In the early 20th century, a number of isolated studies discovered a relationship between the diet and mental health. Now, over one hundred years later, it’s increasingly accepted that the bacteria inside our bodies could serve as a crucial link between the food we eat and how we feel. There is a very close, very remarkable connection between the gut and the brain—it’s known as the gut-brain axis. This bidirectional communication network is so correlated that when something is operating unfavorably on one end, it’s likely that the other end isn’t functioning well either.
There are many factors that can contribute to ADHD via the gut-brain axis—all of which are unique to each individual. As a result, it’s important to consult with a healthcare practitioner who can provide tailored treatment that addresses ADHD and the gut-brain connection accordingly.
1. Chew food SLOWLY
We’ve all heard the adage: “You are what you eat.” But, actually, we are what we absorb. Nutrient digestion and absorption occur most efficiently when our nervous systems are calm. To maximize healthy digestion, find ways to encourage your child to adopt a relaxed state—absent distractions (e.g., TV, internet, phones)—while eating. Urge them to take small bites and to thoroughly chew their food.
2. Identify inflammatory foods
Inflammation-promoting foods can put additional stress on the body. The consequences of such stress manifest in a variety of ways, including gastrointestinal inflammation and mental and emotional difficulties. For children with ADHD, diet modification plays an essential role in modulating inflammatory responses and supporting the gut-brain axis. Identify and restrict—even better, eliminate—possible food intolerances and sensitivities from the diet. Be sure to check the labels of packaged foods; these often contain inflammation-promoting ingredients (e.g., sugar, artificial sweeteners, colorings, flavorings) that can negatively stimulate the nervous system and increase hyperactive behavior in some children.
3. Focus on whole, nutrient-rich foods
While the process might be challenging, transitioning children with ADHD into a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods—one that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and nutrient-rich proteins and fats—can encourage dramatic improvements in behavior and focus. In fact, adopting this sort of diet is probably the most important component of both establishing and maintaining a healthy gut-brain axis. These foods support healthy inflammation modulation and a richer, more diverse intestinal microbial community.
4. Mind your gut
The gut-brain connection is powerful! When we have a good balance of healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal system, the health of our brains is positively impacted. Probiotics, and foods rich in prebiotic fiber that feed friendly gut flora, can help crowd out unfriendly flora. Focus on gut health-promoting foods and include fermented options—kombucha, tempeh, yogurt—in the diet, as well as fiber-rich options, like nuts, whole grains, legumes, asparagus, bananas, carrots, chicory root, coconut meat and flour, dandelion greens, flax and chia seeds, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, leeks, onions, radishes, tomatoes, and yams.
1. Avoid or reduce synthetic scents and chemicals
The intestinal microbiome produces a majority of the “feel-good,” calming neurotransmitters found in the body, including serotonin and dopamine. The production of these neurotransmitters, which are essential to healthy nervous system function, can be impacted—both directly through the central nervous system and indirectly by altering the gut microbiota—by the endocrine-disrupting properties of synthetic chemicals. Such chemicals can be found in some non-stick cooking pans, carpets, drapes, furniture, bedding, plastics, and personal care products. Synthetic fragrances in dryer sheets, all nonorganic air fresheners, and dish and laundry detergents also provide easy routes of exposure via inhalation. Be sure to check labels for synthetic ingredients, opt for unscented detergents, and discover new sources of scent satisfaction, like essential oil diffusers. And, don’t forget to do your research. The website EWG.org is a helpful resource that provides guidance on unfriendly chemicals found within specific consumer products.
2. Screen time before bedtime?
Proper sleep and rest are crucial for everyone, but especially individuals with ADHD. Too little sleep puts increased stress on the adrenal glands, which—over time—can create microbiome imbalances that affect mood through the gutbrain connection. Blue light from electronic devices—TVs, computers, tablets, and cell phone screens—as well as light exposure in general, can reduce the brain’s ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that helps the body fall asleep and stay asleep. Cut screen time in the evenings, and turn off electronic devices at least 60 to 90 minutes before going to bed. Use this hour or so to practice activities like meditation, stretching, or listening to quiet music.
3. Movement and play (preferably in nature)
Persistent physical and emotional stress has been shown to negatively impact the intestinal microbiome by decreasing diversity among friendly bacteria. The result is an increase in numbers of unfriendly bacteria and a consequent decrease in mood-enhancing serotonin levels. Lower levels of serotonin are associated with many behavioral and emotional disorders like ADHD. But, getting the body up and moving boosts brain activity. In individuals with ADHD, exercise and play can help to improve attention and sharpen social skills while also stimulating the production of serotonin and other moodboosting neurotransmitters. To get those brain-enhancing effects, make time for joyful movement every day: take the dog for an early morning walk, turn on some music and have a dance party, ride a bike, or run around barefoot in the grass. Indeed, walking just 20 minutes a day in a natural environment has been shown to improve focus in those with ADHD.
4. Make it mindful
Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity (ADHD or ADD) often experience two persistent, daily challenges: attention and self-regulation. As such, certain training activities known to promote both attention and self-control can serve as invaluable—and incredibly powerful—natural supports for those with ADHD. Mindfulness practices—such as meditation, tai chi, and yoga—may encourage your child’s inner coping skills by enhancing their ability to self-observe. Becoming more connected to, and aware of, their emotional state may also help them to respond more positively to stressful or distracting experiences. And, overall, mindfulness practices reduce stress and support healthy microbiome communities in the gut, both of which have been shown to benefit those with ADD/ADHD.
5. Try EEG biofeedback
Electroencephalographic (EEG) biofeedback—a type of neurotherapy that measures brain waves—is a promising therapy for individuals with ADHD. During a typical session, children play a special video game and are given a task to concentrate on, such as “keep the plane flying.” The plane will start to dive, or the screen will go dark, if they become distracted. Over time, such therapies instruct children in new focusing techniques and, eventually, help them to identify and correct their attention, both in the program and in daily interactions.
Medical Food Support
Children 5+ years of age: 2 softgels daily with food or as directed by a healthcare professional. Do not exceed the recommended amount
Many children with ADHD may have decreased serum levels of healthy fatty acids, which can adversely impact the regulation of crucial signaling molecules and inflammatory pathways in the brain. (1) For those attempting to overcome these deficiencies and support healthy nervous system function, ensuring the diet contains the optimal balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have been shown to boost levels of these healthy fats, improving attention, concentration, and learning capabilities in those with ADHD, while also supporting the healthy development and function of the brain and nervous system.
General Notice & Disclaimer:
This information is for general informational purposes only and should not replace the advice of a healthcare practitioner. The information provided herein is based on a review of current existing research; SFI® Health does not accept responsibility for the accuracy of the information itself or the consequences from the use or misuse of the information.
†EQUAZEN® PRO is a medical food designed to support learning, concentration, and brain development in children/adolescents with ADHD who have been determined by medical evaluation to require the nutritional management of polyunsaturated fatty acid deficiencies that cannot be achieved by modification of normal diet alone.
EQUAZEN® PRO IS A MEDICAL FOOD TO BE USED UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF A PHYSICIAN OR OTHER LICENSED HEALTHCARE PRACTITIONER. IT IS NOT A REPLACEMENT FOR ANY MEDICATION.
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- Antalis CJ, et al. Prost Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006;75(4-5):299-308.
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