Nutrition affects the ADHD brain in three ways.

1. Brain cells, like other cells in the body, need proper nutrition to carry out their functions.

2. The myelin sheath, which covers the axons of brain cells, as insulation covers electrical wires, needs the right levels of nutrients to speed transmission of the electrical signals between brain cells.

3. Neurotransmitters — dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine — are also dependent on diet for proper functioning. If the right nutrients aren’t accessible to the brain, its circuits misfire.

Balanced Breakfasts

A nutrition-packed breakfast should contain a balance of complex carbohydrates and protein.

Think grains, plus dairy, plus fruits. For example:
1. Granola cereal, yogurt, sliced apple
2. Scrambled eggs, whole-grain toast, orange
3. Veggie omelet, bran muffin, fresh fruit with yogurt
4. Whole-grain pancakes or waffles topped with berries and/or yogurt, milk
5. Low-fat cheese melted on wholegrain toast, pear

Fat, Fish Oil, and ADHD Brain Power

“Fats make up 60 percent of the brain and the nerves that run every system in the body,” says William Sears, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. “The better the fat in the diet, the better the brain will function.”

Most important to brain function are the two essential fatty acids found in fish oil: linoleic (or omega 6) and alpha linolenic (or omega 3). These are the prime structural components of brain cell membranes, and an important part of the enzymes that allow cell membranes to transport nutrients in and out of cells. Western diets contain too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few of the omega 3s, which are found in cold-water fish (primarily salmon and tuna), soybeans, walnuts, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and eggs. Flaxseed and canola oils are good sources of omega 3s.

“Individuals with ADHD who have low levels of omega 3s will show the biggest improvement in mental focus and cognitive function when they add more of these healthy fats to their diet,” says Richard Brown, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Vitamins and ADHD Brain Power

Studies indicate that children in grade school whose diets are supplemented with appropriate vitamins and minerals scored higher on intelligence tests than did those who took no supplements. This is encouraging news, but it comes with an important caveat: Genetic abnormalities such as MTHFR can make some supplements difficult, even dangerous. For this reason and others, you should always consult with your physician before introducing a new vitamin or supplement to your or your child’s diet. Even the seemingly innocuous vitamin B can cause serious side effects in certain individuals.

Here are some specific vitamins and minerals that affect behavior and learning in children and adults:

Vitamin C is required by the brain to make In fact, the brain has a special vitamin c “pump,” which draws extra vitamin c out of the blood into the brain.

Vitamin B6 deficiency causes irritability and fatigue. Adequate levels of the vitamin increase the brain’s levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine increasing alertness. Iron is also necessary for making dopamine. One small study showed ferritin levels (a measure of iron stores) to be low in 84 percent of children with ADHD, compared to 18 percent of a control group. Low iron levels correlate with severe ADHD.

Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, and may make methylphenidate more effective by improving the brain’s response to dopamine. Low levels of this mineral correlate with inattention.

More of these nutrients is not necessarily better, and sometimes problematic. Studies using megavitamin therapy in children with ADHD showed no effect.

What Not to Eat

Food Sensitivities and Elimination Diets

Studies show that sensitivities to certain foods may worsen symptoms of ADHD in children.

On an elimination diet, you start by eating only foods unlikely to cause reactions:

  • Lamb
  • Chicken
  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Vitamin supplements

Then you restore other foods, one at a time, to see whether they cause a reaction.

The Sugar Debate

Most parents of children with ADHD — 84 percent of 302 parents in one 2003 study — believe that sugar has a negative effect on their kids’ behavior. And many adults with ADHD are convinced that sugar worsens their symptoms as well.

But medical experts still tend to discount any link between behavior and sugar or artificial sweeteners. As evidence, they point to a pair of studies that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Effects of Diets High in Sucrose or Aspartame on the Behavior and Cognitive Performance of Children” (February 3, 1994) found that “even when intake exceeds typical dietary levels, neither dietary sucrose nor aspartame affects children’s behavior or cognitive function.” A similar study, “The Effect of Sugar on Behavior or Cognition in Children” (November 22, 1995), reached much the same conclusion — though the possibility that sugar may have a mild effect on certain children “cannot be ruled out,” according to the study’s authors.

In any case, sugar carries loads of calories and has no real nutritional value. People who eat lots of sweets may be missing out on essential nutrients that might keep them calm and focused. Since ADHD medications tend to blunt the appetite, it’s important to make every calorie count.

The most recent review of all the studies on diet and ADHD, concluded and published in 2014, found mixed outcomes, which proves the science is still shaky in this area. They found that parents often reported behavior changes with artificial food colorants and additives, but teachers and clinical tests didn’t report the same level of change. They could conclude that artificial colors do react adversely with ADHD symptoms in some children. The studies on sugar and artificial colors had negligible results as well, thwarting the theory that sugar and artificial sweeteners cause ADHD symptoms. And all studies on the effect of elimination diets on ADHD symptoms that they looked at found statistically significant ADHD symptom reduction when the children were given a narrow diet of foods unlikely to cause reactions.

What you or your child with ADHD eats is very important, and can have an impact on ADHD symptoms.