Are you interested in nutrition tips for reducing symptoms of ADHD?
Want to know which nutrients may be helpful with ADHD?
This information is for educational purposes only. As with any medical advice, always check with your doctor or health care professional for personal and age-appropriate recommendations.
What is ADHD?
Do you or someone you know have:
- Short attention span? a challenging time listening, completing tasks, losing items.
- Hyperactivity? squirming and fidgeting constantly, talking all the time, cannot sit quietly.
- Impulsivity? Interrupts constantly, irritable, angry or aggressive.
Healthcare professionals use the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to help diagnose ADHD.
Did you know that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder affects about 11% of children and about 4% of the adult population has ADHD (1)?
Why is nutrition important in ADHD?
Research at Harvard shows that when you eat healthy foods, behaviors are better (2).
Serotonin is important to help regulate mood, appetite, and sleep. A large amount of serotonin is made in the gastrointestinal tract therefore, your digestive health is important for your mental health. Also, many vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) are required by the body to support good health (3).
Important nutrition tips
Some of the basic guidelines of an ADHD nutrition plan include limiting processed foods, sugar, dairy, gluten and foods with dye. We will go beyond these suggestions.
Food Sensitivity Elimination to Reduce Inflammation
Eliminating foods may help reduce symptoms in many people with ADHD (4, 5, 6). There have been several studies showing improved behavior when on an elimination diet. Gluten, dairy and food dyes seem to be common offenders.
I prefer using a food sensitivity test called MRT® (Mediator Release Test). MRT measures sensitivity to 170 foods and chemicals. From your results, we create a personalized anti-inflammatory nutrition plan (www.nowleap.com). MRT and the LEAP nutrition plan are very helpful in reducing many symptoms.
Food allergies are different from food sensitivities, so it is important to know the difference. Food allergies involve the immune system specifically IgE antibodies. Think about an immediate allergic reaction with a peanut, egg or tree nut allergy. An allergist usually identifies an allergic reaction with a skin prick or blood test.
Food sensitivities also involve the immune system however, it is not IgE mediated meaning it does not involve IgE antibodies like in a peanut allergy. MRT is an indirect method of measuring mediators (such as histamine, prostaglandins, cytokines) released from white blood cells. MRT also measures chemical reactions (tyramine, solanine, dyes, MSG, caffeine, nitrates).
Food sensitivities often have a delayed reaction, so they are challenging to identify with a typical elimination diet.
Protein to Stabilize Blood Sugar
Protein is important because it stabilizes the blood sugar and helps maintain focus. Protein is also necessary to make neurotransmitters. Your body releases these neurotransmitters when you eat protein so for most people with ADHD, it is important to eat protein within 30 minutes of waking up. In the British Medical Journal is a study of 74 schoolchildren and their behaviors after eating a low glycemic index (GI) breakfast. The study reported that the low glycemic index breakfast improved mood and behaviors and may improve learning (7).
Good sources of protein for people with ADHD include beef, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts and seeds.
Many protein supplements are available including egg, pea, hemp and plant however, it is best to get protein from food sources.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids for Brain Health
The brain is made up of about 60% fat. A nutrient dense diet with healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocado and fish will boost focus and brain health.
These are essential fats for brain function, and we must get them from the diet.
Salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies are a few sources of omega 3’s. Some plant-based foods that are good sources include flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Supplements are available and contain a combination of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The most beneficial form for ADHD appears to be a higher percentage of EPA than DHA. Gummies and chewables usually do not have sufficient omega 3’s. The best forms are capsules or liquid (which can be put in juice or a smoothie).
Magnesium for Neurotransmitter Function
Magnesium participates in over 300 pathways in the body and it is necessary for proper neurotransmitter function. It is thought that people with ADHD may have lower magnesium levels (10,11). Studies show that magnesium (along with vitamin B6) reduces symptoms of ADHD (12).
Higher magnesium foods include pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, cashews, soybeans, chocolate, grass-fed dairy, and avocados.
There are many types of magnesium supplements available. Magnesium citrate is very kid friendly (it is helpful for constipation but if too much, it may have a laxative effect). My preferred forms are glycinate, malate, and L-threonate as they are tolerated and absorbed well. Magnesium threonate has recently been studied to help with learning and memory (13).
B Vitamins (B6, B9, B12) for Cognitive Function
B vitamins are water-soluble vitamins. B6 plays a role in over 100 enzymatic reactions in the body and plays a role in cognitive development. Vitamin B6 may help to raise serotonin levels and may help to improve behavior (14). Low levels of B6, B9 and B12 levels are often seen in people with ADHD and folate may be a risk factor (15, 16).
Sources of Vitamin B6 include chickpeas, salmon, tuna, chicken, turkey, and potatoes.
