Why does my child struggle to behave like other kids? Humans are social creatures and programmed to live in societal groups. While it’s important to celebrate individuality and not crush creativity and uniqueness, we all (adults and children alike) need to adhere to certain boundaries in order to fit in and function in families, peer groups and communities. For some kids, this is a simple process, but for others, their brain literally can’t process these ways of adhering to basic structures, rules and boundaries. Children who struggle with focus and hyperactivity are often diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or a combination of both.
ADD/ADHD is a common childhood disorder (which often persists into adulthood) characterized by persistent and developmentally inappropriate levels of inattention, overactivity, and impulsivity. There are currently no biochemical tests for AD(H)D so the condition is diagnosed by observation of behavioural symptoms. The behaviour of children with AD(H)D interferes with their home, school and social lives, but it is important to realize their difficult behaviours are accidental, not intentional. These children do understand rules, instructions and social expectations; they just have a difficult time following them. It is also important to know that some relatively simple steps can modify most of these behaviours.
The defining forces behind ADD/ADHD There doesn’t seem to be one single cause for this condition and indications are that reasons for its onset are always multi-factorial and can include any of the following:
• Diet: low fibre/high sugar; food additives; a high amount of refined, processed foods; individual sensitivities to certain foods or food groups including dairy, wheat, gluten, fructose, salicylates/phenols, oxalates, amines, glutamates, yeast.
• Neurotransmitters: an imbalance in the levels of the neurotransmitters Dopamine (DA) and Noradrenaline (NA) in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. Too little DA and NA lead to mental fatigue and boredom and too much interferes with pre-frontal cortex function (implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviours; personality expression, decision-making and moderating correct social behaviour).
• Genetics: ADHD often occurs in families suggesting a genetic link to the disorder.
• High levels of kryptopyrrole/Pyrroluria: Resulting in a deficiency of B6 and zinc (needed for neurotransmitter production). This condition has been linked to many behavioural and emotional disorders.
• Nutritional Deficiencies: can impair neurotransmitter synthesis and brain function – especially vitamins C, B6 and B12, folate and the minerals, Zinc, Magnesium, Calcium and Iron.
• Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acid metabolism – low levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), essential to brain function, have been noted in AD(H)D.
• High oxidative stress and poor methylation (over or under active)
• Excessive production of testosterone: There is a link between boys with higher levels of testosterone and ADHD (this is heavily influenced by high sugar consumption).
• Maternal diet, smoking, alcohol consumption during pregnancy and breast-feeding: Studies suggest a potential link between cigarette smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy and ADHD in children.
• Multiple antibiotic use and/or an imbalance in gut bacteria: changes in the gut microbiota may be relevant to the development of behavioural symptoms associated with AD(H)D
• Parasitic Infections: many can be linked to disturbances in brain and neurochemistry and the immune and digestive processes of the gut.
• Environmental toxins; heavy metals – especially lead, mercury, copper, and chemicals. Several lines of evidence support a disturbance in the “Gut-Brain-Immune Axis in AD(H)D, with toxicity from heavy metals (i.e. mercury and lead) and/or food constituents (chemicals) driving brain dysfunction. Relieving and/or Eliminating Symptoms of AD(H)D Management of children with AD(H)D should not be focused on finding the “cure” but on determining the triggers. By removing or limiting possible causes, behavioural control can be improved and quality of life improved for the child and their families. Nutrition is key: Modification of a child’s diet, regardless of the factors underpinning the behavioural disorder, goes a long way in supporting control in a child. A well-rounded diet/supplement plan, tailored to the individual needs of the child will provide the nutrients needed to support the child’s biochemistry, neurotransmitters and brain health as well as help to balance gut bacteria and gut health. It should also focus on eliminating problematic, high-trigger foods. Make sure every meal and snack includes:
• Protein: a small amount provides the building blocks need for growth and to produce neurotransmitters such as dopamine.
• Healthy Fats: the brain is made up of 70% fat so it’s vital to provide enough fat in the diet to support growth and repair and the development of new neural pathways to promote learning and development in the brain.
• Fibre: the beneficial effects of a high-fibre diet on memory and cognition are starting to be explored. High-fibre diets support the growth of healthy gut bacteria and increase detoxification and elimination.
• Vegetables and other plant foods: as well as fibre, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds provide loads of vitamins and minerals, plus some healthy fats and protein.
• Wholegrains – (no white processed grains please). A small amount of whole grains in the diet provide good amounts of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
• Eliminate all processed foods, high sugar sweet foods and foods with additives: these foods will all contribute to dysregulation in the brain, neurotransmitters and body in general. These foods will also feed bad gut bacteria, yeasts and parasites if they are present. Remember that white bread, pasta, rice and crackers all fall into this category. Also define and eliminate any specific food groups that may be causing symptoms.
• Supplementation may be beneficial: children with ADHD are often found to be low in zinc, magnesium, B6 and Omega-3 fatty acids.
• Testing for other triggers such as heavy metals, parasites, pyrroles, methylation etc
Time and time again, I’ve watched children in my clinic flare after eating a problematic food during the consultation and then hear the stories of calm and control after dietary modification. With tears in her eyes one mother said to me (of her 12 year old ADHD daughter) – “for the first time I can remember, we held hands and we talked, as we calmly walked on the pier together– I feel like my daughter is now back with me”
Karena is a clinical nutritionist, presenter, educator and health coach working in private practice and within the corporate sector.