You have probably heard of the acronym, but what exactly is ADHD? Does an ADHD diet exist? We have the answers. Better yet, you can help calm a scattered brain with these diet and lifestyle strategies.
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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) impacts an estimated 8% of U.S. adults and 11% of kids, a neurological condition that causes difficulty concentrating, irritability, impulsivity and frenzied behavior. Medication is still the standard of care, but these natural remedies for ADHD are can help ease symptoms.

Does an ADHD Diet Exist?

First off, there is no specific diet that is responsible for ADHD in children or adults. There is also not clear evidence to support a specific ADHD diet either. Some research has looked at whether a "few foods diet", vaguely defined as a restricted elimination diet only including a few simple foods like rice, meat, vegetables and fruit, posed any potential benefits. While some studies have had positive results, other studies have found no significant results.

More research is needed to clarify whether food elimination might be helpful in managing ADHD symptoms. However, it is also important to consider how a highly restrictive diet might negatively impact peoples relationship with food, particularly in children. Being restrictive with foods takes a substantial effort from parents and children, and extra dedication of time, resources, knowledge and skill that might not be realistic for all situations.

Check for Additives

"It's been hard for some doctors and clinicans to believe that food can make a difference in something as difficult to treat as ADHD," says Joel Nigg, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University and author of Getting Ahead of ADHD. "But certain additives are associated with more severe symptoms in some people."

Artificial colorings (like FD&C Red No. 40 and FD&C Yellow No. 6) appear to be the most problematic. A review of 24 studies conducted by Nigg and his team concluded that the influence of food dyes was small, but significant. Other evidence implicates the preservative sodium benzoate too.

"The evidence does not prove causality, but it's ample reason for concern and caution," adds David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., an EatingWell advisory board member.

Avoiding these ingredients may not help everyone, but it's worth trying. Nigg says, "Here's my analogy: If a person walks into a room and sneezes, everyone won't catch a cold, but some will. In the same way, additives don't make everyone's symptoms worse, but there's about a 25% chance that eliminating them will have an effect."

In addition to reading labels, one way to consume fewer of these ingredients is to limit processed items in general and focus on whole foods instead. Research supports that an overall healthy diet is linked to lower rates of ADHD in kids.

Illustration of the brain with multiple colors
Illustration by Nomoco

Move Your Body

"There's overwhelming evidence that exercise helps increase attention, mood and brain health overall," says Nigg. Most of the research has been done with children, but a review published in the Journal of Neural Transmission found that, in a handful of studies on adults, cardio workouts improved attention and reduced impulsivity. The researchers suggest that exercise may boost brain chemicals—like dopamine and BDNF—that are typically lower in people with ADHD.

Sleep Well

More than 80% of adults with ADHD report that they have trouble sleeping, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Winding down at night is especially difficult, says sleep specialist and clinical psychologist Michael Breus, Ph.D., so try making your "power-down hour" (his term for the general sleep advice to lower the lights and do something relaxing before bed) more like 90 minutes.

Another strategy: Try a light-therapy lamp. Evidence suggests that using one in the mornings during fall and winter helps adults with ADHD reset their circadian rhythms and feel tired earlier in the evenings. "In many ADHD patients, once a healthy sleep schedule has been established, their symptoms can reduce dramatically," he says.

Need help drifting off? Check out these 9 Foods to Help You Sleep.

Consider Supplements

Some experts are excited about "broad-spectrum micronutrients," high-dose combos of minerals and vitamins including niacin, selenium and chromium. A study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that a third of kids taking these supplements saw their attention improve, and a few studies show benefits in adults too. Ask your doctor if this treatment is right for you. (And yes, it really is important to your doctor before you start taking supplements.)

This article first appeared in EatingWell, September 2019.