An ADHD diagnosis is typically followed by prescription medication and a pat on the back. But research shows that there is much more you can do to manage symptoms of ADHD than simply taking a pharmaceutical.
Lifestyle factors play a significant role in the health of your nervous system, and diet may be the most influential of all.
In this article, we’ll discuss the connection between ADHD and diet, which foods should be avoided to help with symptoms of ADHD, and some general guidelines on which foods to include.
The Connection Between Food And ADHD
Although the root cause of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is still up for debate, what is well understood is that genetic and environmental factors seem to play a role. One of those environmental factors, of course, is food.
How exactly does food impact ADHD?
By now, you’ve likely heard of the “gut-brain connection.” Researchers are uncovering that what you eat can directly impact your neurological health due to the role that your microbiome plays in the connection between your gut and your brain.
For people with ADHD, it appears that certain foods may instigate an imbalance in the microbiome, which then directly impacts the function of your central nervous system (CNS). While each individual will be unique, a handful of culprits seem to cause the most issues among those with ADHD.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31383279/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7830868/
5 Foods That Make ADHD Worse
#1 Artificial Food Coloring
Artificial food coloring can be found in a number of processed foods, and research shows that this may be one of the worst culprits for increasing symptoms of ADHD.https://adc.bmj.com/content/89/6/506.short
Some examples of artificial food coloring include:
- Blue 1
- Blue 2
- Citrus Red 2.
- Green 3
- Red 3
- Red 40
- Yellow 5
If you see any of these ingredients listed on your food label, that’s a big red flag that the manufacturer is not looking out for your health. In addition to increased symptoms of ADHD, food coloring is associated with increased risk for behavioral changes like irritability and depression, allergic reactions like hives and asthma, and potentially even tumor growth.https://health.clevelandclinic.org/is-food-coloring-safe-for-kids/https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23026007/
Common foods containing food coloring include children’s cereals, candy, gummy snacks, frosting, kids yogurt, ice cream, protein bars, and gelatin. Some unexpected places you may also find food coloring include fish (salmon, in particular), pickles, and oatmeal packets.
Along with food dyes, preservatives are another significant concern for people with ADHD. Research shows that benzoates, in particular, may be detrimental to those with ADHD.https://adc.bmj.com/content/89/6/506.short
Benzoates are antimicrobials that are often added to foods to act as a preservative, enhancing their shelf-life. Unfortunately, research shows that these antimicrobials may directly impact your gut microbiome, shifting the balance from healthy bacteria to unhealthy bacteria and impacting the function of your immune system.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30656592/
Benzoates can be found in a wide variety of foods, including salad dressing, carbonated drinks, juice, condiments, pickles, wines, and snack foods. The most common form of benzoates found in food is sodium benzoate, but avoid any food that includes the word “benzoate” on the ingredients list.
Sugar is probably known as public enemy number one when it comes to a range of health concerns. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find any health professional that doesn’t agree that less is definitely more when it comes to sugar in the diet.
Preliminary findings show that sugar may exacerbate symptoms of ADHD, although more research on the direct connection is still needed.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30986731/
What we do know, however, is that excess sugar intake can have a significant impact on the health of your gut microbiome. When you consume refined sugar, it can feed the harmful bacteria in your gut, creating an imbalance in the ratio of good vs. bad bacteria. This, in turn, can create inflammation in the gut, which may drive something called intestinal permeability (or “leaky gut’).
A leaky gut is primed for immune assault and allergic reactions, which creates even more havoc in the gut-brain connection.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7284805/
Therefore, keeping dietary sugar to a minimum is one of the most influential things you can do to protect the integrity of your gut.
Along with sugar, look out for the following ingredients on your nutrition labels:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Cane sugar/ cane juice
- Invert sugar
- Florida crystals
- Beet sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Agave nectar
While it may not be necessary (or possible) to avoid sugar altogether, check your ingredient labels for hidden sources of sugar, as our food supply is riddled with sneaky sugars.
The gluten-free diet has become increasingly popular in the last ten years or so, and while there are some skeptics out there, it may be worth a try for people with ADHD.
While gluten sensitivity seems to be on the rise, gluten allergy (also known as celiac disease) appears to have a strong association with ADHD. In fact, some research even suggests that ADHD may be a symptom of celiac disease. Interestingly, the frequency of celiac disease and ADHD is much higher than the frequency of celiac in those without ADHD.
Furthermore, research shows that when people with celiac and ADHD remove gluten from their diet, there is a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3184556/#:~:text=The%20results%20of%20this%20study,behavioral%20disorders%20such%20as%20ADHD
While you may not be diagnosed with celiac disease, it’s worth giving a gluten-free diet if you’re struggling with symptoms of ADHD. Gluten is a protein found in a variety of grains, including:
Therefore, either avoid or look for gluten-free varieties of bread products, cakes, cookies, crackers, cereal, soy sauce, beer, and sauces that contain wheat, such as gravy.
#5 Common Allergens
Along with gluten, many people with ADHD find it helpful to do a full elimination diet of the most common allergens (soy, eggs, dairy, and corn).
While you may not be sensitive to all of these foods, using an elimination diet as your first step is a great place to start. Research shows that when people with ADHD are put on an elimination diet, there is often a significant reduction in overall symptoms.https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)62227-1/fulltexthttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4322780/
From here, you can slowly add foods back in to see which ones you react to and which ones may be okay to keep in your diet. For instance, you may find that adding dairy back in causes no symptoms at all, but when you start to include eggs, you notice symptoms begin to arise. For this reason, it’s best to give yourself ample time between adding in each food so you can thoroughly assess your symptoms.
What To Eat For ADHD?
There is no perfect diet for ADHD since everyone is so unique in their individual needs. However, research shows that a whole food diet characterized by high consumption of fruits and vegetables may protect against ADHD.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30986731/
General recommendations include:
- Fresh fruit
- Fish (especially ones high in omega-3 fats)
- High-quality meat
- Gluten-free grains (quinoa, rice, millet, etc.)
The health of your microbiome plays a role in almost every organ system in your body, which in turn impacts almost every aspect of your health. Although research is still uncovering the root cause of ADHD, structuring your diet for optimal gut health may be one of the most powerful things you can do to mitigate symptoms of ADHD.
Discovering what type of diet is right for you is a very individual process, but using the guidelines provided in this article is a great place to start. And keep in mind that it’s not about perfection but rather progressing towards a balanced diet.
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