The top causes of ADHD and 9 foods that actually make it worse

Difficulty concentrating, impulsiveness, excessive energy and inability to sit still are some of the most common symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The number of children diagnosed with ADHD continues to increase, but researchers don’t know why. Currently, it’s estimated that 9 percent of American teens and over 4 percent of American adults have ADHD(1)

ADHD has three main subtypes: Hyperactive-Impulsive, Inattentive, and Combined Hyperactive-Impulsive and Inattentive. These subtypes result in symptoms of ADHD that can have devastating effects on both children and adults.

When Do Symptoms of ADHD Appear?

While the symptoms often appear around the age of 7, ADHD can appear at any time throughout adolescence and beyond. Left untreated in children, ADHD symptoms cause disruptive behavior at home and school. When directed to sit still and concentrate, it can be nearly impossible for some kids with ADD/ADHD. This can result in learning deficits, falling behind in school, acting out and taking too many risks. (2)

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For adults, it’s a challenge, too. It isn’t about discipline, or forcing an individual to focus; rather, effective treatment is about identifying the best ways to lessen the anxiousness and increase concentration and focus while reducing the stress and anxiety that often accompanies it. ADHD is associated with lower cognitive function in attention and memory, particularly when symptoms of depression is also present. (3)

In my judgement, Western medicine focuses on prescription medications that don’t cure ADHD and instead only suppress some of the symptoms. In addition, these medications are linked to delayed growth, sleep problems, decreased appetite and heart problems. To make it worse, the most common drugs prescribed, Ritalin and Adderall, are linked to personality changes, suicidal thoughts and other disturbing side effects.

As a central nervous system stimulant, Ritalin can cause nervousness, agitation and anxiety, all of which are already symptoms of ADHD. (4) The amphetamine, Adderall, is one of the most prescribed medications today and is known to be highly addictive. On top of the ones listed above, other side effects include hallucinations, muscle twitches, high blood pressure and extreme mood swings. (5)

Fortunately, there is a way to mitigate many of the symptoms of ADHD without dangerous prescription stimulants. Natural remedies include supplements, a healthy diet and lifestyle changes that can help to ease the devastating symptoms.

Symptoms of ADHD

No matter which type of ADHD a person has, the severity of symptoms, and the level in which it disrupts lives, varies widely. Nowadays, researchers recognize that diet, environment and other factors contribute to ADHD, for better or worse. (6)

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Symptoms of ADHD in children, teens and adults:

  • Inability to sit still; squirms in seat
  • Easily bored and distracted
  • Doesn’t listen, or seems not to process what is being said
  • Difficulty in following even basic instructions
  • Appearance of poor memory
  • Prone to losing items, including school work and personal items
  • Talks quickly and incessantly
  • Difficulty in completing tasks
  • Ineffective organizational skills
  • Impatience
  • General restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Large and frequent emotional swings
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Low tolerance of people, situations, and surroundings
  • Prone to anger
  • Hot temper
  • Unstable personal relationships

Research also shows that individuals with ADHD are at an increased risk for addiction. (7) Indeed, the risk of addiction extends beyond the prescription stimulants and into alcohol and illegal drugs.

adhd-symptoms

What Causes the Symptoms of ADHD?

There are many possible causes of ADHD. Studies have shown a range of possible causes and links to both behavior and environment of the mother as well as diet and environment of the child.

1. SMOKING

According to a recent European study published in European Child Adolescent Psychiatry, maternal smoking during pregnancy is associated with the development of ADHD. (8) In addition, the study also noted that smoking by either parent after birth may be linked to ADHD in children. Exposure early in life to lead and other chemicals like PCBs may also cause ADHD. (9)

2. DIET & GUT HEALTH

Diet continues to show links to ADHD, including chemical food additives, wheat, refined sugar, food allergies and artificial sweeteners. While researchers may not know why more and more kids are being diagnosed with ADHD, reviewing charts about the American diet gives us some insight. Grain consumption is way up, as is sugar, salt, processed foods and GMOs, while the consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy meats are down.

Furthermore, there is evidence that the environment — such as exposure to lead or arsenic — and diet during early years affects the development of ADHD in later years. In fact, such ADHD symptoms as inattention, impulsivity and poor cognitive function are associated with arsenic, even at levels considered safe. (10)

I’ve discovered that one of the most promising solutions for ADHD is a low-sugar, low-inflammation diet, such as the GAPS diet or other types of healing diets. (11)

3. BRAIN INJURY

Another possible root cause of ADHD is traumatic brain injury. (12) It seems that the injury can cause various symptoms such as memory and attention deficits, as well as acting out and impulsive behavior.

