DIET AND NUTRITION
What Is an ADHD diet? Ideally, an ADHD diet would help the brain work better and lessen symptoms of the disorder, such as restlessness or lack of focus. A diet may include the foods you eat and any nutritional supplements you may take. You may hear ADHD diets described in the following ways:
Overall nutrition for ADHD:
This includes the food you eat daily. How can your overall nutrition help or hurt ADHD? The assumption is that some foods you eat may make ADHD symptoms better or worse. You may also be lacking some foods that could help make symptoms better. Scientific research on ADHD diets is limited and results are mixed. Many health experts, however, do believe that diet may play a role in relieving ADHD symptoms. ADHD expert Richard Sogn, MD, points out that whatever is good for the brain is likely to be good for ADHD. Brain researcher and ADHD expert Daniel Amen, MD, recommends these ADHD diet suggestions:
- Eat a high-protein diet, including beans, cheese, eggs, meat, and nuts. Add protein foods in the morning and for after-school snacks, to improve concentration and possibly increase the time ADHD medications work.
- Eat fewer simple carbohydrates, such as candy, corn syrup, honey, sugar, products made from white flour, white rice, and potatoes without the skins.
- Eat more complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and some fruits (including oranges, tangerines, pears, grapefruit, apples, and kiwi). Eating complex carbs at night may aid sleep.
- Eat more Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in tuna, salmon, other cold-water white fish, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and olive and canola oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are also available in supplement form.
Supplementation diets for ADHD:
This includes adding vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients to make up for deficiencies in your diet that may contribute to ADHD symptoms. The assumption is that nutritional component that your body needs is lacking from your diet.
- There are some studies on using iron supplements to treat ADHD. Findings from these studies suggest that children with ADHD may have iron deficiencies. The hypothesis is that supplementing with iron may improve ADHD symptoms.
- In one study, a combination of American ginseng and Ginkgo leaf improved ADHD symptoms in children ages 3 to 17.
Herbs that calm, soothe, and nourish the nervous system include:
- lemon balm
- passion flower
- St. John’s Wort
They can be taken safely as teas or tinctures–just follow the instructions on the bottle or box. (Dosing for children is one-fourth to one-half the adult dose based on their weight.)
- Taking 50 mg of B-complex vitamins and 100 to 200 mg of fish oils may also help. These supplements nourish and stabilize the CNS while improving mood stability, mental focus, and brain function.
ADHD symptoms — and their causes — vary from person to person. Work with your doctor closely before considering any additional supplements.
Elimination diets for ADHD:
This involves removing foods or ingredients that are suspected of contributing to ADHD symptoms. The assumption is that you are eating something unhealthy that triggers certain behaviors or makes them worse. In elimination diets, you identify a particular food or ingredient you think might be contributing to or worsening ADHD symptoms. Then you stop eating anything containing that substance. If the symptoms lessen or subside, then you continue avoiding the substance.
Can eliminating foods from your diet improve ADHD symptoms? Research in all these areas is ongoing and results are not clear-cut. But here are some common areas of concern and what the experts recommend:
- Food allergies or additives:
Starting in 1975, the late Benjamin Feingold, MD, an allergist, proposed that artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives might lead to hyperactivity in some children. Since his initial theory, researchers and child behavior experts have hotly debated this issue. A recent study showed that some food coloring and one preservative did increase hyperactivity in some children. However, effects varied according to age and additive. Based on this and other recent studies, the American Academy of Pediatrics now agrees that eliminating preservatives and food colorings from the diet is a reasonable option for children with ADHD. Amen recommends that anyone with ADHD avoid these substances:
- Artificial colors, especially red and yellow
Food additives such as aspartame, MSG (monosodium glutamate), and nitrites; some studies have linked hyperactivity to the intake of the preservative sodium benzoate.
- Sugar and ADHD
Some children do become hyperactive after eating candy or other sugary foods. No evidence indicates, however, that this is a cause of ADHD. For best overall nutrition, sugary foods should be a small part of anyone’s diet, though there is probably not much harm for a child or adult with ADHD to try eliminating sugary foods to see if symptoms improve.
- Caffeine and ADHD
Some studies have shown that small amounts of caffeine may help with some ADHD symptoms. However, the side effects of caffeine may outweigh any potential benefit. Most ADHD experts recommend avoiding caffeine.
