I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, and while I was devastated by the news, it is also very empowering to have this information, so that I can understand myself better and improve my life.
Researching ADHD for me is going to be a lifelong study as there is so much to learn. Medication alone is not the answer, as you need to adopt a multimodal approach of behaviour modification, diet, exercises for eye-hand co-ordination and balance, and parent/family education.
I have interviewed psychologists, teachers specialising in special needs teaching, occupational therapists, dieticians and nutritional experts.
The subject is vast! So for this piece I am concentrating on diet, as it is the quickest change you can make and will have almost immediate results. Especially with back-to-school breakfasts and lunch boxes to pack, let's start off the year on the right foot.
I have a great belief in diet, exercise and lifestyle as a vital component to a happy, healthy life. So I was bit despondent when I started researching ADHD and specific studies and clinical evidence, that there are very few studies done.
I roped in dieticians Niamh O'Connor, from Cork Nutrition, and Ruth Charles, from Nutri Kids Clinic, as experts in their field to help me research this.
The most famous study conducted on diet and ADHD is the Feingold study which evolved into the Feingold diet in the 1970s. This diet banned any foods with artificial additives like colourings and preservatives, processed foods and several fruits and vegetables.
Much of this advice has been discredited and the diet held up as too restrictive and only truly beneficial to a small number of children. But recently a British study by the UK Food Standards Agency has shown a small increase in ADHD symptoms in children consuming certain colour additives for a period of time.
And most recently, a study on soft-drink consumption conducted by Columbia University, the University of Vermont and Harvard showed some interesting results on behaviour. Children who drank more than four soft drinks a day were twice as likely to destroy things belonging to others, get into fights and physically attack people.
A number of studies have been done on the benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids and brain development and health. The study done specifically investigating the benefits of Omega 3 and ADHD showed benefits in a number of the test subjects but was inconclusive. There is a renewed interest in this area and several clinical studies are under way.
So while clinical studies are essential, part of the scientific approach is that a very specific nutrient or food is tested on a very specific symptom or condition under controlled scientific criteria. There simply has not been enough clinical trials in the area of ADHD and diet to draw conclusive evidence. But does that mean that diet and lifestyle should be ignored?
Not at all. A healthy diet and exercise, for any child, is vital to set them up for life with good health and, importantly, good lifestyle habits. And if you as a parent or an adult ADHD sufferer are confused about where to begin, take it step by step.
I enlisted the help of Suzanne Laurie, the director of The Institute Health Sciences, for some general dietary advice that can help balance blood sugar and give the body nutrients to boost brain health. I also recommend looking up Patrick Holford, who is a psychologist specialising in nutrition and brain health.
He has written a number of books and runs seminars in the UK, Ireland and the world over. As every person is unique, it is advisable to seek help from a professional dietician or nutritional therapist. Don't randomly start popping supplements and vitamins!
This is a summary of dietary advice that I have researched and collated. It is applicable to both children and adults with ADHD, and is good general dietary advice even if you don't suffer from the condition. It is much easier to adopt the diet as a family, rather than prepare special meals for the individual member who is an ADHD sufferer. No child wants to feel like the odd one out, especially in their own family. And preparing separate meals is both exhausting, time consuming and expensive.
Eat protein with breakfast:
This tip is important for two reasons. Firstly, if you or your child are taking medication for ADHD, whether it is Ritalin, Concerta, Adderell or any of the commonly prescribed meds, it is important to eat protein when you take it. Protein helps with the breakdown and absorption of the medication, which will improve it's effectiveness. Some medication is one dose only in the morning, others are three doses throughout the day. In each case, ensure that you eat a small quantity of quality protein.
I'm not talking big fry ups of bacon and eggs here! The second reason is that small quantities of good quality protein help keep you fuller for longer and slow down the break down and absorption of carbohydrates as sugar into the bloodstream. This stabilises the blood sugar and helps concentration and mood.
