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The standard diet is not great for anyone, but it's especially bad for folks with attentional difficulties weakening focus.
Many tend to suspect that sugar alone is the culprit in the bad diet of someone with ADHD, but it's not that simple. Eating too much sugar does not cause attentional problems but it does make paying attention harder because:
- The faster food converts to blood glucose, the higher the glycemic response. Slower is better.
Sugar in soda and candy converts almost right away.
- High glycemic responses increase oxidative and inflammatory stress.
Oxidative activity, also referred to as “free radicals,” damages cells. “Inflammatory stress” you can think of simply as infection. It is better to decrease it, rather than increase it.
- High glycemic responses increase the levels of hormones cortisol, adrenalin, and insulin.
You might think it is good to increase these chemicals in the body, but the next point explains why you do not want to increase them too quickly.
- High glycemic responses contribute to an unstable blood glucose, which does not allow for a steady, stable supply of energy for the brain and nervous system.
The sugar creates an unstable situation in the brain. Unstable is unpredictable. Someone with ADHD needs more predictability from the body, not less. Therefore, the recommendation, again, is to eat nice, stable, predictable protein and avoid sugar by instead eating what the dieticians refer to as “low glycemic index foods.” Particularly avoid high fructose corn syrup, which is worse than sugar and very harmful to the body.
- Include protein in every meal, especially breakfast.
- Eat lots of Vitamin C. (It also helps modulate the action of that much-valued stimulant for ADHD, dopamine. )
- Be sure to include Vitamin B-12 and folic acid, which improves cognition and helps to prevent cell death in the brain.
- Reduce starch and flour-based foods. Avoid junk foods and processed foods. These foods quickly increase sugar in the blood.
Here are some additional guidelines for keeping the mind alert and active without throwing it out of balance:
- Increase Fiber, which improves digestion and helps avoid the effects of too much sugar.
- Eat whole foods, not processed foods
- Food that enters the bloodstream slowly – true of both fiber and whole foods -- helps keep balance in the system and reduces the distractions related to feeling hungry.
- Favor good fats, such as those in nuts. For example, almonds increase metabolism, which helps people lose weight.
- Eat breakfast, which allows people to even out food intake and improves attention, particularly in the classroom
OMEGA-3 fatty acids, which increase the levels of that dopamine that so improves executive functioning. You find OMEGA-3 fatty acids in wild salmon, sardines, tuna, flaxseed, and fish oil supplements.
Here are some indicators of a Fatty Acid Deficiency.
- Frequent Urination
- Dry Skin
- Dry Hair
Essential Fatty Acids acids help in transporting nutrients into the cell. They are also involved in the synthesis of hormone-like substances called “eicosanoids” that fight inflammation. As you might expect from oils, they help with the fluidity of cells and help to stabilize nerve cell membranes. On the other hand, the bad kind of fatty acids, known as trans-fatty acids, interfere with the metabolism of the good ones.
A second form of fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, also have a value, but people should not consume too much of them. You find the Omega-6 fatty acids in these places:
Omega-6 fatty acids can negate the benefits of the truly valuable Omega-3 fatty acids. A smart tip is to restrict omega-6 oils (corn oil, regular safflower and sunflower seed oils, and most margarines). Recommended oils are canola and olive oils. A health ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids is 4:1 but the typical ration in the SAD is 20:1 or more.
Omega-3 fatty acids are not the only place to look for beneficial nutrients. Here are some other beneficial foods the ADHD team member can educate the ADHD person about:
Phytonutrients, though, are neither vitamins nor minerals. But they are beneficial, too. “Phyto,” Greek for “plant,” describes nutrients from vegetables. Just as these nutrients help make the plant resistant to disease, they strengthen the immune system in humans. Here are a few of them:
Found in tea, nuts, and berries, these fhytonutrients fight the damaging free radicals and also help fight inflammation.
As the name implies, these occur in carrots as well as other red and yellow vegetables. Like the polyphenols, they are antioxidants (free radical fighters). They occur in tomatoes, pumpkins, carrots, apricots, mangos, and sweet potatoes.
Phytoestrogens (substances from plants that work like the female hormones) also have beneficial effects. You find them in soy foods, whole wheat, seeds, grains, and some fruit and vegetables.
