Lack of focus, extreme activity and inability to control behavior are all characterized by symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, does having such symptoms indicate a mental disorder in a child or simply a lack of something that is preventing them from being healthy as a whole (The British Psychological Society and the Royal College of Psychiatrists [TBPS & TRCP], 2009).
The first case of ADHD was initially noted by Scottish physician Sir Alexander Crichton in 1798. At a time when “focus on mental issues from a physiological and medical perspective” were very uncommon, Crichton expressed a remarkable fascination for the nature and origin of mental derangement and dedicated three books to his observation from clinical cases. He observed an inability within his patients to keep focus while performing tasks as well as an inability to be attentive during everyday activities. He expressed his belief that the disease of the mind was inherited from birth and that its onset was noted at an early age. Crichton began to study the interaction of children in a school environment noting that some had trouble focusing on the educational aspect, such as writing and reading as their minds tended to drift. He also deduced that the symptoms that impaired the mind from its normal function dissipated once puberty was reached. Although this theory was upheld until the 1990’s it is now understood that the symptoms of ADHD can be retained after puberty and may remain into adulthood, recent studies even indicating that approximately 50% of children will grow up to keep their symptoms (Lange, Lange, Reichl, Tucha & Tucha, 2010).
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attention deficit disorder, and hyperkinetic disorder are all diseases of the mind. Each is diagnosed by symptoms that fall into two groups; the first being inattentiveness and the second hyperactive-impulsive. Attention deficit disorder is diagnosed by symptoms from the first category, whereas attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and hyperkinetic disorder embody both (testing methods vary by region, ADHD which is the favored term in the United States of America has more moderate testing, whereas the United Kingdom uses more scrupulous measures of testing before diagnosing children with the hyperkinetic disorder) (TBPS & TRCP, 2009).
The two groups combined display nine characteristic symptoms “(1) hyperactivity, (2) emotional instability […], (3) clumsiness, (4) disorders of attention […], (5) impulsiveness […], (6) disorders of memory and thinking, (7) specific learning disabilities, (8) disorders of speech and hearing, and (9) various neurological signs and brainwave patterns irregularities” (Murry & Pizzorno, 2012, page 340). These symptoms or characteristics can be seen in many children, as the symptoms used for diagnosis – primarily the impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness – are non-specific problems, therefore it is at the utmost importance to not misdiagnose children.
As was stated previously, ADHD is a disease of the mind. A major contributing factor to the onset of the symptoms is the deteriorating function of particular “circuits in the executive centers of the brain responsible for impulse control and the ability to maintain sustained attention” (Murray & Pizzorna, 2012, page 340-341). The brain of individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder display variation from normal brains in both structure and function, predominantly in regards to the “executive centers” (ibid, page 341). What causes such changes? There is not one principal cause; however genetic, environmental and nutritional factors all contribute to the degeneration of the brain (ibid).
ADHD is believed to have been heavily weighed on genetics; studies have shown that children with ADHD are four times more likely to have a relative with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Current research is focusing on dopamine levels in the brain (Martin, 2007). Dopamine, derived from the amino acid tyrosine, is a catecholamine neurotransmitter in the brain. It is responsible for motor systems that are responsible for involuntary reflexes and modifiable movement (pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). “Dopaminergic neurons of the midbrain are the main source of dopamine in the mammalian central nervous system” (Anderson & Chinta, 2005, page 942), a decrease in their number or impairment in creating dopamine is what is at present theorized to account for ADHD in certain individuals. Furthermore, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have also been noted to have “thinner brain tissue in the areas of the brain associated with attention” (Martin, 2007, page 1). Over time the brain of the individual, in most cases, will develop and the brain tissue will encompass its proper thickness resulting in most ADHD symptoms to drop (ibid).
A primary environmental factor is maternal smoking. Smoking during pregnancy is harmful to the fetus, as it incubated the unborn child in a “confined smoke-filled womb” (Eisenberg, Hathaway & Murkoff, 2002, page 58). This toxic environment inhibits the delivery of oxygen to the womb resulting in the inability of growth and development (ibid). Exposure to lead in utero as well as after birth has been shown to contribute to symptoms of ADHD in children. Offset from old paint and or toys will aid in this, as well as the transfer of lead through breast milk during breastfeeding if levels are prevalent enough within the mother (Martin, 2007).