No orange juice or citrus fruits at breakfast:
This is a tip specifically if you are on ADHD medication. Any food high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C) will inhibit the breakdown and adsorption of ADHD medication. So if you are taking three doses a day, don't take them with foods like citrus, strawberries, kiwi fruits or fruit juices.
Stay hydrated with H2O:
Water is really the first choice of beverage here. Drinks like tea and coffee will dehydrate you even further. People with ADHD often suffer from excessive thirst and urination (which can be sometimes be linked to an Omega 3 deficiency).
This thirst can also be a side affect of ADHD medication. Even slight dehydration can affect concentration and mental performance, which will aggravate ADHD. Have a glass of water first thing on the morning, and carry a bottle wherever you go. Give your child a funky, colourful water bottle to carry around, to remind them to drink water.
Increase Omega 3 fats:
Although the jury is out on conclusively proving that an increased consumption of Omega 3 fatty acids improves ADHD symptoms, there is enough general dietary evidence to show that increased consumption does benefit brain health.
As most Western diets are lacking sufficient Omega 3, this is another tip for the whole family. Good sources of Omega 3 include salmon, tuna, pollack, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and rapeseed oil. Have at least two meals a week of oily fish like salmon and snack in between on plant sources of Omega 3.
It is possible to have a blood test done to test if you are lacking in Omega 3 fatty acids. I did my test through Heather Leeson from www.positivenutrition.ie and it was sent to a laboratory in the UK. To read more about this fascinating subject, I recommend Holford, who has written a number of books on nutrition and mental health.
Have regular, healthy, structured meals and snacks:
This is a very important tip for a number of reasons. A person, especially a child with ADHD, needs to eat regularly to help balance their blood sugar. If your blood sugar drops too low, it does affect concentration and energy, and can result is erratic, emotional and even aggressive behaviour.
Couple this with ADHD, and that is a recipe for disaster. The second reason is that ADHD sufferers need structure, in all aspects of their lives. Structure makes us feel secure and gives us an environment to flourish in.
And lastly, ADHD medication can suppress appetite, so it can be difficult to coach your child into eating enough nutritious food. So the old adage of 'you can't have a treat until you've had your dinner' is especially true with ADHD. If you fill up on junk, you won't want the good stuff.
Say no to sugar and yes to fresh fruit:
Many parents and teachers claim that after a sugar binge, kids run around like wind-up toys and are totally impossible.
Whether this is true or anecdotal, doesn't really matter as there are enough studies to show that excessive consumption of refined sugar is detrimental to your health. ADHD aside, with the growing epidemic of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes in Ireland, we are doing the best for our families by restricting sugar consumption. White sugar has absolutely no nutritional value and is an empty calorie. It is also a highly addictive substance and very difficulty to wean off. Learn to enjoy the juicy beauty of a perfectly ripe strawberry, the gorgeous aromatic oils as you peel an orange and crisp bite of a super fresh apple.
Cosy up to whole grains and greens:
Complex, unprocessed carbohydrates are a good source of slow-releasing energy for the body and brain. Full of fibre, they help maintain steady blood sugar. Whole grains like oats porridge, brown rice and barley are also rich in nutrients like B vitamins and zinc, that a small study showed ADHD sufferers often lack.
These nutrients are essential for brain function and development and also support the nervous system when under stress.
Green vegetables like broccoli, spinach and kale are powerhouses of nutrients, fantastic for overall health but especially in counteracting a sweet tooth.
Preliminary studies by DCU indicate that if you enjoy bitter-tasting compounds in foods like spinach and olives, you are less likely to crave sugar.
September 24 is National ADHD Awareness Day. Email email@example.com for information on the day and also a full list of resources, educational courses and seminars. A great resource for any child or adult with ADHD.
Rozeanne is speaking at Teaching and Parenting Children and Young People with ADHD at Red Cow Moran Hotel, Naas Road, D22 on Wednesday, September 25.