ADDRESSING ADHD WITH FOOD
“I feel so ADD!”
If you’ve ever had a moment of feeling distracted or unclear, it wouldn’t be surprising if you’d uttered that phrase before.
It’s become an adage, but both ADD, or rather, ADHD, the official, medical term for the condition — regardless of whether a patient demonstrates symptoms of hyperactivity.
(ADD is a now-outdated term that is typically used to describe inattentive-type ADHD, which has symptoms including disorganization, lack of focus, and forgetfulness)
ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ) is a medical diagnosis that manifest symptoms far and above a perceived inability to focus.
About 6.1 million children in the United States (9.4 percent) between ages 2 to 17 are estimated to have ever been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), according to a 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (1).
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. ADHD also affects many adults; an estimated 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD (2).
There is no lab test to diagnose either; diagnosis involves gathering information from parents, teachers and others, filling out checklists and having a medical evaluation (including vision and hearing screening) to rule out other medical problems. The symptoms are not the result of person being defiant or hostile or unable to understand a task or instructions.
People may experience aggression, excitability, fidgeting, hyperactivity, impulsivity, irritability, lack of restraint, or persistent repetition of words or actions, absent-mindedness, difficulty focusing, forgetfulness, problem paying attention, or short attention span, anger, anxiety, boredom, excitement, or mood swings, depression or learning disability (3).
So what’s a person to do if they, or their children are experiencing symptoms and suspecting ADHD?
The common sense course of action would be to see the doctor.
Which, if the doctor is one practicing a comprehensive approach such as Functional Medicine, may be extremely beneficial and holistic, taking into account all things that could contribute to both the causes and an optimal treatment plan for the patient.
If on the other hand, however, the physician runs a completely Western Medicine based clinic, may not offer as complete a protocol.
62% of the 6.1 million American children aged 2-17 with an ADHD diagnosis take ADHD medication (3), the majority of which are aged 6 to 11 years old. 30% take medication alone. 47% receive behavioral treatment, the majority of which are aged 2 to 5 years old (4).
And how many are receiving any sort of dietary intervention?
There does not appear to be data we can easily get our hands on; online search for any information in this vein led only to studies that offered children a multivitamin as part of their protocol.
Yet some of the very same ‘foods’ (if we even want to call them food) that are linked to increased rates of certain cancers, risk of Type II Diabetes and systemic inflammation are the very same foods that both a child or an adult would benefit from removing from their dietary regime (5).
At the very least, even some of medical websites we might deem as being mainstream acknowledge that at least reducing intake of some of the big, bad guys (candy, corn syrup, honey, sugar, flour, rice and potatoes) ‘can be beneficial’.
While it may be impossible to parse apart what percentage of symptoms come from environment, genetics and food, addressing the one thing that we have complete control over, the single thing with zero risk or side effects, what we eat, can prove to not only create dramatic improvements, but to create a sense of empowerment for both parent and child alike.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea that you may have to completely overhaul your family’s eating routines, there’s one simple thing you can do as step number one that may have a significant affect: drop the processed foods, especially sugar and vegetable oils.
One study concluded that the more sugar hyperactive children consumed, the more destructive and restless they became; another, indicated that high-sugar diets may increase inattention in some kids with ADHD (6).
Studies also suggest that a gluten-free diet improves ADHD symptoms significantly and that untreated celiac disease may predispose patients to mental and behavioral disorders such as ADHD (8.)
Research has shown that man-made chemicals found not only in hydrogenated oils but vegetable and grain (such as corn) oils can cause children without ADHD to be hyperactive and less focused (9).
The list may seem to go on and on; the simple way to cut to the chase is to mimic the foods our grandparents ate.
Foods rich in protein like properly sourced beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs can have beneficial effects on ADHD symptoms. Protein-rich foods are used by the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other (10).
Paleo (yes, that’s how we all used to eat) ? Yes.
A diet with omega-3s consistently lessens hyperactivity (11).
Finally, a diet rich in local, in season, organic leafy greens provides fiber, phytonutrients and a plethora of vitamins and minerals to create the perfect foundation for a plant-based (yes, an authentic paleo diet is in fact, mostly plants… not meat-heavy) approach to addressing ADHD.
When considering treatment for your child (or yourself), it’s important to note Western medication may not be without consequence. The risks of Ritalin, for example, one of the most common medications administered, include nervousness, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, weight loss, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or headache may occur (11).
Granted, each person, each patient and each circumstance is unique and by no means is this a message suggesting not to consider medication if it has been suggested.
Rather, a note of encouragement to look at the whole picture, and, as with every thing else in the health and wellness category that one may be looking to address, not looking at what is being eaten and where it is coming from is akin to building that house without a foundation.
A few years ago, I had the honor of being a part of a documentary about how what we are eating is making us as a society fat and sick; be sure to watch The Magic Pill (13) if you’ve not yet seen it, and take the chance to have a peek into a family dealing with, amongst many health concerns, ADHD in children.
Food is medicine; and it truly can heal.