ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is a medical condition. A person with ADHD has differences in brain development and brain activity that affect attention, the ability to sit still, and self-control.
ADD (attention-deficit disorder) is an outdated term for what is now called ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). Some people with ADHD have hyperactive behaviours and some don’t, but the diagnosis is ADHD either way. The three main symptoms of ADHD are hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention that impact behaviour, mood, and thought processes.
Low dopamine levels have been found to be an important factor in the severity/progression of ADHD which is why medications that help increase dopamine availability to the brain can be a game changer but what can we do naturally whether medicated or not?
The Inflamed Brain
Increased cases of ADHD/ASD are being seen year upon year. Why? I have to think that not only have we come a lot further in understanding these conditions and being able to identify them (although there are thousands still waiting for diagnosis through CAMS) but when assessing the building blocks needed for healthy brain function and looking at the majority of children’s diet in the Western world there is a clear connection that I can see and something we can do about it.
Our shopping baskets in the last decade include a huge amount of carbohydrate-rich foods that many children enjoy. These are often ultra-processed snack bars, white-carby foods and sugar-laden sweetened foods. Our diet has come so far away from what we really need for a healthy brain and body. The Western diet is much higher in omega-6, omega-9 foods from seed, vegetable oils (part of the processed food process, much cheaper than more expensive omega-3 oils) which although at first glance this may seem like a healthy option but in large amounts found in most kids diet it becomes inflammatory.
We need higher amounts of the omega-3 rich foods which come from oily fish, borage oil, flaxseed oil, chia seed, flaxseed etc. to balance the books! ADHD patients are often found to have much lower levels of these anti-inflammatory omega 3 hence a need to supplement as not many children love mackerel, sardine, salmon etc?
Higher amounts of processed and ultra-processed foods will often mean a shift in the nutrient density of the diet. For example a child can easily fill up on a bowl of pasta or a ham and cheese sandwich but where are the greens! The magnesium, folate, fibre rich goodness that nourishes us and provide the building blocks for making energy, neurotransmitters and nourish the gut microbiome. We are missing basic components in our diet that we need for optimal health.
Nutrition and ADHD
Diet is an important step to begin with if you have been diagnosed but there can be many obstacles in implementing good nutritional strategies because adults and children with ADHD often want quick fixes and can often be fussy eaters. A child’s unwillingness to try new foods can be incredibly frustrating for busy Mum and Dads who are trying to cook a nutritious meal for the entire family and for ADHD adults the thought of having to plan, prepare, cook healthy meals can be overwhelming and at times unachievable.
Working with a Nutritional Therapist can really help simplify things for you when trying to navigate your nutritional needs. This is because it is my job to understand the building blocks required to make neurotransmitters and to sift through the layers that can impinge on normal neurotransmitter synthesis and conduction.
Serotonin Made in The Gut
It is worth remembering that 80% of serotonin in made in the gut. I am sure you have heard that said before however probably not for the reason you I want to bring to your attention here. Serotonin cannot cross the blood brain barrier so what does serotonin in the gut do and why is so much made there? Serotonin affects gut motility and is made by bacteria in the gut by specific strains of bacteria. When bacteria are out of balance not enough or too much serotonin is made resulting in either constipation or loose stools.
Where to start with food?
When it comes to carbohydrates focus on complex carbohydrates from fruit and vegetables which are packed with vitamin and minerals, and fibre. Especially consider dark-skinned fruit/veg; beetroot, berries, cherries, acai, kale, broccoli, spinach which have high amounts of antioxidants and polyphenols.
Carbohydrates have been largely demonised over the last decade due to its ability to quickly increase blood sugar levels and insulin response. However, carbohydrates are essential in helping transport tryptophan across the blood brain barrier. Tryptophan is the precursor to our happy hormone serotonin, so we want to help increase it for balanced mood, energy and focus.