Pesticides and other environmental toxins, although not proven directly to cause ADHD, affect the nervous system, therefore most definitely aiding to the onset of hyperactive symptoms. Chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates, still present in the chemical industry as well as in food and contaminated water “directly affect the nervous system” (Carson, 2002, page 192). DDT, which is still latent in the soil that grows both conventional and organic crops possess a primary effect on the “central nervous system [denaturing] the cerebellum and the higher motor cortex [ bringing about sensations of] prickling, burning or itching” (ibid). Children will react and understand pain differently than adults and may act out in ways that may reflect hyperactive behaviors, whether it is through isolation or incessant anger. When the brain is ill or affected by toxicity the rest of the body does not function optimally. Through the elimination of toxins through gentle detoxing of the body’s systems, symptoms of ADHD in children may diminish (ibid) (Colson & Halford, 2010).
Food additives, sugar and lack of essential fatty acids have shown to play upon the symptoms of ADHD and specifically affect the function, growth and development of the brain of young children. Poor nutrition and damaged digestion, food allergies and food intolerances, as well as yeast overgrowth and parasite infections all, play a critical role in the onset of ADHD symptoms in children (Bateson – Koch, 1994, page 202 – 203).
Salt, sugar, caffeine, food additives and chemical preservatives – these food items have many things in common, the most pressing is their impact on cognitive function and behavior, primarily amongst young children. Give a child a sweet and a few minutes later they are going to display hyperactive behavior. Sometimes it does not even take an artificially sweetened hard candy to get them running in circles, bananas will do the trick. Hyperactive behavior can go hand in hand with aggression as a result of fluctuating blood sugar levels. ADHD is a disease of the mind and when it is a result of genes can have its symptoms treated through eliminations of negative influences in both diet and environment. However, when a child is placed on a diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugars and processed goods not only will they be acting out as a result of unstable blood sugar levels but they will also be experiencing decreased cognitive function and a decline in growth both physical and mental (Colson & Holford, 2010, page 184-189).
Allergens also come into play when looking at the behavior of a child. The consumption of food that is either allergens or intolerant to the system of the child may either over a short period lead to negative alterations in behavior, poor attention, even hyperactivity. Over longer periods, the constant resurgence of the intolerable food on the system may lead to some damage to the nervous system. Dr. Joseph Bellanti of Georgetown University in Washington DC conducted a study in the early 2000s which displayed an alarmingly high level of children with ADHD also having food allergies. These children, with the symptoms of ADHD, were seven times more probable of having food allergies and intolerances than children without hyperactivity symptoms. The study concluded that “89 percent of children with [ADHD] reacted to food coloring, 72 percent to flavoring, 60 percent to MSG, 45 percent to all synthetic additives, 50 percent to cow’s milk, 60 percent to chocolate and 40 percent to orange” (Holford & Lawson, 2009, page 218-219). Moreover, the irritability associated with the intake of foods that were either allergens or intolerable to the child’s system results in 25-50 percent of learning disabilities amongst children with prior ADHD symptoms (Bateson-Koch, 1994).
Through the elimination of such foods, especially wheat, dairy and sugar which are the most prominent ingredients in food today (as with yeast, soy, peanuts, and eggs), symptoms of ADHD in children will decline. Patrick Holford believes, through his observations and his research that approximately 90 percent of children will display a positive change in their behavior (ibid).
Although the numbers are minimal, brain damage in children, as a result of toxic exposure or physical injury, before or after birth, can lead to the individual displaying symptoms of ADHD. It is interesting to note that brain trauma is “three times more common in males than in females” (Regan, Russo & VanPutte, 2008, page 453), which is interestingly reflected in the proportion of individuals suffering from ADHD, three times more men than women. Although other factors come into play, traumatic brain injury, whether it is open or closed, coup or contrecoup, the neural function is impaired reflecting in symptoms of decreased attention, difficulty with memory and processing information, trouble with mechanical tasks, etc (ibid).
Brain damage can occur during a car accident, a fall when a young child is repeatedly shaken, either causing the hemorrhaging of the brain. Such injuries are known to diffuse brain injuries for the injury and are not localized and the damage is present in numerous small veins and nerves. When the brain is unable to function efficiently it is reflected in the character of the individuals affected and often these symptoms are that of ADHD (ibid).
Emotional and physical trauma from abuse can result in the manifestation of ADHD symptoms in children. Isolation amongst peers, difficulty concentrating, inappropriate behavior, which is normally silent expressions of dealing with traumas, may be misdiagnosed as symptoms of ADHD (Martin, 2007).
