I think there is little doubt at this point that good nutrition is critical to brain health. But can nutritional support reverse ADHD symptoms? Let me lay this out for you...
Good nutrition matters to our mental health. Nutritional intake in childhood has been shown to impact mental health, depression, and anxiety later in life; depression has been lifted by shifting diet (source); even some cases of serious psychiatric illness like bipolar and schizophrenia have been treated with medically supervised high dose nutritional supplements and other diet changes (source and source).
Nutritional supplementation is not a cure for everyone's ADHD; that's not what I'm claiming here. While in some cases ADHD symptoms have resolved when deficiencies are corrected (source) some kids experience no difference when taking supplements. But it's a mistake to dismiss them altogether (here's why some kids need supplements), and it's also a mistake to think about them as a stand-alone treatment. Let's remember that there's more to good nutrition than supplements (if you are ready to go deeper into the impact of nutrition on brain health and behaviour, watch this video post).
But what our kids eat matters to their brains. In fact, in 2015 an international collaboration of academics published a consensus position statement in The Lancet urging the medical community to see that "diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology" (source).
They continued... "Robust associations have been established between nutritional quality and mental health, with the bulk of this evidence indicating a protective effect of healthy diets on depressed mood, and the newest research supporting a detrimental impact of unhealthy diets on the mental health of young people and adults." (source)
With 1 in 5 kids struggling in school, with the rate of suicide now being at an average of 11 suicides per day (yes you read that right!), and given the connection between ADHD, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues (source and source) we can no longer brush aside good nutrition as a way to help our struggling kids feel better.
Good nutrition is a non negotiable if you want resilient mental and physical health because nutrients drive every single one of our biological functions. If you think of the body as a business, nutrients are the workers; if they don't come to work, nothing gets done.
Here's one example of how nutritional input can play an important role in ADHD treatment...
A study from 2011 showed that when 30mg of zinc was added alongside stimulant medication, the dosage of meds was able to be reduced by 37% (source). This is great news since Health Canada recently issued stronger warnings about the risks of suicide associated with stimulant drugs used for ADHD (source).
Why can zinc help? Well, the study didn't ask that question, but since Zinc is involved in the creation of dopamine, and low dopamine is what some of these meds are trying to address, it's not that surprising that the two can work hand-in-hand.
Interestingly, zinc is also involved in the creation of many of our digestive enzymes without which we can't extract usable nutrients from our food. Got a picky eater? Got a child who won't eat meat because it doesn't feel good to them? Got a child with no appetite? Reflux? Nausea? Bloating? Zinc deficiency can play a role in these issues, leading your child into a vicious cycle of nutritional deficiency and adding to worsening behaviour.
We also have studies to show us that deficiencies in vitamin D and essential fatty acids are common in kids with ADHD. Again, not terribly surprising since we know that both those nutrients help to bring down inflammation and kids with ADHD tend to have higher inflammation markers (source).
But let's get practical.... where do you start with nutritional intervention for ADHD?
If your beautiful child whom you love with a force that is unimaginable (even though they manage to push every single one of your trigger buttons) is hyper, inattentive, combative, frustrated, hitting kids at school and struggling to succeed, it can be hard to know where to start to help them.
Here's my advice. Start with a perspective of nourishment...
Your child needs premium fuel and lots of it. The place to start is not by taking all kinds of things out of the diet... it's to focus your energy on getting the cleanest, best, whole food nutrition into them you can.
From there you can use supplements to fill the gaps. Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D and zinc could be places to start, though you should talk it over with someone who understands the impact of nutrients on the brain so you get the right doses (or see my Advanced Nutrition For The Brain e-course here).
Sure we need to consider food allergies and other forms of irritation. No question that they can also play a role in ADHD. But starting with food restriction is likely to end in frustration. Instead start with nourishment.
Good nutrition will support all the other therapies you are using to help your kids; the IEPs, ABA, medication, vision therapy, occupational therapy... at the foundation of it all, your child needs premium fuel and lots of it. I discuss specific recommendations, brands, dosages and research in my Advanced Nutrition For The Brain course (learn about it here or send me a message). It's a great place to start to help your ADHD child feel and function better.
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Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, and the creator of The Resilience Roadmap™ - a systematic process to help parents help their kids feel and function better. Her book and online resources have helped families in 44 countries improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by helping them find hidden stressors and fit the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to bring an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com
If you want to use a functional nutrition approach to manage your child's mood, behavior and learning struggles but you don't want to commit to major family changes, you'll want to check this out.
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