ADHD: Is What You Eat Slowing You Down?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD ) is a mental health condition that includes a combination of continual problems involving the inability to pay attention, the tendency toward impulsive behaviors, and the exhibiting of extreme restlessness of mind or movement (hyperactivity). It affects an estimated 3% to 5% of children and adults in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, ADHD is among the most common neurobehavioral disorders of childhood. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood, and more than half of these children carry this condition into adulthood.
Those who seek treatment for ADHD are often prescribed a combination of medications and behavioral therapy. The doctor may even recommend an “ADHD diet,” but if this recommendation is made, it will be mentioned almost as an afterthought. Medical doctors rarely mention the importance of diet over drugs, especially when it comes to ADHD.
But do you know that what you eat — the quality of your diet — can affect symptoms of ADHD and that certain foods can improve your symptoms? Did you know that these foods can slow your brain down, allowing you to make better decisions?
It’s true. In fact, studies show certain foods can be as powerful as medications in calming and slowing down the racing minds and bodies of those with ADHD. But before revealing these ADHD superfoods — and why they work so well — we should discuss the unique characteristics of ADHD.
Though everyone loses focus or is hyperactive at times, those with ADHD exhibit an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity severe enough to interfere with everyday life and development. Those who suffer from ADHD may exhibit just a few symptoms of the disorder, and these symptoms may range from mild to severe. Here is a brief overview of the general meaning of the three aspects of ADHD: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
- Inattention: The person has difficulty paying attention. Those with inattentive ADHD are often misdiagnosed as having a learning disorder. They are the ones who in school quietly stare out the window while not completing their schoolwork. They are the ones often accused of daydreaming too much. These behaviors are not caused by a lack of understanding of the subject; rather, the person lacks the ability to settle their mind on a single topic long enough to successfully complete a task.
- Hyperactivity: This person is always in motion, never seeming to slow down, and constantly talking or fidgeting. Often has difficulty completing tasks.
- Impulsivity: This person often takes risks without thinking about the consequences. They also make impulsive decisions, and they typically have the inability to delay gratification.
Here are examples of some of the most common behaviors for inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity.
Symptoms of inattention in ADHD often include:
- Inability to organize tasks
- Overlooking details
- Making careless mistakes
- Mind wandering during a conversation
- Problems concentrating on lectures at school or meetings at work
- Easily sidetracked by minor distractions
- Avoidance of anything requiring perceived difficult mental effort, especially if it requires sustained attention
- Frequently losing things
Symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity in ADHD often include:
- Being in constant motion
- Standing or walking even when they are required to stay seated, ie, in the classroom
- Constantly interrupting others
- Cutting in line/inability to wait their turn
- Talking loudly
- Finish other’s sentences, or yell out an answer before the question has been completed
- Inability to be quiet, especially in situations where silence is expected
Risk factors for ADHD
The exact cause of ADHD is not known. However, research shows that a number of factors may contribute to this condition. Here are a few of them.
- Premature birth
- Family history of ADHD
- Exposure to environmental toxins at a young age or during pregnancy
- Brain injuries
- Alcohol use, cigarette smoking, or drug use during pregnancy
Traditional treatments for ADHD
There is no known cure for ADHD. The symptoms of this condition have traditionally been managed with a combination of medications and behavioral therapy. Here are some of these treatments.
The most common type of medication prescribed for ADHD is stimulants. Though it may seem strange to prescribe stimulants for a hyperactivity disorder, these medications work because they increase levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. Both of these brain chemicals are essential for increasing attention.
The most common stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD are Ritalin and amphetamines, such as Adderall. These medications are quick-acting and have been proven to increase focus and concentration. They are also well-tolerated by most patients. But that doesn’t mean they don’t cause any side effects.
Like most medications, ADHD drugs come with a long list of side effects, which include:
- Shaky feeling
- Sleep problems
- Stomach upset
- Increased blood pressure
In addition to stimulant medication, doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressants to treat symptoms of ADHD. Antidepressants that affect the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine have been found to be especially effective.
Behavioral therapy is a type of therapy designed to help change behavior. It assumes all behavior is learned and that negative behaviors can be replaced by learning new, positive behaviors. There are specific behavior therapy techniques that are especially effective in treating ADHD.
- Positive reinforcement: Providing rewards or praise in exchange for desired behavior. Example: The child finishes dinner and is allowed to take the dog for a walk.
- Time-out: Removing access to desired activity because of misbehavior. Example: The child screams at Mom and, as a result, must sit in the corner of the room for 10 minutes.
- Response Cost: The child loses privileges because of undesirable behavior. Example: Child loses computer privileges for not completing chores.
There are also different forms of behavioral therapy, such as cognitive therapy and mindfulness therapy, which are also useful treatments for ADHD.
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The goal of cognitive behavior therapy is to recognize your beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes so that you can get a clear idea of any damaging, false beliefs. Only when you have a clear idea of any false beliefs can you change them. Cognitive behavior therapy is a combination of cognitive therapy and behavior therapy.
- Mindfulness therapy. This type of therapy is similar to cognitive behavior therapy in that it teaches you to notice your own thoughts as just thoughts without identifying with them. It’s being aware of what’s happening in the present moment without judgment.
