With evidence linking diet and ADHD only growing, and a rise in the number of people seeking a diagnosis, our expert nutritionist, Claudine, reveals eight effective ways to shake up your eating habits that can help
Our attention is a valuable commodity in the age of social media and digital communications. While we live more and more of our lives online – from managing our personal finances, relationships, and our health, to how we work and entertain ourselves – our attention has taken an unfortunate dip.
While studies are ongoing, public perception certainly seems to agree. King’s College London reports that 49% of the public believe their attention span has declined over time, and 66% perceive the attention span of young people to be worse at present. At the same time, figures released by the ADHD Foundation suggest a 400% increase in the number of adults looking for a diagnosis of ADHD since 2020, and while not all people will use medication as part of their treatment, the NHS Business Services Authority still saw a 20.4% increase in patients being prescribed at least one ADHD drug between July and September 2022.
ADHD in adults can be characterised by:
- Difficulty maintaining focus and concentration.
- A lack of attention to detail, disorganisation, and forgetfulness.
- Fidgeting or restlessness.
- Impatience, excessive talking, interrupting and finishing other people’s sentences.
- Struggling to complete tasks, and procrastination.
There are also emotional aspects, including irritability, mood swings, and potential feelings of imposter syndrome due to the challenges that people with ADHD can face in completing seemingly simple day-to-day or work tasks.
ADHD medication works by balancing neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, in the brain. These neurotransmitters are involved in pleasure, reward, memory, motivation, mood, and attention. And while this is an effective solution, research shows that diet also has an important place in supporting people with ADHD.
With scientists reporting that nearly 60% of the brain is made of fat, it is unsurprising that this element is essential to its heath. Omega 3 fats, found in oily fish such as salmon and sardines, and walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds, increase our dopamine production and the number of receptors that can receive dopamine.
Lean meat and plant proteins
Protein is key for the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, which play a role in mood and concentration, and have been linked to ADHD. Protein also helps to balance blood sugar levels, helping to reduce the hyperactivity and impulsiveness linked to ADHD. Lean chicken, turkey, fish, chickpeas, lentils, hemp seeds, and eggs are all great sources of protein.
Minerals: iron, zinc and magnesium
Numerous studies, including one in the journal Annals of Medical & Health Sciences Research, found that iron levels have been shown to be lower in people with ADHD. Improving levels by including foods like liver, red meat, kidney beans, spinach, and broccoli, will help to give levels a boost. Iron, zinc, and magnesium are needed to produce the neurotransmitters linked to inattention and focus. Magnesium also has an additional calming effect, which is helpful for hyperactivity. Magnesium foods include dark green leafy vegetables, almonds, pumpkin and chia seeds. Plus, seafood is particularly high in zinc, as are avocados, so would be good to include in your diet.
B vitamins help to support memory, focus, and mental clarity. B6 from tuna, chickpeas, and bananas is required for the production of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which in low levels can increase ADHD symptoms. B12, found in eggs, chicken, and fish, and B9 from Brussels sprouts, sunflower seeds, and whole grains such as brown rice, are recommended for people with ADHD to address the genetic component.
There’s not a lot that a glass of water can’t solve. We can all lose focus and feel fatigued when we’re dehydrated. Maintaining a good level of hydration helps to improve memory, critical thinking, and cognitive function.
It’s important that people with ADHD avoid foods that they may be sensitive or intolerant to. Some common food sensitivities include gluten and conventional dairy. These have been shown to worsen ADHD symptoms where people have existing sensitivities. Having said that, pre and probiotic foods like apples, garlic, leeks, kefir, yoghurt, and kimchi support a healthy gut, and contribute to reducing symptoms.
Avoid processed foods
Food additives including food colourings, HVP (hydrolyzed vegetable protein and a type of MSG), yeast extract, and MSG are typically found in processed foods and snacks. As well as affecting gut health and people’s portion control, they have been shown in some studies to reduce dopamine levels.
Watch out for stimulants
Sugar is known to cause hyperactivity, particularly in children. Meanwhile, caffeine, which for many gets the day started, can be problematic for people with ADHD. Away from ADHD, caffeine is associated with insomnia and anxiety, as well as increased hyperactivity and impulsivity for people with ADHD.
The evidence linking diet and ADHD symptoms is growing. For people with ADHD, turning their focus towards food and how they’re fueling their body, may be a key way to improve attention in day-to-day life.
If you would like to seek advice on nutrition, visit the Nutritionist Resource or speak to a qualified nutritionist.