Is ADHD Caused By Nutrient Deficiencies?

mood learning & behaviour nutrients & supplements

If you look at the research it looks like the short answer is, “could be, but might not be”. 

I’m pretty sure that’s not the answer you wanted to hear if your child has ADHD and you’re looking for a drug-free approach.

The good news is that in my clinical experience, insufficient nutrients almost always play a role in ADHD.

Usually nutritional insufficiency is secondary to:

  • a gut/absorption issue,
  • a picky eating issue, and/or
  • a genetic vulnerability

In this article, I want to dig into why ADHD research is so inconclusive, and why nutrients matter but a simple multivitamin might not do the trick.

I'll do that by looking at a recent review article in the journal Molecules called: Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper and Selenium Status in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

(You can read the study here).


The Influence of Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper, and Selenium on ADHD... Inconclusive Evidence?



This review study examined literature published between 2010-2020 looking at how these particular micronutrients may or may not contribute to ADHD (not ADD) in children (not adults).

The authors write, 

The observed associations between concentration levels of the elements Mg, Fe, Zn, Cu and Se and ADHD symptoms are contradictory. This is partly due to the heterogeneity and complexity of the disorder.

So, no conclusive evidence that these nutrients matter.

Now, if you’re familiar with my work at all you'll know that I'm working towards a time when the very first thing to be considered when a child starts to struggle with mood, learning or behavior is whether or not they have the nutritional building blocks they need to function. So let's go a bit deeper.

Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper, and Selenium contribute to a whole host of functions including:

  • energy production,
  • detoxification,
  • transport and function of serotonin and dopamine,
  • thyroid function,
  • digestion.

Breakdown in any one of those functions can affect mood, behavior, and ability to learn and focus, but according to these reviewers adding these nutrients didn't always improve function and ease ADHD symptoms in kids.

Why not?



Why are nutritional studies on ADHD inconclusive?


Studies looking at the impact of these and other nutrients on ADHD have been contradictory, which leaves us parents scratching our heads.

That last sentence in the quote above though, explains the inconclusive results: "this is partly due to the heterogeneity and complexity of the disorder"

Looking for a one-shot solution is, I think, why too many parents and doctors throw up their hands and stop considering nutritional intervention as a viable option for ADHD when in fact it is. 

They tried taking out gluten. It didn't help.

They tried adding zinc. They didn't notice a difference.

They tried cutting additives. It didn't work.

And then they look to the research and see no definitive answers there either. 


I’m not surprised though, because the heterogeneity and complexity of the disorder needs to be considered when taking a nutrition-based approach.

When parents try something and don’t see the effect they had hoped for, they mistakenly start to think "diet doesn't matter". 

But it does matter, even if ADHD is a genetic issue in your family.

You might just need to broaden your strategy.

(Related post: Can Changing A Child's Diet Help ADHD? )


What Is ADHD, Actually?


ADHD is a label given to a person when they exhibit a certain set of symptoms. The label tells us nothing about what is causing those symptoms, merely that those symptoms are there. 

There can be benefits to a diagnosis; it can facilitate access to educational resources or help explain behavior to teachers and friends or even to the child themselves.

But the next question I hope parents will ask is, 'ok so what’s contributing to those symptoms?' 

And then the even deeper question is, 'what can I do to ease the contributors to the symptoms?'

That’s the level I work at with the families when they follow our Roadmap To Resilient Kids; we look for stressors that are interfering with function and we use various strategies (including extra nutrients) to relieve that stress and bring the body back into a balanced state so it can function well.

Symptom resolution might not come from just one thing (though sometimes families do find one thing that moves the needle more significantly than any other, and sometimes that thing is nutrient supplementation).

More often than not, achieving their health goals requires a multi-pronged nutrition strategy.

(Sounds complex but don't worry... read the related post: How to move your kids from stressed to strength to learn about the approach we take).


Should Doctors Be Treating ADHD With Nutrients?


I think it's a viable starting point. After all, nutrients make the body and brain function. For some kids, focusing on foods that contain nutrients like Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper, and Selenium and using nutritional supplements is a game changer. 

Getting more nutrients in is almost always where I start with my clients.

But I can see why most parents don't leave the average doctor's office with a bottle of nutritional supplements. There's more to the story.

About iron and zinc for example (two nutrients that are often considered to be contributors to ADHD), the authors of this review go on to say, 

As a trend, lower ferritin and zinc levels can be observed. However, this correlation is not causative, as illustrated by placebo-controlled trials reporting conflicting evidence on the efficacy of supplementation. 

Well, conflicting evidence on the efficacy of supplementation is exactly what I would expect. Why? Because no two bodies are the same.

Two kids with ADHD symptoms might have different nutritional deficiencies. They also might respond differently to supplementation due to differences in their genetics and their digestion. They might have been given a different form of the same supplement. They will even respond to supplements differently depending on the amount of stress they were under when they took them.

The uniqueness of children makes it hard to treat ADHD with nutrients if what you’re looking for is a blanket protocol that fits all kids.

So I can see why, if they don't have time or expertise to take an individualized approach, doctors don't typically use nutrients as a tool for treatment. 

But that doesn't mean you can't.


No Two ADHD Kids Are The Same


Your child’s behavior might fit the same diagnostic category as their friend, but each child has a unique set of factors that drive that behavior. 

The needle-mover for your child’s ADHD might be to replenish nutrients. For your neighbor’s child the game changer might be taking out foods that are causing stress and inflammation.

For the kid who lives down the road it might be more about relieving their chronic constipation, sleep problems and balancing out their gut bugs. 

We have to remember the heterogeneity and complexity of the disorder.

We have to remember the heterogeneity and complexity of children. 


So can nutrients treat ADHD?


This review study discusses the impact of Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper and Selenium specifically, and each section ends with some version of, "we're not sure".

I think I've explained why their conclusions are so inconclusive.

If you're new to drug-free approaches to ADHD and are someone who likes diving down research rabbit holes, it offers some good solid paths to follow. Follow the links in the study and here on my blog to learn about the impact of:

  • other nutritional deficiencies, 
  • oxidative stress, 
  • metal toxicity, 
  • decreased methylation of relevant genes, 
  • cerebral hypoperfusion, 
  • mitochondrial dysfunctions,
  • digestive problems,
  • the microbiome,
  • sleep issues,
  • trauma,
  • food sensitivities 

It's unlikely any nutritional study is going to give you a definitive treatment solution for your child’s ADHD. So don’t look for that.

If you’re waiting for a study that tells you definitively that your child’s ADHD will resolve if you give them 30mg of zinc, or 1000mg of fish oil, or 5000IU of vitamin D, or if you’re looking for a study to confirm for you that if you take out gluten or additives your child will no longer have ADHD, you’ll be waiting a long time. 

I don’t expect we’ll ever see a study like that.

There will always be “conflicting evidence” because your child's body is a complex ecosystem and because there are multiple possible drivers of the condition. 

But that does not mean you can’t make some very solid progress by examining the body’s major pillars of function and adding nutrients, removing irritating foods, and improving gut health to support them. 

Nutrients can help ADHD. I see it all the time in the families that follow our Roadmap.

But there might be more to your solution than a simple supplement.

If it sounds too complicated and you don't want to go down the research rabbit hole and instead just want a system watch this. It outlines ours. 


Related Posts:

Nutritional Approaches to ADHD - where do you start?

Is ADHD a Methylation Problem?

Top Brain Nutrients for Your Kids

What's Really Going On With Our Amazing Kids

Can Changing A Child's Diet Help ADHD?

How to move a child from stressed to strength


Reference: Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper and Selenium Status in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) 



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

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® 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’s 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.