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Driven to Distraction? Seven Nutritional Keys to Manage ADHD

50 years ago, a classroom averaged one hyperactive child. Today, there are at least five to six hyperactive children per classroom. Our food has also changed more in the last 50 years than in the 500 years prior. Perhaps it’s simply a coincidence? I don’t think it’s an accident.


In my practice as a community pharmacist, I’m repeatedly struck by two things: the staggering number of children on medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and the number of children being held back by their ADHD symptoms, often despite being on medication.

Research has shown that returning to a diet filled with whole foods can improve developmental and behavioral disorders such as ADHD. ‘Whole food’ is simply food that is consumed closer to its natural state. It is not refined or processed. Even better, whole foods can improve childhood obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and the development of high cholesterol, which are emerging at an alarmingly young age.

Sounds confusing? It isn’t. Improving ADHD through nutrition can be accomplished in seven very simple steps.

Step 1: Get rid of the processed, packaged, high sugar foods that make up most of our diets. The brains of children with ADHD are literally on fire from oxidative stress. This happens when cells are disrupted by the build-up of free radicals from exposure to environmental substances like tobacco smoke, pesticides and radiation. This stress is magnified when children with ADHD eat foods high in trans fats (fat that’s put into products like cookies, crackers and chips to give them a longer shelf life), and rancid fats (essential fatty acid oils that have been mutated by oxygen, heat and light).

Some children with ADHD are also more susceptible to sugar addictions, which produce fluctuations in blood glucose levels that can contribute to symptoms of ADHD.

The simplest and most effective way to control the behavior of children with ADHD is to stabilize their blood sugar and decrease the amount of trans fats and rancid fats they eat. (Cut out processed, packaged foods from your children’s diet and replace it with whole foods like fruits and vegetables.)

Step 2: Increase the amount of clean protein your children consume. A deficiency of protein can contribute to cognitive and behavioral problems in children. When they eat protein, their bodies get the amino acids necessary to build the neurotransmitters found in the brain. For some children with ADHD, these neurotransmitters can be in short supply.

The addition of protein to meals also helps stabilize blood glucose levels, which is one of the simplest ways to modify disruptive behaviors.

Protein is also essential in the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to the brain, heart and other vital organs; and it is important in the detoxification of drugs and environmental chemicals, which magnify and precipitate symptoms of ADHD.

Try adding clean protein to your children’s diet. By ‘clean’ I mean free of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. Try incorporating more fish, chicken, turkey, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and the grain, quinoa.

Step 3: Increase consumption of good fats, like essential fatty acids, such as omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9. Docosahexaenoic Acid (or DHA) is a very fragile essential fatty acid, specifically an omega-3 fatty acid. Essential fatty acids are those the body cannot make itself, but instead must come from our diet. DHA is easily damaged by exposure to emotional stress, trauma, tobacco smoke, mercury and pesticides. In children with ADHD, requirements for DHA are higher not only because of the heightened oxidative stress, but also because the process of activating DHA is impaired in children with ADHD due to deficiencies in key enzymes.

Sources of DHA include oily fish (like salmon, sardines, fresh tuna and mackerel), flax seed, hemp and sunflower seeds (or cold pressed oils of these seeds). Good sources of omega-6 include evening primrose oil, borage oil or black currant oil. Either have your children consume these oils as is, or use the oils to make salad dressings and smoothies. Since both omega-3 and omega-6 oils can become rancid when exposed to oxygen, heat and light, store them in the refrigerator and refrain from cooking with them. And
omega-9s can be found in olive oil, which can be heated and used in cooking.

Step 4: Get Iron into children’s diets. Our brains use 25 per cent of the oxygen we inhale. In order for this oxygen to be delivered to the brain (and other organs) our bodies need Iron. A deficiency in Iron can lead to cognitive and behavioral problems in children. Good sources of Iron include red meat, dried peaches, egg yolks, nuts and poultry.

Step 5: Watch the dyes and preservatives. Children with ADHD can be particularly sensitive to dyes and preservatives. Studies have shown that when children consume dyes such as Red Dye No. 40 or tartrazine and preservatives such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) or sodium benzoate, they are more likely to experience symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention and hyperactivity.

It is crucial to eliminate dyes and preservatives from the diets of children with ADHD. The best way to do that is to consume mostly whole foods (unprocessed, unrefined, and non-packaged). For those occasional packaged foods, such as juices, candies and treats, be sure to read the labels.

Step 6: Food reactions can be an issue for some children. Children often have favorite foods they eat over and over again. This means their diets are often made up of the same types of foods. Over time, the digestive enzymes required to digest these foods can become depleted, which can damage the digestive system and result in an incomplete breakdown of food particles. The outcome is food reactions. The most likely culprits of food reactions are gluten, casein and soy.

You can heal your child’s digestive system by using ‘food combing,’ which pairs foods that are digested in a similar environment together. For instance, fruit would be eaten alone, protein would only be combined with non-starchy vegetables and healthy oils (such as nuts, seeds and fish) would be combined with anything. In some cases, children may need certain foods removed from their diets completely.

Step 7: Supplements!
There are a number of critical supplements for children with ADHD.

  • Magnesium is a calming mineral that is involved in the activation of DHA.
  • Vitamin B6 is involved in the production of neurotransmitters that can be in short supply in children with ADHD.
  • Zinc is important for detoxification and again the activation of DHA.
  • Anti-oxidant vitamins such as vitamins B, C and E can be helpful in combating oxidative stress and activating DHA.
  • Digestive enzymes and probiotics can help the digestive system heal by easing the burden of the digestive process. Once the digestive system is healed, digestive enzymes and probiotics can be stopped or used on an as-needed basis.

Bonus step: Consider your children’s lifestyle. In addition to changing diets, the symptoms of ADHD can be greatly improved by cleaning up our physical environments. That includes getting rid of the chemicals in our homes (toxic cleaning products and tobacco smoke), on our foods (pesticides), and in our environments (environmental pollution, lead and mercury).

Living with ADHD can be very stressful for children, since they struggle in school, at home and often feel like outsiders. This stress can increase the impact of the oxidative stress in their brains, so relaxation exercises, such as meditation, stretching and yoga, can be profoundly helpful. Physical exercise can also help by burning off extra energy and increasing endorphins, which help with mood, focus and attention.

Neelam is a pharmacist and nutritionist that inspires and educates her clients in holistic, nutritional and lifestyle therapies that compliment and, in some cases, replaces conventional medicine. Through her Nutritional Rx, she focuses on families and, in particular, children with ADHD. For more information, visit or contact 403-969-2461.

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