ADD and ADHD: Getting the Right Nutrition Can Make a World of Difference

The CDC’s most recent information on ADD/ADHD (2011), indicates that 6.4 million children between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with either ADD or ADHD, 11% of all children in this age group. Boys are more likely to be affected than girls, and the numbers have undoubtedly grown since the information was put together. Attention issues affect not just kids, but their parents and teachers as well. Parents are being pressured to medicate their children and are not offered other alternatives. To assist those who are uncomfortable first reaching for a drug for their child, I have read 6 different books on the subject by various natural experts. I will summarize for you what I have learned and what you can do immediately to help your child manage these conditions.

One thing that seems to be agreed upon is that the conditions of ADD/ADHD are the result of a malfunction of the nervous system. The brain becomes overwhelmed with stimuli causing the person to either “turn off” or be overly wired. Some cases of ADD/ADHD are also accompanied by learning issues and motor development issues. You want to make sure you have received a proper diagnosis. Things like food allergies, a highly energized/creative/sensitive personality, and digestive issues can be mistaken for ADD/ADHD.

According to Darrell Evans in his book Ritalin: A Psychiatric Assault on Children he explains that diagnosing children with ADD is difficult because of the 14 symptoms listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 7 can apply to perfectly normal children; often fidgets with hands or feet and squirms in the seat, easily distracted by extraneous stimuli, talks excessively, often acts before thinking, needs a lot of supervision, runs about and climbs on things excessively, and has difficulty sticking to a play activity.

ADD-like behavior can be caused by high sugar consumption, underactive thyroid, high copper or other heavy metals, chemical toxins, under or over-active adrenal glands, enzyme defects, previous infections, Candida, or heavy metal poisoning. We need to figure out what is actually going wrong before giving drugs to kids.

Just like any other chronic problem, ADD and ADHD are the result of toxicity and/or deficiency. The growing prevalence of ADD/ADHD mirrors the growing presence of heart problems, obesity, cancer and asthma. Our children’s bodies are overloaded by chemicals and their diets are deficient in important nutrients. The following things have contributed to the increase in these conditions:

  • A decrease in the amount of fresh food consumed
  • A decrease in the minerals in our soils due to factory farming
  • An increase in the intake of processed foods
  • An increase in the amount of refined sugar consumed
  • Vitamin, mineral, neurotransmitter and essential fatty acid (omega-3) deficiencies
  • Insecticide and pesticide use
  • Heavy metal contamination
  • Chemical cleaners
  • Chemical building and decorating products
  • Poor quality drinking water that is chlorinated and flouridated
  • Electromagnetic contamination
  • Food allergies
  • Increased use of antibiotics
  • Genetically modified foods
  • Dairy and meat raised with antibiotics, hormones and steroids
  • Skin products that disrupt endocrine function and are carcinogenic
  • Vaccinations
  • Doctors who prescribe a pill before taking into account these other factors

Poor kids! I think it is clear we need to clean up the food they are eating and do all we can to clean up the environment they are in so they can have the best chance of improving or managing their condition. The good news is that ALL of the books gave hope of out-growing or improving ADD and ADHD with natural therapies and diet.

Simple sugars like refined sugar and white carbs release glucose into the bloodstream rapidly. To handle this, the body must release a rush of insulin. Since the body is not always precise in its measurements, the high rush of insulin can cause the blood sugar to dip too low. This can cause a Jekyll and Hyde-type reaction by the child where the mood changes rapidly and there is a craving for more simple carbs. Refined sugars and carbs have been stripped of the minerals that aid in their processing, including chromium.

A proper balance of minerals, including chromium, is necessary for the proper functioning of the brain. Since our soils are depleted of these minerals, even those who eat a primarily whole food diet (and how many kids are doing this?) may not be getting enough. Mildred Selig, executive director of the American College of Nutrition, estimates that 80-90% of all children are magnesium deficient. Low magnesium will cause heightened nerves, an inability to relax, tense muscles, and difficulty sleeping. Calcium is also very important to the functioning of the nervous system as it works in tandem with magnesium for nerve and muscle function. Zinc is required for many enzymatic functions in the brain. Low zinc can cause high copper, which can be implicated in violent behavior. Those who have low zinc may also have learning issues, slow growth, impaired immunity, and taste distortion. Adequate zinc can displace other heavy metals like cadmium and aluminum, which can disrupt brain function. Low iodine can cause low thyroid function, which may be diagnosed as ADD. Many other minerals are required in trace amounts for proper brain functioning too.

Good digestion ensures that your children are breaking down their food and absorbing the vitamins and minerals that their bodies need. Without proper digestion, all kinds of problems can ensue, including attention issues. Food allergies can result when your child is unable to break down a certain food. Food allergies can cause inflammation in the brain, manifesting as mental/emotional issues. Gluten intolerance, for instance, produces symptoms as varied as difficulty focusing, gastrointestinal distress, respiratory issues, skin rashes, migraines, and irregular heartbeat. A great way to know if your child has problems with a certain food is to take their pulse for 60 seconds. Then have them eat the suspected food, wait a few minutes and test the pulse again. If the pulse went up more than 10 points then your child has some difficulty digesting this food. Studies have shown that children with sufficient essential fatty acid status are less reactive to foods overall.

