There a number of helpful strategies that focus on dietary changes and nutritional therapy for people with ADHD and ADD. Many alternative-minded experts in the field of brain related disorders believe nutrition offers a promising avenue of treatment that’s all too often been overlooked. Adults and children with brain-related disorders, from stuttering to autism, respond to a targeted mix of food and supplements.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we understand how nutrition and supplements can affect its functioning, including moods, attention, and cognition. What a person eats, can profoundly affect the way his or her brain works. And this is true not just in the case of stuttering and tics, but for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism and its related disorders, and many other behavioral and learning problems. All of these conditions are caused by a deficiency in neurotransmitters.
In the case of autism spectrum disorders and attention disorders, many people report great success with a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet that cuts out milk and wheat. Another common starting point for hyperactive kids is the Feingold diet, which bans artificial flavors, colors, and some preservatives.
Although therapies like these are rarely mentioned by pediatricians, there is a body of well-documented research showing them to be quite effective. At least two wide-ranging reviews of existing research have found that diet and nutritional therapy can noticeably affect some people’s behavior. More specifically, a study of 20 participants with ADHD published in the Alternative Medicine Review found a regimen of supplements to be as effective as Ritalin. In another study of 26 subjects, over three quarters responded well to a diet that eliminated several problem foods.
The connection between allergies and behavioral disorders can be confusing to parents; how could a sensitivity to dairy products cause a person to spacey, or subject to tics? But the chemical released when we have an allergic reaction acts like a neurotransmitter. One neurotransmitter out of balance sets off a chain reaction that can cause all sorts of changes in behavior.
In addition to allergic reactions and sensitivities, many kids with ADHD, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and other disorders have been found to suffer from dramatic deficiencies in certain nutrients, including magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins. Studies often document the deficiencies without looking at the treatment, but researchers have recently begun following up to see if replacing these missing nutrients can correct behavior problems. In one recent study of 400 ADHD children, for instance, zinc supplements beat placebos in treating certain aspects of the disorder, including hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Changing a person’s diet can be a tricky thing – whether the person is an adult or a child. Since behavioral disabilities and the brain chemistry imbalances that cause them are so complex, those who opt for dietary treatments must be prepared for a long, frustrating process of trial and error.
Because behavioral disorders are so idiosyncratic, changing one’s diet can be a bewildering maze of potential treatments. Here’s a guide to the basics of building a dietary strategy.
- Check for food allergies and sensitivities. You can consult an allergist for testing or, if you suspect a certain dietary culprit (sugar is a common one), try eliminating it from the diet for several days.
Check into the Feingold diet. This approach zeroes in on additives and other ingredients that don’t necessarily show up on allergy tests.
- Check out www.Feingold.org, which offers a free email newsletter. Membership in the organization brings other benefits, including guidance on how to follow the diet.
- Consult with other people with attention disorders. There are newsletters, associations, email lists, and support groups for adults as well as parents of children with neurological disorders. Ask lots of questions, and find out what’s worked for others.
- Find an alternative practitioner well-versed in nutritional therapies. He or she will likely start by testing yourself or your child for nutritional deficiencies, then draw up and supervise a plan for addressing them, usually with a mix of dietary changes and supplements.
Although it’s difficult to find lunch box options that contain no wheat, dairy, or artificial flavors or colors in your local supermarket, natural food stores like Whole Foods carry a variety of items. Finding healthy food alternatives is not as hard as it seems. Find friendly substitutes. These days, the abundance of new natural food products gives people more options: Rice or almond milk, for instance, is a fairly painless substitute for cow’s milk; soy cheese can replace cheddar; many wheatless breads are available. It’s easy to find lunch meats and hot dogs free of preservatives and colorings. And new sugar substitutes like xylitol and stevia make it less painful to turn away from conventional sweets.