Gut Health for ADHD

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Our colon, or gut, is home to trillions of bacteria — in fact, their cells out number our cells 10 to 1! For the most part they are friendly bacteria, and in exchange for our providing a nice place for them to live they keep us healthy, stop bad bacteria from multiplying, break down and rebuild hormones, and create essential fats and vitamins for us, amongst other things. Recent scientific studies have found that these bacteria also help prevent a huge range of conditions like diabetes, gum disease, colds & flu, eczema, constipation, rheumatoid arthritis, and many more. Besides all of this studies are also showing that these microbes affect the brain and play a central role in how we think and feel. This means that microbes may be affecting your child’s brain and behavior.

Some strains of bacteria are less friendly and they and their by-products can have negative effects on your child’s brain causing ADHD behaviors. But there are way to test this — one of which is a urine test called the Organic Acids Test or OAT test for short. And correcting an imbalance of bacteria can be as easy as giving your child a probiotic.

Let’s hear Sam’s story from Finally Focused by Dr. James Greenblatt.

At 9 Sam was extremely hyperactive and disorganized. At home he didn’t follow directions and threw temper tantrums. He had been asked to leave preschool twice until his behavior improved. He was diagnosed with ADHD and tried multiple medications — which had very negative side-effects for him — and under went many psychological and psychiatric evaluations. The results of his OAT test showed high levels of a by-product of “bad” bacteria which were causing high dopamine levels. High dopamine leads to super stimulated neurons which cause agitation and anxiety, make it harder to focus and learn, decrease self-control, and impair decision making — many of the symptoms of ADHD.

Sam started taking a high dose probiotic and within 30 days his symptoms had improved. His behavior was more under his control and his teachers said he was able to participate in class — even getting extra stars on his behavior chart.

In this case a simple intervention — taking a probiotic — improved Sam’s ADHD when multiple medications and interventions had not. This is the importance of gut microbes for your child.

Nutrients for ADHD

The brain needs many different nutrients at just the right levels and combinations to function optimally. And when these levels are sub-par the child’s brain may suffer. For instance, take Micah’s story from Finally Focused by Dr. James Greenblatt.

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Micah was 9 years old. He was diagnosed with ADHD at 6 and went on medication but suffered with side effects. At 9, his family couldn’t go out to a restaurant because Micah’s behavior was so inappropriate. This devastated his father, who had fond memories of going out to eat as a child and wanted to re-create them with his own family. Micah had no friends or play dates, he angered quickly and he often told his parents he hated them or threatened to hurt them. His father loved being at work because at home he felt like he was walking on eggshells.

Micah was tested for various nutrients and it turned out he was deficient in magnesium and had a severe excess of copper with low zinc. Micah was put on a magnesium supplement and a zinc supplement which is a nutrient that balances with copper and so would also correct the copper excess. After 2 months of taking these supplements Micah’s parents and teachers reported dramatic changes. In school he was now participating in class, completing assignments, and interacting successfully with his peers. His father said “It’s a miracle. We can even go out to eat!”

In this example the child and the family’s life were completely changed through one simple intervention: supplementing the child with key nutrients.

The reason that correcting the nutrients made such a difference for Micah is that his brain was having trouble functioning without them. When Magnesium is deficient the brain is compromised because magnesium plays a key role in the formation of the neurotransmitters — which are chemicals that help your brain cells talk to each other. So magnesium is helping the body make the neurotransmitter dopamine (which regulates attention) and the neurotransmitter serotonin (which regulates mood). So without sufficient magnesium Micah was having trouble regulating both his attention and his mood, but once his magnesium level was up he no longer had these problems.

Zinc, another nutrient that Micah was deficient in, is also essential for brain health. It is essential for the creation of every cell in the body, helps create neurotransmitters, the production of melatonin — the hormone that gets you to sleep — depends on it, and it nourishes the entire brain. Without zinc it’s very hard to think! So by raising his zinc levels, Micah’s brain now had the support it needed to function better. And, as I said before, higher zinc levels, will balance out copper which in excess can contribute to agitation, anxiety, poor sleep, and loss of appetite. So this too contributed to Micah’s improved mood because his zinc and copper levels were now optimal.

Magnesium, Zinc, and Copper are just a few of the nutiens that affect the brain. But there are others. For example, lithum. For ADHD kids who are irritable, angry, aggressive, and impulsive lithium can be very effective. Yes, this is the mineral that in high doses can be used to treat Bipolar Disorder, but for ADHD lithium in low doses — sometimes called nutritional lithium — can, in Greenblatt’s words, “dramatically soothe the troubled, turbulent emotions that agitate and upset some ADHD children, leading them to helplessly lash out at others.”

I know it may seem strange but Greenblatt explains that when a child comes to his office with this irritable, aggressive ADHD he does a Hair Tissues Minerals Analysis test and very often finds extremely low — undetectably low — levels of lithium. When he puts the child on low dose lithium the aggression, irritability, an ADHD go away.

Lithium works by balancing neurotransmitters, protecting brain cells, decreasing neuro-inflammation in the brain, and moving Vit B12 and folate into the nerve cells - a must for a healthy brain and nervous system.

Another nutrient that is essential for brain health and therefore essential for kids with ADHD is omega 3. You’ve probably heard of this fatty acid — it’s what makes cold water fatty fish so healthy — their large doses of omega 3s. In the brain omega 3 is needed for just about every aspect of moving information between brain cells which means every thought, emotion, and action needs omega 3. It also decreases low-grade inflammation which protects the brain cells from dying.

The key with omega 3 is getting enough omega 3 in relation to omega 6. Our hunter gatherer ancestors likely had a ratio of 2 omega 6s to 1 omega 3 whilst the Standard American Diet has a ratio of 15 omega 6s to 1 omega 3. This is largely due to the consumption of vegetable and seed oils, transfats, and feeding grain to cattle instead of grass and eating the meat. Eliminating those oilds, fats, and switching to grass-fed beef can make a big difference to omega 6 to omega 3 ratios. And studies have shown that supplementing with omega 3 in the form of fish oil can affect a wide range of ADHD symptoms from hyperactivity, to attention, to disobedience, to hostility, to better memory & learning, to better reading ability and sleep!

Sometimes it’s nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, that are causing your child’s ADHD symptoms and by correcting these nutrient problems the ADHD symptoms will go away.

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.