Folate (B9) is found in beef liver, spinach, asparagus, black-eyed peas, Brussels sprouts, avocado, and broccoli.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products so if someone is vegetarian or vegan, it is important to check B12 levels.
Pyridoxal-5-phosphate is the active form of vitamin B6 and helps transport minerals like magnesium across cell membranes. Methyl folate is well absorbed and important for individuals with the MTHFR mutation (17).
B12 is available in many forms including methylcobalamin, hydroxocobalamin, and adenosylcobalamin.
Zinc for Neurotransmitter Production
Zinc plays a critical role in the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Low zinc levels are often seen in children with ADHD and may affect ADHD symptoms (18).
Some foods high in zinc include oysters, beef, crab, lobster, pork, baked beans, and chicken.
Supplements contain many forms of zinc. Zinc picolinate may be better absorbed than other forms of zinc. Zinc carnosine may help protect the gut.
Probiotics for Gut Health
The research field of brain and gut health is rapidly growing as we see a positive relationship between the gut and mental health.
As Hippocrates said “All disease begins in the gut”. Scientists have discovered the relationship between the gut and the brain and called it the “gut-brain axis”. The bacteria in the gut affects our neurotransmitters and keeps them in balance. Several studies have shown that a healthy microbiome influences mental health.
In a study of 81 children (40 diagnosed with ADHD), zonulin was increased in the ADHD group and was associated with hyperactivity (19).
A recent study of the microbiome and ADHD showed unique gut bacteria linked to ADHD, increase in GI symptoms of constipation and flatulence and “that immune dysregulation in ADHD be associated with an altered microbiome, low-grade inflammation, and gastrointestinal dysfunction” (20).
70 people were studied for the effects of a probiotic yogurt or a probiotic supplement on mental health. The probiotic groups showed less stress, anxiety and depression (21).
Probiotic foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, pickles, and yogurt.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG was shown in a recent study to reduce the risk of neuropsychiatric disorders later in life (22). A summary of probiotics was published in Integrative Medicine in 2016 showing a literature review of probiotic strains and mental and neurological health. (23).
Phosphatidylserine to Improve Focus
Soy is a main source of phosphatidylserine as well as white beans, egg yolks and liver however, it may be challenging to get adequate amounts from food sources.
Phosphatidylserine supplements are made from soy or other plant sources and they have been studied for short term use. Check ingredients if you avoid soy.
Iron, the Mineral for Brain Development
Iron is important for people with ADHD as it plays an important role in neurotransmitter production. Lower iron levels (serum ferritin) are often seen in children with ADHD (26).
Heme iron foods are the best absorbed iron and include meats, poultry, and fish. Non-heme sources are fortified foods, vegetables, and legumes. Absorption of iron increases when taken with other foods high in vitamin C. Also, limit dairy products when eating foods high in iron as calcium can limit absorption. It is best to get iron from food sources when possible.
There are many types of iron supplements available, some causing constipation and/or stomach upset. My favorite in iron biglycinate. There is also liquid iron available for kids. It is important to check iron levels (ferritin) particularly in children prior to any aggressive supplementation.
Vitamin D, the Sunshine Vitamin
Everyone is hearing about vitamin D lately. Vitamin D is an important part of general health including immune health, bone health and now scientists are looking at vitamin D and mental health.
Did you know that nearly every cell in the body has a vitamin D receptor and vitamin D is also a neurotransmitter precursor which helps create serotonin? A study of 80 children concluded that children with ADHD have lower levels of vitamin D and vitamin D receptor (27). Studies have shown that vitamin D may be beneficial in children and adolescence to support mental health (28).
As you can see, optimizing vitamin D is cornerstone to improving symptoms of ADHD.
Food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, fortified foods, liver, and egg yolks. Unfortunately, it is challenging to get enough vitamin D from foods alone. Many people get some vitamin D from sun exposure however, with people limiting sun exposure due to skin cancer, the amounts have become less. Also, there is a genetic variation which may limit absorption of vitamin D.
Vitamin D supplements are beneficial for many people. Always check your vitamin D level to see how much supplement may be necessary (preferably once a year going into the fall season). If taking a Vitamin D supplement, remember to take with some fatty food as it is a fat-soluble vitamin.
Should I take a supplement?
Talk to your health care professional for personal recommendations.
Testing for deficiencies
There are several tests your healthcare professional can order to test for deficiencies including zinc, B vitamins, ferritin and vitamin D. Some functional medicine practitioners use micronutrient tests and organic acid tests to check nutrient deficiencies.
Where do I go from here?
Nutrition can play an important role in managing symptoms of ADHD (29). Nutrition, supplements, exercise, mindfulness, and sleep may help to reduce symptoms of ADHD.
Contact me at email@example.com if you would like more information.
Written by Amy Archer RDN, CLT. Amy is passionate about functional nutrition.