4. GENETICS

In addition to these outside risk factors, studies show that ADHD has a genetic link in some individuals. If parents or grandparents have ADHD, children are more likely to develop symptoms — although, at this point in the research, it’s not clear whether this is actually a genetic predisposition or a diet and lifestyle similarity that causes ADHD to develop.

Natural Treatment for ADHD: DIET

In some ways, it’s simple: What we eat directly affects our bodies and behaviors. A healthy diet that is void of known ADHD triggers can help, sometimes significantly.

Foods That Make Symptoms of ADHD Worse

Sugar

In a study to be published in the Academy of Pediatrics, youths that drink sweetened beverages, including energy drinks, are 66 percent more likely to be at risk for hyperactivity and inattention. Researchers recommend limiting the consumption of sweetened beverages and the avoidance of energy drinks in children. (13)

It’s not just adolescents that need to avoid sugary drinks, however, as sugar is also associated with ADHD in some adults. Therefore, both kids and adults are encouraged to avoid concentrated forms of sugar, including fruit juices, carbonated beverages, desserts, candy and other sweets.

Gluten

In some research, gluten is directly linked to Celiac disease and ADHD in both children and adults. A study published in The Primary Care Companion – Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found a significant improvement in behavior and functioning after the initiation of a gluten-free diet. In fact, researchers suggest that Celiac disease should be included in an ADHD symptom checklist. (14)

It’s important to recognize that individuals can be sensitive to gluten but not have Celiac disease even though they suffer many of the same symptoms. For an ADHD diet, be sure to avoid all foods that contain gluten, including breads, pastas, cereals and processed foods. Look for gluten-free and grain-free alternatives.

Conventional Dairy

A 10-week study found that when conventional cow’s milk was removed from the diet of hyperactive preschool boys, symptoms of ADD/ADHD improved. (15) The diet also eliminated artificial colors, flavors, chocolate, MSG and caffeine.

If any ADHD symptoms arise after consuming dairy, it’s wise to remove it from the diet. Most conventional cow’s milk contains A1 casein that can trigger a similar reaction as gluten and, therefore, should be eliminated from the diets of both adults and children. Raw cow’s milk may be better for people with ADHD, in part because of its natural immunizing abilities, and goat’s milk doesn’t contain casein, making it a good substitute as well.

Food Coloring and Dyes

Consumption of artificial food colors (AFCs) has increased five-fold since 1950, showing average consumption of AFCs at 68 milligrams. Studies that have tested 50 milligrams or more have shown a link between AFCs and behavioral reactions, including hyperactivity in children. (16)

AFCs are found in nearly every processed food, including carbonated sodas, convenience foods, deli meats and cheeses, cereals, chewable vitamins, and toothpaste. As part of an ADHD diet, children and adults should avoid all artificial food colors and dyes.

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Caffeine

A recent study published in Substance Use and Misuse indicates that caffeine and alcohol consumption is associated with anger and violence in teens. (17) Adolescents and adults with ADHD should avoid any energy drinks with a high concentration of sugar, caffeine and additional stimulants. (18)

While prescription stimulant medication is used for some individuals with ADHD, it’s imperative on an ADHD diet to remove all forms of caffeine, as it’s known to increase insomnia, anxiety, anxiousness and other ADHD symptoms. (19)

MSG and HVP

Individuals with ADHD should avoid MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and yeast extract. Yeast extract is a form of MSG, and while many people know to look for MSG on labels, many don’t know to avoid yeast extract. Even such natural prepared foods as deli meats, veggie burgers, sauces, gravies, salad dressings, crackers, pastas and spices contain it.

There’s a relationship between these additives and decreased dopamine levels. Dopamine is associated with the reward system and pleasure areas of the brain — balanced levels of dopamine keep impulsivity and activity in check.

Nitrites

The vast majority of processed foods, canned foods and lunch meats contain nitrites. Nitrites cause restlessness and anxiousness, which in turn can worsen symptoms of ADHD. In addition, nitrates in the diet are linked to an increased risk of type 1 diabetes, cancer and IBS.

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Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners such as acesulfame K, aspartame, benzene, cyclamates, saccharin and sucralose are associated with a wide array of serious side effects. These include cancer, obesity, increased heart rate, infertility, dizziness, headaches and memory loss.

While mentioned above that removing sugar is part of a successful ADHD diet, replacing it with artificial sweeteners is not the solution. Start to retrain taste buds by adding other flavors from herbs, spices and citrus while using other natural sweeteners in moderation.

