Can an ADHD diet really work?

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a condition that we learn more about each year as increasing numbers of children and adults are diagnosed. ADHD symptoms can range from decreased motivation and awareness, to frequent talking, disorganization, and forgetfulness.

Children with ADHD or attention deficit disorder are also more likely to struggle with gastrointestinal issues. (1) Typically, these issues are accompanied by inflammation, which exacerbates the symptoms.

While many healthcare providers can be quick to prescribe medications to get behavior under control, study after study shows there is another approach. From supplementing essential nutrients to understanding underlying conditions, the treatment of ADHD is a multifaceted issue. A well-rounded, well-researched ADHD diet can be a catalyst for real progress in children and adults with ADHD.

As you take control of your diet and steer clear of inflammatory foods, you may be amazed at the progress you see due to you or your child’s ADHD diet.

As I noted in my original ADHD nutrition thesis in 2001, ADHD is a whole body disorder influenced by underlying biochemistry factors that diet and nutrition changes can improve. I’m so passionate about helping children pursue their full potential that I’ve created a nutrition course for parents – to make the most of this approach! Sign up today and learn how to boost your child’s diet in a way that nourishes hope.

The Gut-Brain-Body Connection in ADHD

Did you know that there is an entire second nervous system linked directly to your gut? It’s often referred to as your “second brain.” (2) In fact, children with ADHD are more likely than others to experience constipation and visit the doctor for bowel-related concerns, signs that the “second brain” isn’t functioning optimally. (3)

Micronutrient deficiencies are major contributors to this bowel issue (and vice versa), and are crucial for proper digestion. Also, for those struggling with depression linked to ADHD, getting the right micronutrients can boost overall mood and improve mental health. (4)

When our gut bacteria are out of alignment, referred to as microbiome dysbiosis, our brain and the rest of our body is too. Increasing evidence suggests that the gut microbiome helps us regulate our mood, behavior, and more. (5) Imbalanced gut bacteria can promote hallmark symptoms of ADHD. (6) This crucial factor can promote or alleviate ADHD symptoms, and is controlled almost exclusively by diet.

In fact, many conditions from periodontal disease to colorectal cancer can be triggered by this imbalance, and we can see many chronic conditions stemming from this dysbiosis. (7)

Could it be that an ADHD diet improving inflammation, getting proper nutrients, and balancing our microbiome is a better, more holistic option? (Spoiler: yes!)

ADHD: The Perfect Storm of Underlying Conditions

For years, ADHD was unfairly viewed as a personal shortcoming. In more recent times, we have come to understand the many, complicated factors that can lead to this diagnosis. An ADHD diagnosis may be an indicator of other health issues swirling beneath the surface.

For one, studies have shown that ADHD can be clearly linked to inflammation. (8) An ADHD diet that steers clear of inflammatory foods is a way to clear up some symptoms. This inflammation, coupled with microbiome dysbiosis, leads to poor gut health and digestion. The resulting digestive instability and inflammation can lead to mood swings and less ability to regulate behavior.

Findings also suggest that ADHD patients are likely to have immune dysfunction in addition to their condition. (9) Adding onto the list are studies showing a correlation between oxidative stress, or a lack of proper detoxification, and ADHD. (10) I noted during my thesis that this lack of detoxification and nutrients was a major component in ADHD symptoms.

This detoxification process is closely related to methylation, a vital bodily process that affects how genes are expressed (are they on or off?). Put simply, an impairment in the way the body expresses genes can cause genetic tendencies to become behavioral realities.

Poor methylation can lead to improper expression of SNPs, single nucleotide polymorphisms. This happens because the methylation process, which typically metabolizes vitamin B12 and folate into usable forms, must happen properly to produce glutathione. Your body needs glutathione to detoxify the body of harsh chemicals, heavy metals, and free radicals you’re regularly exposed to. Methylation is required for proper neurotransmitter activation, without it anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity may occur.

Sulfation is another bodily function that is often impeded in ADHD (or autism). A poor sulfation pathway doesn’t properly break down phenols like artificial colorings, salicylates, and phenolic amines.

Clearly, these underlying contributors can lead to ADHD, but its also promising that many of these factors can be addressed. Fortunately, recent research (including my own) shows that dietary modifications prove extremely effective in ADHD. ADHD diet changes can address these concerns on a deeper level than a pill.

Common Conditions with ADHD Related to Diet

Several health issues often present alongside an ADHD diagnosis, many of which have roots in poor dietary habits. These comorbid conditions include food allergies, environmental allergies, skin rashes, and sleep conditions. Many of these chronic health problems can be cleared up with the same dietary changes that an ADHD diet includes.