With many things to consider, what’s a parent to do? Start by adding nutrition and supplements that can do no harm, yet can have very positive effects on attention.

Use a magnesium supplement. Magnesium is crucial to the relaxation of the nervous system and also helps us manage blood sugar. It is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. As noted above, as many as 80-90% of all children may be deficient in this important mineral. It is found in dark, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and kelp. If your child craves chocolate, this may indicate that they are magnesium deficient. Magnesium can be found as a powdered drink, a liquid, or in pill form. The dosage would be 200-600 mg, depending on the size of the child. Magnesium must be balanced with calcium, so if your child does not get enough calcium in their diet a calcium/magnesium supplement may be more appropriate.

Add a B complex. The B vitamins help with 5 issues related to ADD/ADHD. They are used to break down your food, to nourish the adrenal glands, nourish the nerves, make neurotransmitters, and better react to stress. There is little harm, and great potential for benefit, by adding this for a child who needs extra support.

Add Essential Fatty Acids to the diet. Omega-3s are often deficient in the American diet. The body cannot manufacture them, so they must be taken in through the diet. Omega-3s, the “good fats”, are vital to brain function and improve focus, concentration, and mood. Omega- 3 fats positively affect the health of the cell membrane. Since the health of this membrane determines what gets in and out of each and every cell, they are crucial to cell function and hence bodily function. Healthy neurotransmitter activity is highly dependent on the health of the cell membrane. Omega-3 oils break down into two beneficial components, EPA and DHA. EPA is an important anti-inflammatory so can help with any condition where this is an issue—acne, asthma, food allergies, gut inflammation, etc. DHA is high in brain tissue so is crucial to mood, attention, and overall learning. Omega-3s also help with the sensitivity of the cell membrane to insulin, allowing kids to better process the sugar they are eating.

Food sources of omega-3s are fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and cod, and plant sources like flax, walnuts, canola (must use organic), chia seeds and hemp seeds. If you are using omega-3s therapeutically, fish oil is best because it is the best source of EPA and DHA. Omega-3s must be balanced in a 1:2 ratio with Omega-6 and the typical American diet is 1:20! Omega-6 in excess can be inflammatory, irritating almost any health condition you can think of. Omega-6s are found in grains and oils like corn oil, safflower, and sunflower. Most snack foods are loaded with Omega-6 fats. Research has found that individuals with higher omega-3 status are less sensitive to foods overall.

Take a Multivitamin. A variety of vitamins and minerals are required for the production of neurotransmitters, the health of the nervous system, protecting against heavy metals, making enzymatic reactions happen in the body, assisting in digestion, providing iodine for thyroid health, supporting normal growth and repair (zinc), and managing blood sugar. Giving your child a quality multivitamin can go a long way toward improving attention by aiding these functions. Make sure that the multi covers the primary vitamins and minerals and also has some of the trace minerals. Our staff can help you choose one that provides great support.

Improve Digestion. A sensitivity to one or more foods can cause ADD/ADHD symptoms. Poor gut health caused by illness, antibiotics, and poor diet can have profound effects on the ability to concentrate. A weakening of the gut wall can allow undigested food particles to enter the bloodstream where they wreak havoc on the body. This stress on the body causes stress to the nervous system. Serotonin, one of the calming neurotransmitters, is mainly made in the gut, so the health of the gut is paramount to its production. When the healthy bacteria in the gut is compromised, tryptophan, which is normally converted to serotonin, gets converted to quinolinic acid, a brain toxin. Since most of our immune function lies in the gut, keeping the gut healthy can also protect against illness and the yeast/Candida overgrowth that can cause ADD/ADHD.

Taking a probiotic can reduce allergies to food, assist serotonin production, and improve elimination (whereby we rid ourselves of toxins). Enzymes can be used in cases where it appears that food is not being properly digested like burping, a full feeling in the stomach after eating, bloating and gas. Enzymes are specific to certain foods like starches, sugars, proteins and fats. You can also find enzymes that assist with the digestion of common allergens like dairy, gluten, beans, and soy. While removing the offending food is the most desirable, I have found the enzymes useful in situations where you cannot control what your child is eating such as a birthday party, sleepover, or vacation.

Eat Clean. Pesticides and other chemicals in food are causing health issues. By eating organic you will avoid non-food additives, pesticides, growth hormones and the routine use of antibiotics in animal products. The excessive use of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the development of resistant bacteria and the weakening of the immune system. Infections and Candida overgrowth can promote ADD-like symptoms. All of these hazardous ingredients in your food are by definition excluded from organic products. Many people feel that they cannot afford organic products but I strongly suggest that you consider this an investment in your child’s health.