Nutritional Recommendations for ADHD
A majority of ADHD streams from insufficient nutrient intake and therefore can be easily treated by eliminating harmful and toxic foods and replacing them with nutrient-dense fresh foods and supplements.
A poor diet is harmful to anyone, it is, however, especially harmful to children who need adequate nutrients to grow and develop effectively. A majority of ADHD today is a result of a nutrient-poor diet, more specifically a diet reflective of Standard American Diet, which is high in bad oxidized fats, sugar and refined carbohydrates (Haas, E.M., 2006). Research into ADHD has shown several nutrients that are heavily depleted in the system; magnesium, zinc, and iron.
Most children diagnosed with ADHD have been shown to have low levels of magnesium in their system (Murray & Pizzorno, 2012). A channel for enzyme activity in the body, primarily enzymes associated with the activity. When magnesium is in suitable amounts in the body, it permits the efficient transmission of nerve and muscle impulses. Individuals with ADHD have lowered nerve impulses, which directly affects their cognitive function. Furthermore, low levels of magnesium affect pH levels within the body, which in essence affects the equilibrium of the entire body. Having an alkaline body is important for everyone, however, essential for children (Balch, 2010). The body will not function effectively if it is not at a proper pH level (more alkaline, around 8). Apart from the fact that an acidic body will demineralize organs and bones, it will affect the cognitive function of the brain. Acidosis, which is the term used to describe the acidification of the blood and body tissues, will impair nerve function by preventing nerve cells to instigate and carry out impulses from the nervous system. In older individuals, symptoms may come up as forgetfulness or brain fog. However, with young children, the same issues will be seen as an inability to concentrate, poor learning skills, inability to retain information, all symptoms of ADHD, however ones that can simply be fixed with diet (Goldberg, 2010). When magnesium is incorporated into the diet, whether through avocadoes or brown rice (Blach, 2010) or supplementation children with ADHD have shown improvements in their behavior and mental function (Murray & Pizzorno, 2012).
As with magnesium, zinc levels in individuals diagnosed with ADHD can be quite low (Murray & Pizzorno, 2012). Zinc is essential for the body’s ability to regulate prostate gland function as well as aiding in the growth of reproductive organs. zinc is a protecting micro mineral for the liver from chemical and toxin damage. It is when zinc levels in the body are low that characteristics of the ADHD surface. Sexual maturity and growth are impaired with low zinc levels, as is memory and fatigue. Children with ADHD experience a slower rate of maturation, trouble concentrating and mood swings – from hyperactive to low energy (Blach, 2010). By eating a variety of sea animals and sea vegetables, as well as supplementing with zinc, symptoms of hyperactivity in children with ADHD will decrease (Murray & Pizzorno, 2012).
“20% of infants […] are thought to suffer milder iron deficiency without anemia, leaving them at risk for impairment of brain development” (Murray & Pizzorno, 2012, page 344). As with zinc, iron is a common deficiency among the majority of the population, it is low in food sources, do to conventional agricultural practices and a majority of the deficiency stems from misinformation (ibid). Iron is essential in the body for the transportation of oxygen to organs, tissues, and the brain, without which cells could not function effectively. symptoms of iron deficiency that correlate with those of ADHD are; digestive disturbances (leading to malnutrition from decreased absorption of nutrients), nervousness, slow mental response (Blach, 2010). It has been observed that the supplementation of iron in children with ADHD who do not harbor anemic symptoms, has resulted in the reduction of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms in thirty days (Murray & Pizzorno, 2012, page 334).
Macronutrients consist of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Although each is found in the Standard American Diet, the quality of the nutrients is not the same as those that come from a more wholesome, unrefined diet.
Essential Fatty Acids
Children suffering from ADHD have shown to have strikingly low levels of omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) when compared to levels measured in children without symptoms of ADHD. Both these omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the formation and maintenance of brain cells, thus explaining ADHD symptoms of low brain function and difficulty concentrating. Increasing omega-3 fatty acids through supplementation of fish oil and the incorporation of flax and seafood into the diet of children will elevate cognitive function and slowly reverse ADHD symptoms associated with impaired brain function (Murray & Pizzorno, 2012).