Food allergies are major contributors to inflammation, and artificial food coloring a leading culprit to ADHD as well.

An influential double-blind study in 3-year-old children found a strong negative effect of increased hyperactivity when the children were given food coloring and sodium benzoate. (11)

Artificial colors in food were also found to increase hyperkinesis (severe muscular and hyperactivity symptoms, most often diagnosed today as ADHD) in a groundbreaking study by Dr. Ben Feingold. (12) He went on to design a “Feingold diet,” an elimination diet that removes these food dyes and flavors. This healthy diet also recommends cutting out sugars and artificial sweeteners.

Other factors can be comorbid as well. Environmental allergies like hay fever can contribute to inflammation. Scientists are also starting to ask if the same neurological issues that cause sleep difficulty also play a part in ADHD. (13) And finally, conditions like rashes or eczema have shown a strong correlation to the disorder as well. Thankfully, all of these issues can improve by following an ADHD diet.

Eating Healthy with an ADHD Diet

Dietary changes are a sustainable solution compared to many ADHD treatment options offered, and can address many of the underlying and comorbid issues as well. A suitable ADHD diet for kids and adults follows these guidelines:

  • Eat organic foods. Ideally, look for locally grown produce and local meat that is not treated with antibiotics. Most major supermarkets also designate organic sections.
  • Avoid GMOs. Many processed products will indicate if they are GMO-free.
  • Eliminate sugar. Sugar can increase symptoms and feed underlying inflammation. Artificial foods, in particular, are frequently full of added sugars.
  • Stay away from food additives like dyes, colorings, synthetics, and preservatives. The aforementioned studies show the negative effect that additives can have on hyperactivity. In fact, the European Union recently placed major restrictions on many food dyes and additives because of their apparent dangers.
  • Avoid trans fats like those found in fast foods. These disrupt hormones, and in turn, brain function.

Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) does not recommend these same guidelines. Food products on the market today include a high sugar content. Even back in 2008, Americans were eating 60 extra pounds of sugar a year! (14) Unnatural chemical exposure to pesticides and environmental toxins make it especially imperative to read labels.

As we realize the link between food sensitivities, inflammation, gut health, and ADHD, it becomes clear that an ADHD diet is imperative. The following principles are helpful when using an ADHD diet to alleviate symptoms.

Organic Diet

It’s estimated that eating organically can cut pesticide levels by 80%. This is incredible news, since early exposure to pesticides in fruit and vegetables increases a child’s chances of developing ADHD. (15) In fact, pesticide exposure and ADHD issues are linked in a growing number of ways. (16)

If early exposure can contribute to the disorder, then certainly avoiding more of these chemicals could be helpful. Due to the lesser antioxidant levels found in people with ADHD, getting plenty of nutrient-packed meats and produce is key to bridge the gap. Making sure those foods are organic can decrease the negative side effects of pesticide ingestion while keeping these ingredients on the menu.

GMO-Free Diet

GMOs can be found everywhere we turn in an American supermarket aisle. We find these food imposters lurking in soy, corn, and meat fed with corn..

With the lack of evidence supporting GMO foods’ safety, it is smart to keep them out of your child’s already troubled digestive health. (17)

Bioindividual ADHD Diet Options

The principles above are solid nutrition principles generally good for everyone. There are also therapeutic diets that can further support healing. And these options are very individual. In my nutrition practice over the years, virtually everyone has needed a customized diet based on their “biochemical individuality.”

Here are some of the diets that are helpful for children with ADHD.

GFCFSF Diet (Gluten-free, Casein-free, Soy-free)

Gluten, casein, and soy are frequent perpetrators of ADHD symptoms.

Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are strongly associated with ADHD and eliminating gluten from the diet may alleviate symptoms drastically in some children. (18) Furthermore, the dysbiosis in your gut we mentioned earlier can contribute to gluten intolerance, which creates even more inflammation. All three of these potential ADHD triggering proteins may break down in the digestive system to a compound resembling morphine. Don’t know why your child is obsessed with bread or milk products? It could be that he or she is literally addicted to these foods. Eliminating these foods is no small feat — you’ll need to carefully look over food labels to ensure the foods you purchase and make are free of gluten, casein, and soy.

Allergy-Free Diet

Many other common foods may initiate allergic reactions in your children. In addition to gluten, casein, and soy, corn, eggs, nuts, and shellfish are common allergens.

I’ve been a huge fan of Doris Rapp’s “Multiple Food Elimination Diet” for decades, even including it in my ADHD thesis. Removing foods you suspect and adding them back in individually can help you determine which foods are causing a problem.

Try an elimination diet at home and see if you can isolate the food allergies/sensitivities affecting you or your child.

