6 Things A Naturopath Recommends To All Of Her Patients With ADHD
"I got diagnosed with ADHD, and now I know the root of all of my problems," my patient Sally said with conviction one Thursday afternoon.
As I sat across from Sally and heard about the process that led to her diagnosis, the story felt all too familiar. She was reading about ADHD when all of a sudden a light bulb went off: This sounds like me, she thought, before starting down a complex maze toward diagnosis. Her family doctor referred her to a psychologist who, after a barrage of questionnaires and tests, finally gave her the diagnosis of ADHD.
When a patient gets diagnosed with ADHD, they often feel relieved.
When a patient gets diagnosed with ADHD, they often feel relieved. That diagnosis can help them better understand themselves and how they operate and relate to others. Their next question is what they can do to manage it—and this is where many people get stuck.
When looking for alternative treatment solutions for ADHD, there aren't a lot of concrete, science-backed options out there (though I suspect this will change in the near future).
Eat a whole-food, gluten-free diet
While there hasn't been much research on the impact of gluten-free diets on ADHD symptoms specifically, there are several factors that lead me to recommend them to my patients.
Neuroinflammation is likely a driver of ADHD3, and research is mounting that gluten leads to neurodegeneration4. It can also contribute to a leaky gut5, further fueling neuroinflammation. Add this to the fact that those with ADHD are much more likely to be diagnosed with celiac disease6, and I'd say there is a fairly compelling argument to try going gluten-free to see if it helps with symptoms.
For those with ADHD, I'd suggest a whole-food diet with lots of vegetables, good-quality proteins, and minimally processed foods to reduce inflammation and help manage symptoms. (One study that analyzed different dietary patterns7 found that a diet rich in processed meats, refined cereals, and hydrogenated fat increased the risk of developing ADHD by 92%, while a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and food coloring increased the risk by 51%.)
Take an omega-3 supplement
Fish oil is one of my go-to supplements when it comes to helping neurodiverse patients. It's literally food for your brain, so it's no surprise that research backs up its use in ADHD. We know that adults and children diagnosed with ADHD tend to be low in omega-3 fatty acids8 and that supplementation improves clinical symptoms of ADHD9 in both children and adolescents.
Always talk to your doctor before introducing a new supplement to your routine, but I'd suggest taking at least 2,000 mg of high-quality fish oil (that is screened for pollutants) and eating small oily fish such as sardines or salmon regularly.
Get your vitamin D levels in check
There have been several studies showing that children and adolescents with ADHD have even lower levels of vitamin D10 than the general population. While much of the research on ADHD focuses on children, supplementation of vitamin D in kids with ADHD has been shown to improve cognition and other factors11. I'd recommend that anyone with ADHD gets their vitamin D levels checked and supplements as necessary.
Don't forget about zinc and magnesium
Magnesium is the most important mineral when it comes to calming down an overactive nervous system12, and studies show that children and adolescents with ADHD tended to be lower in it. One study also found that magnesium improved ADHD symptoms13 when used with vitamin D. Taking a high-quality magnesium supplement may also help with some of the side effects of ADHD, like sleeplessness, nervous tension, and anxiety.
Zinc is another supplement I recommend for my ADHD patients if I suspect a deficiency. Research shows that those with ADHD are likely to be deficient in zinc14, and there is some early research showing that the essential mineral could help ADHD medications work better in children. Since zinc is so essential for gut function and neurotransmitter production, it makes sense that it would be useful for those with ADHD.
Avoid BPA and phthalates when you can
In a study of 444 children, exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) (found in plastic water bottles and some food packaging) was associated with unfavorable cognitive and behavioral outcomes15. I always suggest my patients do their best to avoid food and drinks that come wrapped in plastic for this reason. At the very least, never heat up food in plastic, as this can increase BPA leaching. Beware of "BPA-free" plastics that contain other bisphenol substitutes, too, as they exhibit very similar effects.
Be careful with caffeine
While caffeine can certainly be helpful for improving focus and productivity in the short term, the jury is out about whether it's more helpful or harmful for those with ADHD17. A little like the stimulant medication used to treat ADHD, caffeine provides a quick burst of focus that may be offset by its stimulation of the adrenals. It may leave you feeling more anxious and potentially interfere with your sleep. Based on this, I don't recommend caffeine to help with ADHD—and in some cases, I recommend patients avoid it.
As diagnoses of ADHD continues to increase, I suspect more research will emerge on how to manage symptoms. In the meantime, I always suggest patients with ADHD look at their diet, lifestyle, and supplement routine for opportunities to make positive changes.
Katherine Maslen, N.D. is a clinical naturopath, nutritionist, author, and podcast host living in Australia. She has her bachelor’s in health science, naturopathy, from the Endeavor College of Natural Health and is a regular voice in the media. She is well known for her podcast, The Shift, which features 25 world-renowned leaders in gut and overall health, including Vincent Pedre, M.D., Marvin Singh, M.D., and David Perlmutter, M.D..
In addition to overcoming her own personal health struggles, including domestic violence and heroin addiction, Maslen has personally seen over 4,000 patients. She is the founder of the international wellness company Shift, speaks internationally on health and wellness, and has also authored Get Well, Stay Well.