Diet, Nutrients, and ADHD

By Amanda Fey, ND

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most common behavioral disorder in children, estimated to affect between five to ten percent of children and three to six percent of adults, according to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association. Children with ADHD tend to be hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive.

Not everyone who is overly hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive has ADHD. Since most people answer out of turn, are distracted easily, and become disorganized, how can specialists tell if the problem is specifically ADHD?

Health care providers can diagnose ADHD with the help of standard guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The behaviors must create a real handicap in at least two areas of a person’s life such as in the schoolroom, at home, or in social settings. Therefore, someone who shows some symptoms but whose schoolwork or friendships are not impaired by these behaviors would not be diagnosed with ADHD. Nor would a child who seems overly active on the playground but functions well elsewhere receive an ADHD diagnosis.

The cause of ADHD remains unknown. However genetics and biological factors which affect neurotransmitter activity in the brain are influential. From a holistic point of view, food additives and food allergies, environmental allergens, nutritional deficiencies, and heavy metal toxicities such as lead, aluminum, and mercury are all understood to contribute to the cause.

New research is now appearing that shows the link between consumption of food additives by children and ADHD. An online article published in The Lancet in September 2007 found that artificial food coloring and additives commonly located in children’s food exacerbate hyperactive behaviors in children.  The study consisted of 153 three-year old and 144 eight to nine-year old children. Analysis was based on observation, plus a computerized test of attention for the eight to nine-year old children. 

Depending on the child’s sensitivity, food additives cause biochemical imbalances in the body that strongly influence the way the brain functions. In the case of ADHD diagnosed children, it alters their behavior making them restless and/or distracted. There are more than 5,000 additives in our food supply; it is almost impossible to completely eradicate them from our diets. However, limiting the intake by preparing meals containing whole foods and by reading labels to identify and avoid ingredients shown to exacerbate symptoms can aid in reducing the severity of the symptoms.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are crucial to brain development and function. Increasing evidence indicates that deficiencies of these fatty acids might be associated with childhood developmental disorders including ADHD. Omega-3s are often lacking in our diets. Studies have indicated that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids helps in the management of the ADHD linked behavioral and learning difficulties. Food sources containing these essential fatty acids are fish such as salmon, halibut and trout and freshly ground flaxseeds, to name a few.

Supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids can also be used. A study reported in European Neuropsychopharmacology in February 2007 reported that omega-3 fatty acid is highly effective in treating children with ADHD. They supplemented children over eight weeks, and results indicated that participants experienced a 30-percent reduction in symptoms without side effects. Please note: caution should be used when buying omega-3 fatty acid supplements over-the-counter. Traces of heavy metals have been found in these supplements; therefore, high quality supplements indicating distillation processes should be obtained.

Iron deficiency has also been shown to contribute to the cause of ADHD. Low iron levels have been indicated in research to create abnormal dopamine synthesis in the brain yielding ADHD symptoms. A study published in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine showed that serum ferritin levels indicating iron stores in children ages four to 14 years old were abnormal in 84% of the children studied with ADHD. In addition, low serum ferritin levels were correlated with more severe ADHD symptoms and greater cognitive deficits. These results suggest that ADHD children may benefit from iron supplementation. 

If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, remember that pharmaceutical drugs aren’t the only solution available. Many scientific studies have proven that supplementing with important nutrients and improving children’s diets are extremely beneficial for children with ADHD. If your child is currently taking pharmaceutical medications for ADHD, natural medicine has been found by some families as a great complement to an overall multimodal treatment for ADHD symptoms.

Amanda H. Fey is a Naturopathic Doctor currently working at the Integrative Medicine Center,  For questions, she can be contacted at 607.275.9697.


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