Low Salicylate and Low Histamine

Other surprising chemicals may be the culprit of your child’s behavior and learning challenges, namely salicylates and amines. Salicylates are derived from salicylic acid and can be found in fruit, vegetables, nuts, spices and honey. These naturally contain salicylates, but synthetic forms are also used in preservatives and over-the-counter medications.

Salicylate intolerance is, in part, due to the poor sulfation biochemistry we mentioned ealier. No matter the origin, salicylate sensitivity is more prevalent in those with food allergies and digestive issues — like individuals with ADHD. (19) Symptoms from salicylates include: hyperactivity, inattentiveness, irritability, aggression, and sleep challenges.

Furthermore, histamine intolerance (a type of amine) may be contributing to the inflammation and gut issues that can be concurrent with ADHD.

Histamine is a naturally occurring chemical in the body, and plays a large role in the process of inflammation. However, this chemical can build up in some individuals who have trouble breaking down this natural response. (20)

Many foods high in histamines are typically thought of as very healthy, like broths, fermented foods, and slow-cooked meats. However, in some people, dietary amines such as histamine can bring on allergic reactions, even including symptoms such as headaches, aggression, depression, and altered mental state. (21)

Grain-Free Diets

Various diets that eliminate grains (and other starches) may be useful for some children and adults with ADHD. This is due, in large part, to the fact that brain and gut health are so intricately connected. In many people, simple and complex carbohydrates found in grains can disrupt the gut microbiome and contribute to leaky gut symptoms, which share some similarities to ADHD.

Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD): By getting rid of double-sugars (disaccharides), for example, maple syrup, and starches (polysaccharides), including grains and potatoes from the diet, this plan is most effective for those who struggle to digest these foods. These “specific” carbohydrates are then eaten by yeast and bacteria, as in people with Crohn’s disease, and cause significant gastrointestinal damage. This diet can help to repair gut mucosa and eliminate some overgrowth of bacteria within the intestines. (22) It’s also less restrictive than other low-carbohydrate diets because monosaccharides like fruits, honey, and non-starchy vegetables are allowed.

GAPS Diet: This SCD variation eliminates the sugars and starches mentioned above, then adds fermented foods and homemade broths for added healing for the gut. Keep in mind, this includes foods that you would not include on a low salicylate/low histamine diet.

Paleo: Based on the concept of living more like our Paleolithic ancestors, this diet eliminates dairy, grains, and all processed sugars. This diet, in particular, has a great record of increasing the diversity of the gut microbiome. (23)

Keto: The ketogenic diet is also grain, starch and sugar-free, so it has many of the same benefits as the other grain-free diets. However, this diet goes much further to reduce carbohydrates. It is a very low carbohydrate, high fat diet. Whereas the other diets only limit certain carbohydrates, the keto diet limits all of them so that the body burns fat for energy instead of sugar/carbohydrates. This can have positive effects on metabolic and neurological function, particularly for certain individuals.  Emerging research indicates that a ketogenic diet may help with ADHD in animal models. (24) This seems particularly effective in those who experience ADHD with epilepsy comorbidity.

Low-Oxalate Diet

A low-oxalate diet has shown great promise in helping symptoms of ADHD. Oxalates are naturally occurring within the body and high levels can be found in many “healthy” foods: whole grains like buckwheat and quinoa, leafy greens such as spinach and swiss chard, and all types of nuts. Oxalates aren’t typically a major issue for those with a healthy gut, but can sometimes exacerbate many symptoms of ADHD.

Side effects of oxalates can include creating more of that dreaded oxidative stress. (25) Minerals, like calcium, can become bound to oxalate, leading to nutrient deficiencies as the minerals can no longer be absorbed. Reducing or eliminating oxalate intake can boost mineral absorption and aid in detoxification as it depletes the body of glutathione.

Based on what we’ve already covered, it’s very possible that a low-oxalate diet may decrease quite a few symptoms for individuals with ADHD.

Supplementing in ADHD

As you educate and empower yourself about how your dietary changes can positively influence your ADHD symptoms, be sure to include essential vitamins and nutrients in your diet.

The gut issues I’ve explained here often result in nutrient deficiencies because of poor absorption of essential vitamins and minerals. And certain gene variants can cause the need for larger amounts, or specific forms, of particular nutrients/supplements.

Even with the best of dietary plans, it’s possible you or your child can benefit from supplementation.

Some of these might include basic nutrients, like magnesium, vitamin B6, zinc, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin A, and vitamin D.