The Wrong Kind of Carbohydrates
Processed foods that contain added sugars spike insulin and create blood sugar imbalances which leads to irritability, lack of focus, hyperactivity. Avoiding squash, fizzy drinks, cereals are often loaded with sugars, additives, preservatives. Dyes and colouring added to foods and drinks have been proven to increase brain activity as they can cross the blood brain barrier and over-stimulate dopamine receptors, remember, sugar is addictive because of its ability to stimulate dopamine receptors but over stimulating them results in negative behavioural traits. Read labels on packaging before you put it into your shopping basket. Additives in lots of processed foods are proven neurotoxins such as aspartame and sodium benzoate. Try to keep food as close to nature intended as possible. If sugar is in the first 3 ingredients, then it is very likely to be too high in sugar.
Omega-3, EPA and DHA
You may have heard that this nutrient is super important for brain health? Omega 3 healthy fatty acids from cold water fish; white tuna, salmon, halibut, are the richest source of this essential fatty acid. They are essential meaning that we must get them from our diet. The colder water fish found in deeper cold waters have more fats to help protect them from the environment and have a higher amount of omega 3. It is these omega -3 fatty acids that are so important. They help to reduce inflammation but also help support dopamine binding sites helping dopamine to cross into the brain.
If you don’t eat this kind of fish then it is well worth sourcing a good quality supplement. Ask me if you are in doubt.
Protein provides the amino acids needed to make neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Including quality protein in each meal and snack provided the building blocks for neurotransmitters, hormones, and balanced mood.
Quality protein if found in foods such as fish, meat, dairy, avocado, beans, peas, edamame, tofu made from soybeans (organic), lentils, nuts, seeds and eggs. As mentioned earlier, iron deficiency is very common in ADHD and protein rich foods provide a great source of iron. An additional problem that can prevent proper absorption of iron which depends on optimal digestion may be something worth investigating. I help improve digestion naturally through promoting digestive enzymes but in some cases supplementing with digestive enzymes is required to give you the helping hand you need to breakdown protein effectively for digestion and absorption. If you get a heavy feeling in the stomach/gut after eating this can be an indicator that you may need digestive support. You can get in touch with me to book your free discovery call so I can explain more about this and find out more about your requirements.
Including protein with a healthy (complex) carbohydrate in every meal and every snack keeps blood sugar stable, helps retain focus and attention. An easy win at breakfast to get the balance right at the start of their day is adding hemp heart seeds to smoothies and yoghurt/fruit bowls etc. Hemp heart seeds are easy to add to most foods and gram for gram contain more protein than eggs or beef.
Some high protein snack ideas that can work well are Greek yoghurt and seeds, cream cheese on wholewheat crackers, fruit jam on wholegrain toast, apple slices with peanut butter, smoothies with chia/flaxseed/hemp heart seed, chicken drumstick and cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks/sugar snap peas and hard-boiled eggs.
“PEAS” for Fussy Eaters
Try my “peas” approach if you have a fussy eater. Try to remain positive. This can be a huge challenge when you have created a delicious meal that is turned down however, keeping the mood positive and upbeat will in time help your child to attach a happier feeling to mealtimes than if we get frustrated and cross. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day and maybe today is not the day they will try a new food or eat all their dinner.
If you are aiming to get your child to include more vegetables or try a new food and they seem unwilling at first to try it, try again tomorrow but rather than waste or bin food help them to examine it further. Getting them involved in handling, chopping, preparing, and serving the new food helping them gain trust in the new food. Hiding vegetables in or under their regular food can be counterintuitive in the end if they can see you are trying to sneak in foods they don’t know/like. The more they are exposed to new foods consistently, the more they begin to trust the new food and you.
Getting your child to make choices about some of the food they want and will eat or try gives them some control. The more we try to control their food choices at mealtimes the more they can use it as a form of control back at us. Ask your child to choose a new vegetable or food item in the supermarket that they think looks interesting and ask them to imagine what they think it will taste like. Little choices are often little wins.