Though these two types of therapies – medications and behavioral therapy — do work, there is a problem. Up to 17.5% of children with ADHD surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control were not receiving any treatments for their condition. Could this be because medications and psychological therapy are too expensive? Is there a better, cheaper way to treat ADHD?
Yes, there is.
Treating ADHD With Diet
Treating ADHD with diet is a viable option. In fact, studies show certain foods can optimize brain function, improving focus and decreasing hyperactivity. By contrast, deficiencies in certain nutrients can worsen symptoms of ADHD. Here are a few nutrients that can worsen ADHD symptoms if levels are too low.
Zinc helps the digestive system function properly, supports the immune system, and helps maintain proper metabolism. The mineral zinc is also a powerful nutrient for the brain. It regulates dopamine in the brain, which can make Ritalin and similar ADHD drugs work better by making the brain more responsive to dopamine. Many studies show a correspondence between low levels of zinc and inattention.
Foods that contain high levels of zinc include meat, seeds, nuts, shellfish, and eggs.
Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body, helping convert blood sugar to energy, and supporting the immune system. Iron is also a key mineral for making dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Indeed, low iron levels have been associated with cognitive problems and extreme ADHD symptoms. Foods that contain high levels of iron include liver, turkey, spinach, and shellfish.
Magnesium is responsible for bone formation, calcium absorption, and heart health. Magnesium is another mineral necessary for making neurotransmitters in the brain. Magnesium has been shown to soothe brain activity, which can moderate hyperactivity. Foods that contain high levels of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, spinach, cashews, sunflower seeds, and avocados.
Vitamin B-6 is responsible for healthy cognitive function, supporting eye health, and promoting healthy skin. It is also an important vitamin for those who suffer from ADHD. Studies show a deficiency of vitamin B-6 decreases levels of dopamine in the brain, which promotes inattention. Providing adequate amounts of vitamin B-6 increases focus and attention. Foods that contain high levels of vitamin B-6 include salmon, chicken, beef, bell peppers, and asparagus.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s have been found to be crucial in proper brain cell function. Several studies have shown omega-3s to be effective at reducing symptoms of ADHD. One such study in Sweden found that daily doses of omega-3 fatty acids reduced ADHD symptoms by 50%. Foods that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna, spinach, grass-fed beef, and chia seeds.
Foods that improve symptoms of ADHD
Studies show these foods can improve symptoms of ADHD.
Increasing your intake of high-quality protein is one of the best ways to improve your symptoms of ADHD.
Increasing your intake of protein helps prevent blood sugar spikes. This is because it takes over three hours for your body to digest and assimilate protein. A slower digestion process means slower absorption into the bloodstream, which prevents sharp rises in blood sugar levels. This helps reduce hyperactivity.
Your body also uses protein to make neurotransmitters, which help brain cells communicate with each other.
If you want to make sure you’re getting enough protein, try to eat a serving of nutrient-dense protein at every meal. Egg whites, grass-fed beef, and nonfat Greek yogurt are great sources of protein. You can also add SANE Clean Whey Protein Powder into a green smoothie or eat SANE Vanilla Cashew Protein/Meal Bars.
Like protein, fiber slows the absorption of foods into the bloodstream. But unlike protein, your body cannot digest fiber. It just hangs around in your gastrointestinal tract until it’s ready to be eliminated. But in the meantime, it keeps all the other foods you’ve eaten with the fiber from being quickly digested and absorbed. This prevents blood sugar surges that often cause hyperactivity.
Want to be sure you’re getting enough fiber? Eat at least 10 servings of non-starchy vegetables per day. Either fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables at every meal or blend them into green smoothies. Kale, broccoli, bell peppers, asparagus, carrots, and spinach are great choices to add to your dinner menu.
Choose non-starchy vegetables rather than grains, even whole grains. This is because starchy carbs, even the whole-grain variety, cause surges in blood sugar levels. This increases the risk of hyperactivity.
Foods to Avoid
There are also a few food groups you should try to avoid as much as possible.
- Sugary Foods: Refined sugar causes blood sugar surges that contribute to mental and physical hyperactivity. Many studies have shown a correlation between excess sugar consumption and inattention. Another study showed the more sugar that hyperactive children consumed, the more restless and destructive they became.
- Processed Foods: Many studies show certain ingredients in processed foods — such as food coloring and preservatives — may worsen ADHD symptoms in some children. To avoid this problem, avoid heavily processed foods as much as possible. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store where meats and produce are displayed. Stay away from the center aisles where processed foods, laden with artificial colorings and preservatives, are sold.
- Grains: Studies suggest wheat, corn, and other grains cause inattention in children. This worsens the symptoms of ADHD. Nutritionists attribute this effect to possible food allergies.
The SANE way to treat ADHD
One of the best ways to treat the symptoms of ADHD is to eat a SANE-balanced meal. The 4 SANE food groups are non-starchy vegetables, nutrient-dense proteins, whole-food fats, and low-fructose fruits.
At every meal, fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, a fourth of your plate with nutrient-dense protein, and the remainder of your plate with whole-food fats. A SANE balanced meal provides the nutrition your body needs while keeping blood glucose levels stable. Such a balanced meal also addresses any nutritional deficiencies that contribute to the symptoms of ADHD.
Going SANE is a tasty way to help treat the symptoms of ADHD. Try it and see!
Next step: treating ADHD with SANE
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