By: By Sandy Newmark, M.D.
I’ve used nutritional interventions for hundreds of people with ADHD during the past 24 years. Dietary changes can result in significant improvements in symptoms of hyperactivity, concentration, impulsivity, and even oppositional behavior.
Many people are eager to try foods and supplements to help manage ADHD symptoms, but often don’t know where to start. Here are dietary changes that, I have found, deliver the most symptom relief.
Foods rich in protein—lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products—may have beneficial effects on ADD symptoms. Protein-rich foods are used by the brain to make neurotransmitters—chemicals that help brain cells talk with each other. Eating protein for breakfast will help a child build brain-awakening neurotransmitters. Protein also prevents surges in blood sugar, which increase hyperactivity.
The single most important thing I recommend is to decrease the amount of sugar in the ADHD diet. Eating simple processed carbohydrates, like white bread, waffles, or white rice, is almost the same as feeding you or your child sugar. They can make you irritable, stressed, and unfocused. Serve breakfasts and lunches high in protein, complex carbs, and fiber instead to increase concentration and better behavior.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, can improve hyperactivity, impulsivity, and concentration. Research suggests that kids with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3’s than kids without the condition. One recent study showed that 25 percent of kids with ADHD had a decrease in symptoms after three months. Fifty percent showed improvement by six months.
The two main omega-3 fatty acids contained in supplements are EPA and DHA. It appears that most benefits are derived from supplements that contain more EPA versus DHA. In general, a total dose of 700 to 1,000 mg seems good for younger children; 1,500 to 2,000 mg. for older children. Because the chewable forms of omega-3’s—gummies, say—don’t have that much fish oil in them, it is best to take a capsule or liquid.
Many people are unaware of the important role iron plays in controlling ADHD symptoms. A 2004 study found that the average iron level of ADHD children (measured as ferritin) was 22, compared with 44 in non-ADHD children. Another study showed that increasing ADHD children’s iron levels improved their symptoms almost as much as taking a stimulant. Because too much iron is dangerous, have your pediatrician test ferritin levels before giving iron.
These minerals are essential to normal health and may play an important role in controlling ADHD symptoms. Many children, with and without ADHD, don’t get enough of them. Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine and may help methylphenidate work more effectively. Magnesium is also used to make neurotransmitters and has a calming effect on the brain. Have your doctor test your child’s mineral levels.
Several studies suggest that artificial additives make non-ADHD kids more hyperactive, and make hyperactive children worse. Gatorade, cheese puffs, and candy contain artificial colors and preservatives, but are found in other foods as well. Read food ingredient labels to find additive-free foods. Fresh unprocessed foods are your best bet. Avoid colorful cereals, and substitute 100-percent fruit juice for soft drinks.
Many children with ADHD are sensitive to certain foods in the diet, making their symptoms worse. The most common culprits are dairy, wheat, and soy. If there are two foods that you suspect are exacerbating your child’s ADHD symptoms, eliminate one for two or three weeks. Observe your child’s symptoms during that time to see if they improve. Find a professional to guide you if your child needs to be on a restrictive ADD diet.
An allergy to gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley and rye—can worsen ADHD symptoms, in addition to causing a whole other set of problems. Many of ADHD patients improve on gluten-free diets. If you suspect you have a gluten allergy, see your doctor and ask about going on an elimination diet. If you are allergic, your doctor will help you switch to a gluten-free ADD diet.
Most herbs that have been recommended for managing ADHD symptoms have been poorly researched. The ones that have research behind them and work are a combination of valerian and lemon balm, which seems to relax ADHD children by reducing anxiety. To improve attention, a product called Nurture & Clarity may help. These is some evidence that pycnogenol, made from pine bark, improves concentration in some children. Look for standardized herbs that are free of contaminants.
For more must-have resources on incorporating ADHD-friendly foods into your child’s diet, visit the ADD Diet and Food Resource Center.