Here are some of the superfoods that strengthen the body:
- Beans: reduce obesity
- Blueberries: lower risk for cardiovascular disease
- Broccoli: lowers the incidence of cataracts/ birth defects
- Oats: reduces the risk of type II diabetes
- Oranges: help prevent strokes
- Pumpkin: lowers the risk of various cancers
- Wild Salmon: lowers risk of heart disease
- Soy: lowers cholesterol
- Spinach: decreases the chance of cardiovascular disease and age-related mascular degeneration
- Tea: helps prevent osteoporosis
- Tomatoes: raise the skin’s sun protection factor
- Turkey: helps build a strong immune system
- Walnuts: reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Ideally for a healthy lifestyle take daily:
Ø High quality multiple vitamin & mineral supplement
Ø Extra antioxidants to protect against free radicals and oxidative damage (aging, heart disease)
Ø Vitamins C, E, carotenes, selenium
Ø Fish Oil
When we eat, then, we bring nutrients into the body and we affect the brain. Eating the wrong things can mean distractibility, impulsivity and restlessness. Those behaviors can look like ADHD even when they are not, and they can increase ADHD traits in those who have the condition. A good, balanced diet including Omega-3 fatty acids can help someone with ADHD remain focused and on task.
Sleep, or the lack thereof, also affects the brain. Plain and simple, most people with ADHD just do not get enough sleep. They describe their mind as “racing” or their body as “just not ready for sleep.” They have tremendous difficulty quieting their mind, and the chronic sleep deprivation results in reduced attention.
Here are some of the sleep disorders common in those with ADHD:
- Phase delayed sleep disorder, where people tend to fall asleep very late at night and then have difficulty waking up.
- Stimulant induced insomnia, because self medicating with Coke or coffee makes it difficult to sleep at night
- Sleep Apnea, where a person stops breathing during the night.
- RLS (restless leg syndrome), discomfort in the leg that keeps a person awake
- PLMS (Periodic Limb Movements in Sleep), which often wakes a person up and disturbs the quality of sleep.
- Establish regular bedtime and rise time.
- Avoid daytime napping.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
- Do not go to bed too hungry or too full.
- Avoid offensive foods.
- Establish a regular pre-sleep routine.
- Have a good sleep environment (temperature, light, noise, bed).
- Avoid time cues like alarm clocks.
- Do not lay awake in bed, which leads to anxiety
Is your child sleeping well?
Approximately 60% of children under the age of 11 experience some kind of sleep difficulty at least a few nights a week. A recent study conducted by published in the journal Sleep found that more than 80 percent of American children who visit a doctor because they have difficulty sleeping are given some form of prescription medication, even though no sleeping pills are currently approved for use in kids. The research was conducted at the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy in Columbus and complement a 2004 National Sleep Foundation poll that revealed that sleep difficulties are extremely widespread among the young. Specific medications included: about a third were prescribed antihistamines, a quarter alpha-2 agonists, 15% were offered benzodiazepines, and 6% antidepressants.
81% of these children and teens were prescribed medication for their sleep issues. Other recommendations included: 7% were recommended diet and nutritional counseling, 22 % were offered behavioral therapy, and 17% were offered mental health and stress management treatment. A combined regimen of medication plus behavioral therapy was prescribed in just under a fifth of cases. Patients who sought care from a psychiatrist were more than three times as likely to be prescribed a drug for their sleep trouble than those who visited a general practice physician.
Children having difficulty sleeping isn’t “normal”. Rather than simply treat the symptom it is important to figure out the cause – then we can more effectively correct the problem. Antidotally, my experiences as a psychologist have proven to me that therapy for sleep difficulties is very effective. It is critical to approach difficulties from a holistic perspective. In other words, assessing a child’s:
- Diet : With particular focus on the level of caffeine intake as well as how close to bedtime he eating.
- Exercise: How much physical exercise does the child engage in and when in the day is she most active.
- Well-being : Areas to consider include what his school day like, anything new happening at home, is she being bullied or is he worried about upcoming tests, etc…? Often parents are surprised by the worries of a young person since to an adult they are not realistic. Without thoughtful discussion in a safe and relaxed environment, some kids never talk about their concerns and continue to have sleepless nights for long periods of time.
- Home Life : How comfortable does the child feel in his room? Is the light and noise level appropriate for REM sleeping? Are parents fighting in the other room? How comfortable is the mattress?
- Relaxation Techniques : Learning simple breathing techniques or body scanning strategies are a useful non-medication approach to falling asleep.