Soy

One of the most common food allergens in the world, soy can cause many symptoms in allergic individuals, including hives, tingling in the mouth, wheezing, difficulty breathing and abdominal pain. For some, soy allergy can even result in anaphylaxis. In individuals without a known sensitivity, soy disrupts thyroid function and hormone levels in the body. This can cause ADHD or make the symptoms worse.

Personal Food Sensitivities/Allergens

An ADHD diet should exclude top common allergens, including peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, wheat, conventional dairy and eggs. Personal sensitivities to foods should also be removed from the diet. This may include papaya, avocados, bananas, kiwis, chocolate, fennel, caraway and coriander.

Foods That Improve the Symptoms of ADHD

According to a study published in Psychiatry Research, there is a direct link between dietary behaviors and ADD/ADHD and learning disabilities in children and adolescents.(20) In this study, a high intake of sweets, fried foods and salt was associated with more learning, attention and behavioral problems.

In contrast, a balanced ADHD diet is shown to have beneficial effects on all of the problems caused by a poor diet. To change to an ADHD diet, avoid the foods mentioned above while eating a diet of unprocessed, whole foods. Modern Western diets seem to be more closely liked to ADHD because of the higher consumption of refined sugars, salt and hydrogenated fats, while being low in omega-3s, fiber, folate and B-Complex. (21)

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High Protein Foods

High-protein meals that include clean sources of protein from grass-fed organic beef, free-range chicken, eggs, wild-caught fish and raw dairy should be the focus of an ADHD diet for both children and adults.

Iron-Rich Foods

Low iron levels are associated with fatigue, poor concentration and mental function, irritability, poor memory, muscle weakness, and leaky gut syndrome. Eating a diet rich in high iron foods is an essential part of a successful diet strategy for ADHD. Iron rich foods include the liver and steaks from grass-fed beef, navy and black beans, spinach, Swiss chard, and egg yolks.

Foods High in B-Vitamins

Vitamin B-6 is essential for brain function, including the production of dopamine and serotonin. In a preliminary study, B-6 was shown to be slightly more effective than Ritalin in improving behavior among hyperactive children. (22)

Vitamin B-6 rich foods are tasty and easy to incorporate into the ADHD diet. Wild tuna and salmon, free-range chicken and turkey breast, grass-fed beef, bananas, cooked spinach, sweet potatoes, and hazelnuts hit the top of the list. In addition, include brewer’s yeast and other green leafy vegetables.

Poultry

The essential amino acid, tryptophan, helps the body synthesize proteins and support healthy serotonin levels. In many individuals suffering from ADD/ADHD, imbalances in serotonin levels is indicated. (23) Additionally, serotonin is related to impulse control and aggression, two of the symptoms of ADD/ADHD. (24)

When adding both free-range turkey and chicken to the diet, avoid frying the poultry and stick with recipes like my kid-friendly, baked chicken teriyaki or herbed turkey breast — both are great for quick leftover lunches and dinners.

Foods Rich in Probiotics 

Yogurt and kefir from grass-fed cows or goats, sauerkraut, Kimchi, and other high probiotic foods should be a central part of a diet for ADHD.

Eggs

Eggs are a great way to incorporate high-quality protein into the ADHD diet, and they are not just for breakfast anymore. Each egg has 7 grams of protein, but is also packed with essential amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids. Purchase local, organic eggs, preferably from cage-free chickens.

Omega-3 Foods

Foods rich in omega-3’s — such as wild-caught salmon and tuna — directly affect cognitive function in both children and adults. A clinical trial identified a link between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and behavioral and learning problems. (25) A successful ADHD diet will include two or more servings per week of salmon or tuna. Try my cilantro salmon burgers — a recipe that comes together quickly and is a big family-pleaser.

Natural Treatment for ADHD: SUPPLEMENTS

Prominent researchers from the Division of Neurology at Children’s Memorial Hospital and Department of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School reviewed substantial research regarding diet and ADHD. While diets were shown to be difficult to sustain, adding supplementation to diet therapy was an easy step to take and typically more acceptable to kids. (26)

Fish Oil & Omega 3 Complex

Fish oil is better than Ritalin for ADHD, according to a study from the University of Adelaide in Australia.The omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA, within fish oil are critical for brain function and are also strong anti-inflammatories. Children 50 to 80 pounds should be given one teaspoon daily; children 80 to 150 pounds, two teaspoons daily; adults should take one tablespoon daily.

Supplementation appears to reduce symptoms of ADHD, improve learning, reduce anxiety and depression, and help prevent some forms of cancer. Another study published in the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics found that supplements offer a safe treatment option for educational and behavioral problems in children. Significant improvements in reading, spelling and behavior were all noted over the three-month trial.(27)

Zinc 

Children and adults with ADHD should supplement their diets with a high-quality zinc supplement. Low levels of zinc are associated with poor neurological function, poor attention and a variety of motor disorders.

