Why Food Matters for ADHD

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ADHD is all about brain function and thus anything that negatively affects the brain can be a contributing factor to ADHD symptoms.

So one factor is food. Here’s is a real life example from the book Finally Focused by Dr. James Greenblatt.

At age 3 Billy had problems with emotional control. By age 5 he had physically attacked his brother more times than the mother could count, had punched holes in his bedroom walls, and was unreachable at home or school. By age 6 he was diagnosed with ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. At school he was angry, irritable, and emotionally out of control.

The mother brought him in for testing and they found out he was sensitive to gluten and dairy. So she removed all gluten and dairy from his diet. By the end of a month Billy was a completely different kid. All of his ADHD and oppositional behaviors had melted away 100%. His reading ability jumped a grade level in one month, and he was able to talk about making a poor choice and how to correct it instead of running away and slamming doors. He would say things like “I’m sorry. Thank you. and I love you,” which he hadn’t done before. His mother said that for the first time he actually “looked happy.” She also said how liberating it was to find out that her son’s behavior wasn’t due to her “being a bad parent,” but that it was entirely because of his food sensitivities.

For this child food was the one and only problem and by making some diet changes his life and the lives of everyone in his family were utterly transformed.

There are multiple ways for food to cause problems for your child’s brain. One way is a food allergy. In Finally Focused, Dr. Greenblatt states that ADHD kids are 7 times more likely than non-ADHD kids to have a food allergy. And if a child has an undetected food allergy, every time they eat that food, it will trigger an inflammation response in the body.

Now inflammation is usually a good thing — it’s what brings redness and healing to a cut or scrape. But a situation where inflammation is being triggered multiple times a day by a food allergy leads to chronic or nearly constant inflammation. And this inflammation in the gut travels through the blood and crosses into the brain, which starts to make the barrier between the blood and the brain leaky — which means it allows through particles that it shouldn’t. And these particles cause more inflammation — because they are irritating the brain. In response to this irritation we see the symptoms and behaviors common in ADHD.

So this is a basic version of what happens for food allergies for an ADHD kid and it also happens for food intolerances (also called IgG reactions) which are harder to detect because symptoms can show up days after consuming the not tolerated food. But according to Greenblatt, in the kids he sees with ADHD 25% of the ones under 12 have a food intolerance as their main, or only problem. And this figure jumps to 75% for kids under 6 — so of Greenblatt’s patients, 3/4 of kids under 6 who are diagnosed with ADHD turn out to have a food intolerance as their main symptom driver. For this reason Greenblatt has all of his patients under 12 do a finger prick blood test for food intolerances. And treatment for food allergies or intolerances is simply to removed those foods from the diet.

Greenblatt also explains one further mechanism by which certain foods can interfere with your child’s brain function. Dairy contains proteins called casein, and, as you probably know, grains like wheat, rye, and barley contain a protein called gluten. What you may not know, is that in the body they become caseomorphin and gliadorphin which are — as they sound — morphine-like compounds. Some kids with ADHD have trouble breaking down these compounds which results in too high levels of caseomorphin and/or gliadorphin and these compounds then bind to your child’s opiate receptors in the brian — effectively drugging the child. This can result in many of the typical ADHD symptoms like:

  • problems with speech and hearing

  • spaciness and brain fog

  • near-constant fatigue

  • irritability and aggression

  • moodiness

  • anxiety and depression

  • sleep problems

According to Greenblatt one of the telltale signs of this caseomorphin or gliadorphin reaction is that the child seems addicted to these foods and is desperate to get them, maybe throws a tantrum, and then behaves much better after eating them. Due to the morphine-like hit they just received from eating that food.

Food allergies, intolerances, or addiction could be driving your child’s ADHD. You can contact a pracitioner to get your child tested for allergies and intolerances. Or if you have a hunch that your child has problems with dairy or gluten you can try a dairy or gluten free diet. If this is working for your child, you should notice changes within 30 days.