Especially in children, brain development and function requires healthy amounts of essential fatty acids. Specifically, I find that most children benefit from omega-3 fatty acids (especially because so many are deficient), which are crucial for healthy brain development, focus, and learning. Just from that description, I’m sure you can imagine that fish oil or other omega-3 supplements can be helpful in ADHD cases. I specifically recommend adding some into your child’s ADHD diet as you begin.

Other beneficial supplements might include more “designer” supplements that have a wider range of nutrients, possibly going beyond the basics. I’ll break these down in a later article, but those I’ve mentioned above are a great place to start.

Getting Started with an ADHD Diet

Adding in effective measures like organic foods may help you start to tackle underlying causes and symptoms of ADHD. Just as importantly, reducing or eliminating oxalates, gluten, casein, dairy products, soy, grains, salicylates, amines, additives, and pesticides may lower inflammation and comorbid issues.

As you address ADHD with diet, here’s what to do:

  • Understand that ADHD is not an isolated issue, but environmental, immune/allergenic, and gastrointestinal and dietary factors are involved.
  • Try a healthy gluten-free, dairy-diet, and soy-free diet, as you cut down on sugar
  • Eat organically, which will naturally cut down on GMOs and pesticide exposure.
  • Readjust the gut microbiome with probiotic and anti-inflammatory foods.
  • Supplement with vitamins, minerals, and fish oil to increase focus and brain development.

In Conclusion: ADHD Diet

When I wrote my thesis in 2001 roughly 7% of children had ADHD, today that number continues to increase to beyond 10%. An ADHD diet can play a major factor in helping or hurting the symptoms of this disorder, not to mention reducing comorbid conditions and addressing underlying causes.

If ADHD affects your family and you’d like to learn the specifics of improving your child’s behavior and learning through diet, be sure to sign up for my new course!

References

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  14. Welsh, J. A., Sharma, A. J., Grellinger, L., & Vos, M. B. (2011). Consumption of added sugars is decreasing in the United States–. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 94(3), 726-734. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21753067
  15. Kuehn, B. M. (2010). Increased risk of ADHD associated with early exposure to pesticides, PCBs. Jama, 304(1), 27-28. Abstract: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/186163
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  17. Hilbeck, A., Binimelis, R., Defarge, N., Steinbrecher, R., Székács, A., Wickson, F., … & Novotny, E. (2015). No scientific consensus on GMO safety. Environmental Sciences Europe, 27(1), 4. Abstract: https://pubag.nal.usda.gov/catalog/1202642
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  19. Raithel, M., Baenkler, H., Naegel, A., Buchwald, F., Schultis, H., Backhaus, B., … & Konturek, P. Significance Of Salicylate Intolerance In Diseases. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16247191
  20. Maintz, L., & Novak, N. (2007). Histamine and histamine intolerance. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 85(5), 1185-1196. Abstract: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/85/5/1185/4633007
  21. Wantke, F., Götz, M., & Jarisch, R. (1993). Histamine‐free diet: treatment of choice for histamine‐induced food intolerance and supporting treatment for chronical headaches. Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 23(12), 982-985. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10779289
  22. Cohen, S. A., Gold, B. D., Oliva, S., Lewis, J., Stallworth, A., Koch, B., … & Mason, D. (2014). Clinical and mucosal improvement with specific carbohydrate diet in pediatric Crohn disease. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition, 59(4), 516-521. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24897165
  23. Barone, M., Turroni, S., Rampelli, S., Soverini, M., D’Amico, F., Biagi, E., … & Candela, M. (2018). Gut microbiome response to a modern Paleolithic diet in a Western lifestyle context. bioRxiv, 494187. Abstract: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/494187v1
  24. Packer, R. M., Law, T. H., Davies, E., Zanghi, B., Pan, Y., & Volk, H. A. (2016). Effects of a ketogenic diet on ADHD-like behavior in dogs with idiopathic epilepsy. Epilepsy & Behavior, 55, 62-68. Abstract: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1525505015006289
  25. Lee, H. J., Jeong, S. J., Park, M. N., Linnes, M., Han, H. J., Kim, J. H., … & Kim, S. H. (2012). Gallotannin suppresses calcium oxalate crystal binding and oxalate-induced oxidative stress in renal epithelial cells. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 35(4), 539-544. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3910304/

Hi, I’m Julie Matthews, a Certified Nutrition Consultant, Author, and Published Researcher. I teach parents and practitioners that children with autism, ADHD, and related disorders can improve and heal, and that there’s hope for their children. Then I educate and empower them to make strategic dietary changes that positively affect children’s health, which in turn helps their learning and behavior. With 17 years of experience and my unique range of knowledge, from nutrition research and clinical experience to cooking in the kitchen for my own family, I’ve created a much-needed community for parents and practitioners looking to help children with autism live happy, healthy lives. Join us.

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