Proper nutrition and supplementation essential for treating ADHD

December 28, 2016 by Joel Fuhrman, MD

Health Concerns: ADD/ADHD, Children's Health

Proper nutrition and supplementation essential for treating ADHD

Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) need more than just medication to alleviate symptoms. It’s important to realize medication is not the cure all and can have side effects. Providing proper nutrition and supplementation is crucial. In addition, nutrition and environmental conditions play a role in preventing ADHD.

ADHD is the most common neurobehavioral disorder diagnosed in children, and its prevalence is growing. Between 2003 and 2007, there was a 22 percent increase in ADHD occurrence in the United States. Today, about 9.5 percent of school age children have ADHD.1

ADHD is characterized by restlessness, difficulty focusing, poor impulse control, distractibility, and in some cases overactivity. These symptoms have significant negative consequences on the child’s academic performance, social skills, and relationships with family members, teachers, and peers. In addition, ADHD is often accompanied by learning disorders, discipline problems, anxiety, and/or depression.2

ADHD is a complex disorder of the brain that is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.3-4 Smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy, micronutrient deficiencies, excessive television watching early in life, and inadequate omega-3 fatty acid intake are a few of the environmental factors that increase risk3,5

Nutrition and ADHD

Poor nutrition is a significant concern as dietary factors have been linked to ADHD risk in scientific studies. They include:

  • High sugar intake is associated with hyperactive behavior and ADHD.6-7
  • Inadequate micronutrient intake. Supplementation to correct micronutrient deficiencies has been shown to improve ADHD symptoms.2,8
  • A low-nutrient diet high in processed foods and soft drinks at age 4-½ has been associated with hyperactivity in children at age 79 Similarly, a “western” dietary pattern has also been associated with ADHD in 14-year-olds.10
  • Food additives and dyes: many colored foods are marketed to children, and hyperactivity in children following ingestion of food dyes is well documented in placebo-controlled studies.6,11 Furthermore, a 2004 meta-analysis of 16 studies in children who were already hyperactive showed that their hyperactive behavior increased after ingesting food colorings.12
  • There is preliminary evidence that certain pesticides (called organophosphates) commonly found on some fruits are associated with ADHD.13
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA) are the building blocks a child needs to build a healthy brain. Insufficient omega-3 levels are common in children with ADHD., There is evidence that omega-3 supplementation, especially in combination with the omega-6 fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid (GLA; found in borage oil and evening primrose oil) improves behavior and ADHD symptoms14-15

Treatment for most children with ADHD

The primary mode of treatment for ADHD is a combination of stimulant drugs and behavioral treatment. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 2.7 million children in the U.S. are currently taking medication for ADHD.1

Of concern are the side effects of these drugs; the two most common are insomnia and loss of appetite. There is also the potential for abuse, since stimulants such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and amphetamines have actions on the brain similar to cocaine.6

In addition, evidence has recently emerged that these stimulants may adversely affect the cardiovascular system. Long-term stimulant use increases heart rate, and elevated heart rate increases the risk of cardiac death.9,16-17

Natural Prevention and Treatment of ADHD

Effective strategies to help prevent children from developing ADHD include:

  • Limit television time and do not expose children under the age of two to any television. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two should not watch television.5
  • Feed the whole family a nutrient-dense, plant-rich diet of colorful fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds.
  • Encourage sports and other forms of exercise. Physical activity has beneficial effects on brain function, and several studies have reported that exercise improves attention, behavior and/or impulse control in children with ADHD.18-22
  • Avoid processed foods, artificially colored foods, and added sugars. The simplest and most effective way to avoid the potential harmful effects of synthetic dyes is to avoid processed foods. If you buy an occasional packaged food, check the ingredient list to avoid synthetic dyes and additives.
  • To assure adequate omega-3 fatty acids for brain development, give children a DHA and EPA supplement and feed them omega-3-rich foods (ground flaxseed, hemp and chia seeds, walnuts) regularly. For adequate omega-3 fatty acids supplement with at least 400 mg per day eat one tablespoon of ground flaxseed daily and a minimum of one ounce of raw walnuts daily, plus other nuts.
  • Buy organic produce when possible to limit pesticide exposure, especially when buying highly pesticide-laden crops.
  • Supplement with GLA (60-100 mg per day); an omega-6 fatty acid found in borage oil and evening primrose oil. Taking double the recommended dose every other day is also reasonable and effective. 
  • Avoid gluten (from wheat) and/or casein (from dairy products) for children who are sensitive to these proteins.

If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, a family commitment to dietary changes is crucial. My nutritional approach to ADHD used in conjunction with appropriate behavioral treatment has helped many families. Although it may take up to six months, significant improvements are almost always observed, and stimulant medications are rarely necessary

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Rate of Parent-Reported ADHD Increasing [
  2. Kidd PM: Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children: rationale for its integrative management. Altern Med Rev 2000;5:402-428.
  3. Curatolo P, D'Agati E, Moavero R: The neurobiological basis of ADHD. Ital J Pediatr 2010;36:79.
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  15. Transler C, Eilander A, Mitchell S, et al: The impact of polyunsaturated fatty acids in reducing child attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders. J Atten Disord 2010;14:232-246. 
  16. Vitiello B, Elliott GR, Swanson JM, et al: Blood Pressure and Heart Rate Over 10 Years in the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children With ADHD. Am J Psychiatry 2011.
  17.  Verrier RL, Tan A: Heart rate, autonomic markers, and cardiac mortality. Heart Rhythm 2009;6:S68-75.
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  19. Gapin JI, Labban JD, Etnier JL: The effects of physical activity on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms: the evidence. Prev Med 2011;52 Suppl 1:S70-74.
  20. Archer T, Kostrzewa RM: Physical exercise alleviates ADHD symptoms: regional deficits and development trajectory.Neurotox Res 2012;21:195-209.
  21. Berwid OG, Halperin JM: Emerging support for a role of exercise in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder intervention planning. Curr Psychiatry Rep 2012;14:543-551.
  22. Lenz TL: A Pharmacological/Physiological Comparison between ADHD Medications and Exercise. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 2012;6:306-308.

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, seven-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional methods. Dr. Fuhrman coined the term “Nutritarian” to describe his longevity-promoting, nutrient dense, plant-rich eating style.
For over 30 years, Dr. Fuhrman has shown that it is possible to achieve sustainable weight loss and reverse heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses using smart nutrition. In his medical practice, and through his books and PBS television specials, he continues to bring this life-saving message to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.