The following is a personal essay, and not a medical recommendation endorsed by ADDitude. For more information about ADHD nutrition, speak with your physician.
One trademark of ADHD is low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter released by the brain that makes kids feel good and helps them focus. Increasing dopamine in the brain through medication is an effective treatment for ADHD. However, more than a year into a nationwide stimulant shortage, parents still struggle to fill prescriptions for their kids.
As the shortage stretches on, many caregivers are working to implement ADHD treatment tactics without medication. Here are some gut health strategies to consider.
The way your child’s brain works is influenced by what they eat, and good nutrition is essential. Eating unhealthy, non-nutritious foods may contribute to inattention and problematic behaviors, while a diet with a variety of healthy foods nourishes the brain to pay attention and function optimally.
A study in Cell Metabolism found that dopamine release in the brain can occur at two different times: when food is swallowed and once the food reaches the stomach.1 Skipping a meal robs the body of two potential releases of dopamine. If your child is not hungry, try to keep them on a regular meal schedule to help regulate opportunities for dopamine release. Healthy snacks help, too. A protein-rich diet, including fish, poultry, eggs, and legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, peas, etc.), can help increase dopamine levels.
Many kids with ADHD want to eat the same things every day, but doing so may mean they miss out on producing more of that feel-good hormone. Research has also found a strong connection between gut health and mental health. 2 A healthy gut is best described as having a diverse microbiome, consisting of different types of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses, etc.) that coexist harmoniously in the digestive tract. Increasing the diversity of your child’s gut microbiome with a protein-rich diet, including fish, poultry, eggs, and legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, peas, etc.), ensures that dopamine can be adequately synthesized.
Introduce new foods slowly and in a variety of ways. For example, pick a vegetable your child usually eats and connect it to another vegetable or legume. So if your child eats raw carrots, pair them with a dip made of puréed red peppers or smooth refried beans. If your child prefers crunchy foods, make crunchy cooked veggies in the oven or air fryer. Experiment with spices, too. Offering your child small tastes (repeatedly) will build their acceptance of new foods. Kids are more likely to expand their taste and preference for new foods when given multiple chances to learn about and experience new food.
Young children, especially those with ADHD, may be easily distracted during mealtimes. Make it a point to give your child a heads-up on what’s for dinner and when it will be served. Kids with ADHD do best when they know what to expect and follow a schedule. Then, turn off all electronic devices, including the TV, while eating to limit distractions. If possible, sit and eat together at the table. This lets your child know that during meals, it’s time to pause (even for a minute) and focus on eating. This is also a great time to share a moment with your child.
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1Thanarajah, S.E., Backes, H., DiFeliceantonio, A.G., Albus, K., Cremer, A.L., Hanssen, R., Lippert, R.N., Cornely, O.A., Small, D.M., Brüning, J.C., Tittgemeyer, M. (2018) Food Intake Recruits Orosensory and Post-ingestive Dopaminergic Circuits to Affect Eating Desire in Humans. Cell Metabolism. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2018.12.006
2Chen, Y., Xu, J., Chen, Y. (2021). Regulation of Neurotransmitters by the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Cognition in Neurological Disorders. Nutrients. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13062099
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