chronic symptoms.
- Eliminate foods your child may be sensitive to in order to calm ADHD symptoms.
- To determine if your child has food sensitivities, an elimination diet might be the right route to take. An elimination diet requires cutting out a specific food in all its forms for one to three months, and then reintroducing it to find out if it triggers any symptoms. Successful elimination diets can be complicated to plan, so it’s wise to seek professional help.
- Gut health is inextricably linked to the mind and body. The gut-brain axis is a two way street, and the health of one affects the health of the other. For instance, an unhealthy or imbalanced microbiome (bacteria living in the gut) may trigger and/or worsen ADHD symptoms.
- Leaky gut: If the gut lining is compromised and not intact, toxins and waste products can “leak” into the blood, ultimately causing problems in the brain.
Food Additives Should Be Limited
- There are 24 types of additives that are commonly found in the food we consume on a daily basis. However, the effect of these artificial chemicals on our brain chemistry is controversial and questionable. Although we don’t fully know the short and long term consequences of these chemicals on the growing brain and nervous system, research shows they can have detrimental and harmful effects. Some examples of additives include:
- Artificial colors (Red No. 40 for example) There is research that shows these additives cause hyperactivity. They are stimulating for the brain.
- Artificial sweeteners
- Artificial flavors
Pay attention to what your child is eating. Aim for more whole, real food, instead of processed and packaged food which is more likely to contain unnatural and potentially harmful additives.
Seek help for picky eaters
Sometimes, our kids are just downright picky when it comes to food. And picky eating, food aversion, sensory issues, and other eating-related behavioral problems are often present in children with ADHD. If kids don’t eat enough for these reasons, growth and development may be compromised. Be sure to seek help from a dietitian and/or sensory specialist.
Try testing for micronutrient or other deficiency
Various tests are available, many of which I use in my practice, that can reveal important information about what’s going on inside the body and therefore aid in targeted individualized treatment. These include:
- Micronutrient Tests: Almost all children with ADHD are deficient in one or more nutrient.
Micronutrient testing can help to determine which vitamin, mineral, or anti-oxidant deficiencies a child has and therefore need to be supplemented.
- Neurotransmitter Tests: which measure the levels of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, GABA, and glutamate. By discovering which neurotransmitters are higher or lower than expected, we know exactly how much of which amino acids are needed to restore balance.
- Genetics Testing can be very illuminating about the genetic factors relating to someone’s health. There are ways to combat or get around genetic roadblocks.
- Heavy Metal Testing: Lead, mercury, and other metals contaminate our soil, seafood, and sometimes our water; when consumed, these contaminants may adversely affect the brain. Growing children are naturally susceptible. To top it off, genetic differences mean that some are worse at naturally detoxifying the body than others and thus may need extra help. Testing can help to see if a toxicity exists and needs to be treated.
Try adding in supplements
- Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Vitamin D, and many B vitamins, including B6 (in the form P5P) have been shown in research to help with ADHD symptoms. I have developed a formula that contains most of these nutrients and more, in the right proportions. I recommend it to all my clients with ADHD.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly known as fish oil (EPA and DHA), are absolutely vital for brain growth, development, and overall health. Unfortunately, it is difficult for us to get sufficient amounts from the diet. Fish oil pills, liquids or chewables can be found in many stores. Aim for fish oil rather than flaxseed, as this omega-3 acid is more bioavailable to the body. These and other phospholipids are essential for cell membranes, and thus might be key in new treatment approaches to ADHD. A new product, Vayarin, has phosphatidylserine attached to Omega 3s and has been shown to improve ADHD.
- Gingko Biloba has been show to help with improved focus and attention span.
- Anti-oxidants help to mediate oxidative stress. Try dark colored fruits and veggies, or antioxidant supplements.
- Neurotransmitters, the chemicals used in the brain for communication, are required for thinking and focusing. Many people with ADHD are deficient in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a particularly prominent role in focus and attention span. Try L-tyrosine supplements, as this is an amino acid (single molecule protein) that is the precursor to dopamine in the body.
- **Both nutrient supplementation and herbal or neurotransmitter supplementation should be done under the supervision of a qualified health care professional.
Other lifestyle factors that can make a huge difference in your child’s behavior
- Physical activity: For brain health and calming of ADHD symptoms. Win-win.
- Yoga, with its meditative and relaxing properties, may benefit those with ADHD.
- Martial arts can help with self-control and focus.
- Meditation and mindfulness: To calm the body and enhance attention span.
- Screen time
- Limit all screens such as TV viewing, video games and iPad to 30 minutes a day (ideally).
- And last but not least… SLEEP
- As I mentioned earlier, sleep is as important as diet. And when I say sleep, I’m talking both time and quality. 8-10 hours is best. Going to bed at the same time every night is a good idea too. If your child gets adequate, quality sleep, it will be reflected in his or her health.
So, all that being said, it’s prudent to think twice when you consider meds as your child’s first– and/or only– line of treatment for ADHD. Diet and lifestyle are just as important to address ! A condition such as ADHD requires a comprehensive and integrated treatment plan. There are many, many areas to work on before, instead, or in addition to treating with medication. So give these lifestyle tips a try!
Discover over 100 “kid-friendly” recipes that will help you managing ADHD in The Kid-Friendly ADHD & Autism Cookbook
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