Ask a Naturopath – My child has recently been diagnosed with ADHD. Is there anything I can do to support them and help to improve their focus and concentration?
My child has recently been diagnosed with ADHD. Is there anything I can do to support them and help to improve their focus and concentration?
Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder, with recent estimates that between 5-10% of school aged children in Australia have this diagnosis. Although researchers are still unraveling the precise physiology of ADHD, it is known is that there are distinct changes in both brain structure and activity, and in the levels of specific neurotransmitters.
There are multiple factors that can influence the way our nervous system works, our neurotransmitters are produced, and the way our brain develops, including those related to our genetics, environment, diet, and lifestyle. Fortunately, we can assess each of these areas, make appropriate changes, and begin to positively influence the future course of our children’s health.
For children with ADHD, the primary strategies we can consider to improve their focus and concentration, as well as over wellbeing, include:
- Improving sleep quantity and quality – sleep disorders are seen at significantly higher rates in those with ADHD – up to 80%, and new research has begun to question whether some ADHD symptoms are simply the result of chronic sleep problems. Impaired sleep has a profound impact on brain biochemistry, neurotransmitter levels, and the circadian rhythm, leading to impaired attention, focus, emotional regulation, and energy balance, amongst many other things. Improving sleep hygiene and using specific medicines to facilitate better sleep can make a big difference for some children.
- Identifying potential food allergies or intolerances – there is increasing awareness and understanding about the relationship between the food we eat and our mental health. For children, food allergies or intolerances can contribute to or worsen challenges in behaviour, emotional regulation, and attention. Most major food allergies are often identified early on in childhood (e.g. wheat, nuts, eggs, etc.), however some food reactions can go undetected for many years as they are more subtle, for example glutamate or histamine intolerance, or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.
- Evaluating nutritional status – certain nutrient deficiencies can contribute to or exacerbate certain neurodevelopmental disorders, including ADHD. Nutrients such as zinc, copper, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, folate, specific amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids all have an absolutely vital role to play in the developing brain, neurotransmitter production and nervous system regulation. Clinical evaluation of relevant signs and symptoms, as well as a review of the diet can uncover potential deficiencies that need to be corrected.
- Cleaning up the diet – our modern Australian diets are full of processed and packaged foods, and unfortunately, far too low in fresh whole foods. High intake of processed food often means high intake of unwanted additives, such as preservatives, flavourings, and colourings. Many of these additives are now associated with undesirable health outcomes, particularly in children, especially relating to behaviour and hyperactivity. Try downloading the app ‘The Chemical Maze’ to begin understanding which additives are bad for your children’s health and start eliminating processed foods from the diet. Focus on fresh, whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meat, raw nuts and seeds, free-range eggs, lentils, beans, chickpeas, fresh fish, and whole grains. Try to aim for these foods to make up 75-80% of the diet.
- Improving gut health – our digestive system and nervous system are intricately connected via a two-way highway known as the gut-brain axis. Via this communication highway, the brain can influence the way the gut works, and our gut health can have a profound impact on our nervous system function, including the way the brain develops in children. Kids with ADHD are more likely to have signs of gut health dysfunction, for example, constipation, loose stools or diarrhea, bloating or stomach pains, and food cravings, especially for refined carbohydrates and sugar. Addressing gut health issues is complex and often requires professional assistance to identify the problem and then treat it effectively.
The good news is that most nutritional or naturopathic interventions are safe to use alongside typical ADHD medications such as Ritalin or Concerta (methylphenidate) or other amphetamines, so these strategies can be implemented at the same time that your child is on medication (always check with a professional before commencing any new supplement or medicine). In fact, with ongoing work in these areas, some families are able to work with their doctor to reduce their child’s medication dose over time as the reliance on medication is reduced once underlying issues are improved.