Heavily refined, processed carbohydrates have very little nutritional value and are often laden with preservatives, chemicals, and sugars. The mix of unnecessary ingredients negatively affects the development of children, primarily their cognitive function. It also results in the drastic fluctuation of blood sugar levels, resulting in hyperactive behavior. Children have small bodies, therefore, is placed on the same diet as an adult, a diet high in processed foods and sugary goods will have drastic effects on their development and behavior. Carbohydrates are needed to sustain life, however, they need to be derived from more plant-based sources, primarily vegetables, as many fruits although healthy, are high in sugar (Murray & Pizzorno, 2012). Children with symptoms of ADHD need to refrain from eating bananas, honey, maple syrup, dried fruits, mangos, grapes, and cherries – to name a few (Colson & Holford, 2010).
“Prunes, raisins, raspberries, almonds, apricots, canned cherries, blackcurrants, oranges, strawberries, grapes, tomato sauce, plums, cucumbers, and Granny Smith apples” (Holford & Lawson, 2009, page 219) are all foods that contain salicylates. Salicylates are a chemical compound naturally occurring in plants (fruits and vegetables) and synthetically placed into aspirin and other pain-reducing drugs. Individuals tend to have intolerances to this chemical based on the fact that it is recurrent in our natural and synthetic environment. The compound is placed into shampoos, perfumes, and fragrances that can be recurrent in cleaning products, food colorings, and food flavorings, toothpaste, and other beauty products. The effect on a child’s system can occur in utero and increase drastically upon birth (Siedu, 2010). Salicylates do not cause ADHD in children, however, they do displace nutrients in the body that contributes to ADHD symptoms. Salicylates prevent the “conversion and utilization of essential fatty acids, which [are] needed for proper brain function and are often low in hyperactive children” (Holford & Lawson, 2009, page 219). As a result, beauty products, synthetic drugs, and cleaning supplies that contain Salicylates need to be eliminated from the life of the child who exemplifies characteristics of ADHD. Foods that contain salicylate, if unhealthy and unwholesome should be eliminated, ones that are naturally high in sugar should also be removed and the rest should be (ibid).
The Four R’s
Constipation or lack of bowel movement in children may cause auto-intoxication, which is a process in which the body absorbs its toxic waste from the intestinal tract into the blood and organs. It can also occur at a cellular level, which is a result of cells not being able to dispose of their waste through osmosis, leading to them either dying off or becoming tumorous. Bowel health is essential for the health of the entire body. An overabundance of bad bacteria, for example, may lead to high levels of ammonia in the body which will result in “severe neurological symptoms such as mental disturbances […] and altered electroencephalogram patterns” (Jensen, 1999, page 31). Furthermore, auto-intoxication may cause a reflection of ADHD symptoms such as lack of ability to concentrate or focus, irritability, insomnia, fitful sleep and insane like behavior. All these symptoms seen in a child can lead to their misdiagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when all they needed to be done to them was the cleansing of their bowels (ibid, page 36-37).
To keep the bowels and the rest of the body clean, it is important to partake in the cleansing and repairing of the intestinal tract. The first step in the cleaning of the track, which is especially essential for children diagnosed with ADHD because many of their symptoms are often attributed to diet, allergies, and toxicity of the body, is the removal of all harmful food and substances. The removal of processed, refined and high sugar foods are essential. The removal of products that contain salicylate is important, for it negatively affects the nervous system. Removal of all known allergens from the diet as well as sugar, wheat, and dairy is essential. The removal of any intolerances and foods that contain salicylate can happen at the end since a drastic change in the diet will be hard for a child to deal with, slow moderate changes are best and more effective. Furthermore, with sow changes to a child’s diet, followed with precise monitoring of the changes of symptoms, it is possible that only a few foods were causing the problems and once they have been eliminated from the diet, the rest will not have to be (Lipski, 2012) (Colson & Holford, 2010).
Replacing previously eaten foods with healthy alternatives is the next step. Slowly start incorporating these foods, especially if the child is not accustomed to eating them, making meals colorful makes them more appealing to the little critics. Incorporating gummy or chewable all-natural, naturally sweetened multi-vitamins as well as an omega-3 fatty acid. Reinoculation is this step. At this point, it is essential to re-introduce good bacteria into the digestive system, either through fermented foods or through supplementing with probiotics. The first step in repairing and rebalancing the body, which I accomplished through supplementation of minerals, vitamins, and herbs, as well as changing the external environment to reduce negative stress to the child so that it does not impair the system (Lipski, 2012) (Colson & Holford, 2010).
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Amanda Filipowicz is a certified nutritional practitioner (CNP) with a bachelor in environmental studies (BES) from York University. She also has certification in clinical detoxification, prenatal and postnatal care as well as nutrition for mental health. She has been working as a nutritionist since 2013 and is a lifelong proponent of eating healthy.