Organic foods have more minerals and phytonutrients than non-organic foods. Mineral deficiencies have a lot to do with the malfunctioning of the nervous system, especially calcium, magnesium and zinc. Phytonutrients are plant chemicals that the plants use to protect themselves and we can use these compounds to protect ourselves. They include things such as proanthocyanins, flavonoids, polysaccharides, carotenoids, and more. Proanthocyanins found in grape skins, cranberries, blackberries, apple skins, black cherries and red cabbage, are powerful antioxidants that cross the blood-brain barrier (not all nutrients do) and thus are important to “cleaning debris out of the brain”.

Organic produce does not have insecticides and pesticides sprayed on it. Did you know that some insecticides literally target the nervous system of bugs and that is how they kill them? Does it then make sense to you that these same insecticides and pesticides, with repeated exposure, could harm your child’s nervous system.

There are roughly 3000 food additives that are currently approved for use. The Center for Science in the Public Interest names the top food additives to avoid including sodium nitrite (in lunch meats), saccharin (Sweet N’ Low), aspartame (Nutrasweet), acesulfame-K, trans fats, olestra, BHA, potassium bromate, propyl gallate, and food dyes.  I would add MSG to the list. Many artificial flavorings and colorings have been banned in Europe and several Asian countries due to their link to hyperactivity in children and even cancer in animal studies. Become a label reader and go for packaged foods that offer some basic nutrition, have only a few ingredients, and avoid these additives.

According to Parent’s Magazine, children under 12 eat a whopping 49 pounds, or 61 grams of sugar per DAY. TEACH reports that teens eat 34 teaspoons of sugar per day! Refined sugar causes the blood sugar to spike very quickly, causing a rush of insulin to the bloodstream. Insulin is what allows the sugar to be taken into the cell so that it can be used for energy. Being that bodies are not completely efficient, sometimes too much insulin is released and this creates a blood sugar level that is too low. Now your child craves more sugar to get the blood sugar back up. Blood sugar swings spell trouble with ADD. Complex carbohydrates that release sugar more slowly into the bloodstream allow the body time to properly process the sugar.

Natural sweeteners are better alternatives because they may convert to glucose more slowly or because they also contain the nutrients in them that allow your child to process the sugar better, such as the mineral chromium. Refined sugar has had most of the nutrients stripped out of it that would allow for its proper processing by the body. We don’t have to deprive our kids of the sweet taste, but there are better alternatives like cane sugar, raw, unprocessed sugar, high quality honey or maple syrup (think farmer’s market, not grocery store), brown rice syrup, agave, xylitol, stevia, and more. Many of these can be used in place of sugar in baking if you follow package directions on how to substitute. Some aree are 1:1 with sugar and others are not.

Take a Break from Electromagnetic Energy. The importance of getting kids away from cell phones and video games cannot be over-emphasized. Talk about over-stimulation! Did you know that walking barefoot in the grass or on the beach calms the nervous system and re-grounds us? Encourage frequent outdoor play. Teens can rail against this since they are so married to their phones, but be insistent! Even a few minutes can reap benefits.

Filter Your Water. Although Chicago has one of the better water sources in the country, keeping our water sources clean is a constant battle. Organizations like Environmental Illinois have a mission to protect Lake Michigan from companies that would like to dump their waste there. And although water is treated before it gets to us, there are increasingly more contaminants to deal with; prescription drugs, metals, chemicals, pesticides and insecticides. Chlorine and fluoride are added to our water to improve and fortify it, but health problems like ADD are linked to these practices. Filtering your water with a pitcher like Brita or Barrier (which we carry) takes chlorine and several metals out of your water. If you want greater protection, we have a 10-stage carbon water filter that removes over 50 chemicals from water that can be attached to any standard kitchen faucet.

Exercise. Exercise can benefit just about any health condition, including ADD and ADHD. It improves circulation to the brain, lowers cortisol and therefore stress, and evens out the blood sugar. My mom used to kick us outside to play every day and what a blessing that was!

Become an Environmentalist. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the huge increase of incidence of all disease in this country, including ADD and ADHD, is linked to our environment. There are currently 80,000 chemicals in use in industry, agricultural production, consumer products, skin care products, and even our foods. Only half of these have ever been tested for human safety. Skin care products are one of the things we can most control. The term “fragrance” on shampoos, conditioners, perfumes, body lotions, moisturizers, shaving cream, etc. houses a dangerous group of chemicals called phthalates that are known endocrine disruptors. That means they can wreak havoc on thyroid, adrenals, and sex hormones. SLS is another chemical commonly used in products that foam or lather. That includes toothpaste! SLS can degrade into 1-4 dioxane, a known carcinogen. BPA is a dangerous chemical found in plastic and is commonly found in water bottles and the lining of canned foods. It was recently banned from use in children’s toys! Become an informed consumer and buy only from those companies who make safe products and care for the earth.

In conclusion, ADD can be complex, but often changes in diet, exercise, and supplementation can do more for the real cause of the problem than you can imagine. I have had numerous parents in the store that are looking for alternatives to medication and have found supplements that make a big difference. Some of these supplements are very basic nutrition and don’t require over-analysis. That said, if your child is being treated by a doctor for this condition, do let them know what you plan to do and certainly tell them when you have success with the changes!