Can Changing A Child's Diet Help ADHD?

mood learning & behaviour

Some people think ADHD is not even a thing. That it's just kids being kids.

I'm not one of those people.

I have worked with enough kids who struggle with impulsivity, attention, focus and memory - first as a teacher and now as a nutritionist - to know it's a real struggle for many kids.

But can changing a child's diet help resolve ADHD symptoms? Here's what I see....

While there is no "ADHD diet", there are many things parents can do with diet and lifestyle that can help turn around ADHD-like behaviors in children so they can blossom into their best selves.


Here's why changing a child's diet ease symptoms of ADHD


Because the body and the brain are connected.

As you improve the health of the body you improve the function of the brain. And there's nothing more powerful for improving health than attending to diet.

Better nutrition builds a healthier body which builds a healthier brain. So get excited about what's possible for your child! 


OK. So What Should You Do?


I wish there was one thing I could tell you to give your ADHD child to make it all better, but it doesn't work that way.

I take parents through a four-phase process of building a healthier body so we can build a healthier brain. You gotta work the system.

Here's the system we use in our Resilience Roadmap...

1. Vision map - articulate exactly what you want for the health of your family and develop unwavering confidence that you will achieve some version of it. Change is hard and it's your vision that will get you through challenges.

2. Nourish - get more nourishment into your child. Use food as much as you can and add targeted supplements if you need them to make sure all the building blocks are available for the body to function at its best.

3. Reduce Stress & Irritation - carefully remove what's causing extra stress and inflammation but without risking nutritional deficiencies or stressing out relationships. Sources of stress might include food, environmental chemicals, extra stress, mold, and hidden infections.

4. Fortify The Gut Ecosystem - make sure digestion is working well from tip to tail and establish a positive gut-brain connection.

Can you see now why adding in a single supplement like fish oil or taking out a certain food like gluten might not have solved the problem? The body and brain are more complex than that.

You gotta work the system.


But Isn't ADHD a Genetic Condition?


Well, yes and no.

There are certain genes and variants that, when present and turned on, make a child more prone to developing neurological symptoms. There does seem to be a genetic factor for ADHD in some cases.

But we know from Epigenetic research that, to quote Dr Kenneth Bock, "genes might load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger".

That means that even if someone inherits a gene that predisposes them to a particular condition like ADHD, environmental factors that we can control (like food, sleep, chemical exposure, sugar and stress) determine how that gene will function.

In utero and early childhood are critical times for genetic expression, and nutrition plays a key role.

It's helpful to have a child's genetic blueprint as a jumping-off point because it gives us a read on their particular vulnerabilities and tendencies when they're under stress. But your genes are certainly not your destiny!


What If It's Not Actually ADHD?


Interesting question! After all, ADHD is a subjective diagnosis. Typically a child is put through a series of tasks and observed. If they exhibit a certain set of symptoms they get the label.

But there are nutrition and lifestyle-related factors that can exacerbate or even mimic symptoms of ADHD. These factors are independent of, but might be related to ADHD genes.

Here are some of them:

Nutrient deficiencies.

Research has revealed some common nutritional deficiencies in many people who have ADHD. We don't have enough research to make blanket recommendations yet, but particularly common are deficiencies in nutrients that feed neurotransmitter and hormone pathways, support mitochondrial and immune health, and contribute to the methylation cycle. These include iron, vitamin D, B6, B12, omega fatty acids, zinc and magnesium.

These deficiencies can be the result of poor intake or they can also result from poor digestion or absorption or metabolic imbalances that render the nutrients unusable for cells (that's often the genetic aspect, in which case nutritional supplements are extremely helpful).

Excessive Inflammation.

For a variety of reasons that differ from person to person, children with behavioral, learning or mental health challenges tend to have a higher toxic burden than most that leads to excessive inflammation. Sources could be the accumulation of metals and environmental contaminants, but also infection and internally generated chemicals coming from pathogenic organisms in the gut and the process of metabolism.

This irritation can interfere with nutrient absorption, keep the nervous system stuck in overdrive, and can generally interfere with function.

Imbalances in the gut microbiome

There is now a vast body of research connecting the health of the digestive tract with the function of the brain. When probiotic gut flora are not healthy pathogenic bacteria and fungi are allowed to proliferate. This causes damage to the gut lining and creates neurotoxins that can affect brain function, behavior, mood and learning.

Imbalances in the gut flora also interfere with the synthesis and function of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin & GABA.

Food Reactions.

When food is not digested properly the nervous and immune systems can become activated to keep us safe. A number of inflammatory chemicals are released when this happens which can lead to extremely diverse symptoms including depression, skin problems, respiratory issues, poor focus & hyperactivity.

Over 200 symptoms have been associated with food reactions, some of which overlap with symptoms of ADHD.

Blood Sugar Instability.

A diet high in carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates like flour and sugar), can cause blood sugar swings and hormonal shifts which can contribute to ADHD behavior.

For a variety of reasons (including but not limited to food sensitivity, gut issues, poor sleep, infection and nutritional deficiencies) some children are more sensitive to blood sugar fluctuations. They tend to do better on a diet higher in fat, fiber and protein.


The Bottom Line....


Myriad hidden stressors inside the body contribute to symptoms like spaciness, impulsivity, fatigue, hyperactivity, memory problems, poor sleep.... you just have to know what to look for.

Whole-body natural approaches to ADHD are available and I want you to know about them so you can make some confident decisions about how to move forward in ways that feel good to you. 

Applying evidence-based dietary principles according to individual needs reduces irritation & inflammation in your child while maximizing supportive nutrients.

When we do that, symptoms become manageable, medical treatments and other therapies often become more effective, and your child can function their very best.

That's What Raising Resilience Is All About


Related Posts:

Nutritional Approaches To ADHD: Where Do You Start?

Moving A Child From Stressed To Strength

Top Brain Nutrients For Your Child

Top Tips To Cut Sugar Cravings

Micronutrients For Your Child's Brain

6 Ways To Improve Digestion In Your Kids

The Top Mistake Parents Make When Changing Their Child's Diet

The Foundational Trifecta For Resilient Health

The Biology Of Behavior (video)


About Jess Sherman, FDN-P, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition¬ģ Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist and a trauma-sensitive Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids.¬†She is also a teacher, with a Master's degree in education. Her¬†Calm & Clear Kids¬†introductory course,¬†her Amino Acids (with kids!) Quickstart program, and her signature¬†Roadmap to Resilient Kids,¬†¬†along with her book¬†Raising Resilience,¬†have¬†helped families¬†in at least 44 countries¬†improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, and mood disorders and reduce¬†their reliance on medication.¬†She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work¬†with families, and she¬†continues to¬†bring an understanding of the Nourishment Needs and Biological Stress to the mainstream conversation about children‚Äôs mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses, workshops and as a contributor to print and online magazines.¬†

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The content on this website and in the guides and courses offered here is meant to provide information so that parents can make informed decisions and discuss these issue with their health care teams. It is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or individualized care.