Creating Your Own ADHD Diet
So how do you put together an ADHD diet for yourself or your child? The first step is to be sure to talk with the doctor who is responsible for treating your ADHD. Why? Here are three good reasons:
Your doctor is the person best qualified to judge whether the changes you wish to make might be effective for you. Your doctor may request special tests that can help determine how the brain functions, so that together you can decide which diet changes might help the most. Your doctor can help you monitor the changes to your diet to make sure they really help. Some nutritional supplements are available only through a doctor’s prescription. Dosages of all supplements should be carefully determined and monitored. Once your doctor is on board, then you’re ready to take your next step. Whether you are changing your food, adding supplements, or eliminating foods from your diet, here are some tips to help make your changes successful:
- Make changes slowly — usually one at a time. That way you can test whether the change helped or not.
- Make sure that you stick to the diet long enough to see changes. This may take a month or more. Don’t give up too soon, but also, don’t stick to a plan that is not working.
- Keep a diary of your changes and the effects, much like you would for taking ADHD medication. Include what you changed, when you did it, and the effects — both positive and negative — you noticed. Show the diary to your doctor at each visit
Don’t forget about other steps to help with ADHD. These include the following:
If you decide to take medication, find a doctor who is willing to work with you to find the minimal dose that is effective. Ask your doctor to allow you to take “holidays” from the medication when intense concentration and focus aren’t necessary (eg. on the weekends). By carefully monitoring your behavior patterns, you can help your doctor find the dosage and schedule that allow you to succeed in school/work, while decreasing your chances of experiencing side effects.
People with ADHD are drawn to new activities, adventure, and change. Yet they’re balanced by the opposite: activities that are calming, relaxing, and nurturing. Regularity and structure counter the natural tendency toward chaos
Get enough sleep: at least seven to eight hours each night.
Relaxation training and meditation can help increase focus and concentration, as well as reduce distractibility. Lie down on the floor or in bed in shavasana (corpse pose), supporting your head with a pillow and covering up with a blanket to stay warm. Then concentrate on each part of your body in turn from head to toe. Imagine your breath is like the waves of the ocean. The idea is to relax and deepen your breath, which helps your CNS switch from a sympathetic mode, which is a “fight-or-flight” state, to a parasympathetic mode, which is a nourishing and restorative state.
Learn deep-breathing techniques to help with anxiety and anger.
Oil is the quintessential vata balancer, so a bedtime massage is particularly calming for people with ADHD. Try to do this at least once a week. If you don’t have time for a full head-to-toe treatment, just massage your feet. If you have trouble falling asleep, doing this at bedtime can help.
Get regular exercise: at least 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week.
Cell phones, computer games, watching TV for hours on end.. This constant electronic stimulation not only fragments your attention but also exposes you to electromagnetic radiation (EMR) at potentially harmful levels. When a person is sensitive, this exposure agitates his nervous system. Sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, headaches, dizziness, memory and attention problems, and distorted vision are all possible side effects of EMR. Try to limit how much electromagnetic exposure you get by reducing screen time to an hour or less a day.
In ayurveda, ADHD is classified as a vata imbalance. Vata is “wind energy”: it’s light, changeable, dry, cool, and mobile. It governs the movement of our bodies and our thoughts. Everyone has some vata in their prakriti (constitution), but those who have a predominance of this light, expansive energy (i.e., a “vata constitution”) tend to have sensitive nervous systems, so they experience the world with a heightened intensity. As a result, they’re prone to anxiety, inattention, restlessness, and sleep problems. Ironically, these children will often seek out sensory-stimulating activities (such as action movies or sugar-laden foods), creating a vicious cycle that agitates their already overactive nervous systems.
Commonly prescribed ADHD drugs stimulate the brain cells to release more of the neurotransmitters called dopamine and norepinephrine, which generally enhance a child’s ability to control impulsive behaviors and concentrate–but they also cause increased activity in the central nervous system (CNS). I would venture to say that these drugs perpetuate the underlying cause of ADHD–overstimulation of a sensitive CNS–throwing your child’s vata energy further out of balance. According to ayurveda, adopting a vata-pacifying lifestyle is the best natural option for your son.
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST
The more you know about your own ADHD and your overall health, the better you can assess which treatments — including dietary changes –might help. Over time, you can determine whether specific foods, additives, or supplements make ADHD symptoms better, or worse.