The World Health Organization reports that zinc deficiency rate is 31 percent. One of the leading symptoms of a zinc deficiency is poor neurological function. In addition to high-quality mineral supplements, it’s important to add mineral rich foods, such as dark greens, beans and wild-caught salmon.

Serotonin

One of the genetic links to ADHD is the serotonin transporter gene. Serotonin levels are directly linked to aggression and impulse control. (28)

B-Complex

Children with ADHD typically need more of the B-vitamins to help maintain focus, increase concentration, fight stress, relieve fatigue, balance energy and hormone levels, and produce healthy levels of serotonin. Children and adults should take 50 milligrams daily.

Probiotics

Children and adults should take 25 billion to 50 billion units of probiotics daily. In addition to taking a high-quality probiotic supplement, aim to eat foods high in probiotics, such as kefir, sauerkraut, raw cheese and yogurt.

Some studies show that ADHD may be connected to problems in the digestive tract. Sugar, tap water, grains, certain prescription medications, including antibiotics, and environmental chemicals kill healthy bacteria in the gut and decrease digestive function.

GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid)

GABA is an amino acid vital to healthy central nervous system function. It acts as a calming agent, helping to suppress nervous system activity and block some nerve impulses. Individuals should take 250 milligrams twice per day.

Speak to your physician prior to taking GABA if you are on any medications, or if any of the following side effects arise: wheezing, anxiety, flushing, or tingling of the hands and feet.

Natural Treatment for ADHD: LIFESTYLE & OTHER TREATMENTS

Successful treatment for the symptoms of ADHD requires not only supplements and healthy diet void of known ADHD triggers, it also requires some lifestyle changes. The natural treatments mentioned below can help many ADHD symptoms.

1. Essential Oils

Lavender essential oil can be used in various ways to improve mood when anxiousness or nervousness is present. As with other essential oils, drops can be added to the bath, sprinkled on stuffed animals, used in diffusers, or even applied directly to the skin or bottoms of feet at bedtime. Dilute with a carrier oil like grape seed oil or coconut oil or apply only one to two drops if using the concentrated oil.

Also, consider using Peppermint Oil, which improves mental focus, boosts energy and helps to release tight muscles.

2. Sleep

Insomnia and restless sleep are common ADHD symptoms. A recent study found that behavioral sleep intervention improves the severity of ADHD symptoms in children, especially those taking prescription stimulants. The study showed behavior, quality of life and functioning was sustained for six months following the trial. (29)

It’s vital that both children and adults develop good evening routines that allow them to unwind at the end of the day. The goal should be a good eight hours of sleep each night.

3. Eat Breakfast

For some people, and especially those with ADHD, breakfast helps the body properly regulate blood sugar and stabilize hormone fluctuations. Eat a breakfast that contains at least 20 grams of protein. My Thin Mint Protein Smoothie has 20 grams of protein from whey and is sure to please kids and adults of all ages.

4. Exercise

Exercise helps to increase hormone levels that are essential for relieving ADHD symptoms. (30) Prior to a task that requires concentration, engage in 30 minutes of moderate exercise.

5. Balance/Stability Balls

According to the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, using balance/stability balls as a seat increased attention levels, decreased hyperactivity and increased time on task. (31) If your child’s school will not allow a stability ball, be sure to use one at home during homework. In addition, adults can benefit from stability balls at their desks.

6. Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback may help children and adults learn to focus on tasks. Some initial studies have found that watching brain activity during neurofeedback allows some individuals the opportunity to learn how to more effectively control their brains.

Symptoms of ADHD can be reduced with diet, supplements and recommended lifestyle changes — moreover, these changes can help you conquer ADD/ADHD in yourself, or in your child. For many people, removing the trigger foods and replacing them with healthy foods will dramatically help address this common neurological and behavioral disorder.


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Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic and clinical nutritionist with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine and operates one of the world's largest natural health websites: www.DrAxe.com. He is the author of the groundbreaking health book Eat Dirt, which uncovers the hidden causes and cures of leaky gut syndrome. Dr. Axe is an expert in digestive health, functional medicine, natural remedies and dietary strategies for healing. He has been featured on many television shows, including the Dr. Oz Show, CBS and NBC, and has his own Eat Dirt program running on select PBS TV stations. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has been a physician for many professional athletes. DrAxe.com is one of the most visited websites worldwide for healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, essential oils, and natural supplements.