Get your child to touch and hold new foods before asking them to eat it. Getting them to feed the new food to dolls or to brothers/sisters if they are older can help them get used to the idea of trying it themselves. Let’s face it, if they aren’t going to eat it this time around it may as well not be wasted and could be an opportunity to use senses to touch, smell, play with and get used to the new food.
If you have a fussy eater, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day and baby steps will get you progress without the stress that trying to get veg into your fussy eater can create at mealtimes. Putting a new food alongside regular favourites at mealtimes to expose them to the new item can be a great way to take a first step. I know it is really frustrating for you if your child flatly refuses to try it but try not to make it into a problem. Children are highly sensitive to any negative or stressful responses and can reinforce their stubbornness. By saying to yourself “ok, today is not the day but tomorrow might be”. Try getting your child involved with meal preparation by getting them to handle, chop, touch new foods so they get used to seeing it and try again another day.
Gut-brain connection and ADHD
ADHD adults and children often have gut problems constipation, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and pains. This could be due to a more sensitive gut in these children due to food sensitivities and/or imbalanced bacteria which I commonly see. Considering that “safe” foods that your child enjoys are often simple carbohydrates which certain species of bacteria/yeast/parasites love and feast on. Candida is a good example of this which can create inflammation in the gut leading to yeast infections that can become systemic. An inflamed gut then becomes leaky as the enterocytes (cells lining the gut wall) come apart and proteins enter the blood stream creating an immune response. You can read more about leaky gut here.
I always aim to help firstly by rebalancing gut bacteria and removing bacterial overgrowth using diet/lifestyle and sometimes with specific probiotics, prebiotics, and nutrients which re-balance the gut microbiome to calm the gut resulting in improved digestion, absorption of nutrients so that they can reach the brain to create neurotransmitters.
An added layer of problems can occur with food intolerances/sensitivities. Common culprits can be gluten and dairy but can also come from some unexpected foods that are actually very good for us. An example could be apple, pear, onion, garlic. These foods are high in fermentable starches and can be a sign that things are out of balance in the gut. You can learn more about Fodmaps here.
Nutritional deficiencies are common in ADHD including and not restricted to iron, vitamin D, magnesium, omega-3, B vitamins and zinc. There are many studies showing that children with these deficiencies have moderate to severe ADHD and can see huge improvements in behaviour, focus and mood with supplemental support. Finding deficiencies can be done through functional tests that can often be arranged and sent to your home address or by asking your GP.
Another very common deficiency is iron deficiency anaemia. Checking blood serum ferritin levels can be a valuable tool in supporting your child. Low ferritin levels were shown to be highly correlated with ADHD symptoms. Furthermore, undiagnosed low iron levels for longer than 10 years resulted in long lasting effects on brain function.
I often recommend and provide testing alongside nutritional counselling through a private one to one consultation where diet, lifestyle, testing and supplements can be thoroughly explored. Contact me.
Constipation and ADHD
Chronic constipation is a common symptom of ADHD due to this imbalance in the gut and poor gut motility. I have many ways to approach this but won’t know which is the best way until we work together over a zoom one to one consultation. However, some easy wins can be to include more fibre at each meal gently with fruit including the skin such as apples/pears with breakfast or as a snack and adding flaxseed or chia seed to smoothies or porridge and adding an extra serving of vegetables such as peas or sweet potato fries with dinner.
A gut reset is often the best way to help support someone with ADHD to remove troublesome gut symptoms and improve the bi-directional flow of messaging that occurs between the gut and brain. This can often be surprisingly easy and is the quickest way to improve things for you and your child with the specific, targeted guidance I offer.
If you would like a friendly chat to discuss any health concerns/health goals, please get in touch and arrange a free chat with me. Contact me
Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog is provided for information purposes only. The contents are not intended to amount to medical advice and you should not rely on any of the contents without first seeking advice from a professional. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this blog without first seeking individual advice through privately consulting with Evie Whitehead registered, qualified, Nutritional Therapist. dipION, mBANT, CNHC. Evie Whitehead disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents.