Can you redirect ADHD and learning disabilities without prescription drugs? Such a big topic, so I split it into three parts. Short answer: Yes, you can. Bonus: Your child will be healthier over all from these efforts too.
Parts 1 and 2 covered the hard and crusty bits first: The right food, the right fats, and fungus (yup, I said fungus.. read part 2). Those may be the most important nutrition steps you can take to redirect a child struggling to learn, focus, pay attention, understand what h/she is reading, write, or even socialize more happily. I have seen these steps reduce or eliminate the need for prescription stimulants in kids, and make for happier, healthier, more functional children.
But there’s still more you can do. Part 3 is a finishing touch: Adding some minerals. You can skip the more labor intensive fixes for food, fats, and fungus if you wish. But, your child is less likely to enjoy as much success in tackling ADHD naturally.
Why is this true? Because no matter what you eat, your gut is full of microbes – that’s your gut biome. You need it. With a sterile gut, you would die. Microbes do a lot for us. They “teach” the immune system, regulate inflammatory responses, keep pathogens out by killing them for us, impact neurotransmitter balance, and make extra nutrients for us. They can even exchange genetic material with stuff that you eat (which is one reason why GMO foods are scary – human gut microbes have been found to produce the same pesticide that GMO foods are engineered to make, after volunteers ate a diet of GMO foods.)
Junky, starchy, processed, sugary diets promote a lousy gut biome. That means more toxins and trash for your brain and body, because those microbes produce their own waste, and then you absorb it. These toxins can be agitating, irritating, and measurable with a urine microbial organic acid test, in case you’re wondering how to find them. Some of the toxins that gut microbes produce have been linked to autism and seizure disorders.
With a healthy biome, which you develop from eating whole unprocessed un-sugary food, “waste” is the good stuff: some B vitamins, acids to kill pathogens and regulate gut pH, clearance of toxins, completion of digestion so nutrients are more available to you.
Long short? Your gut bugs eat what you eat, and they eat first. So, clean house (see parts 1 and 2) before you begin a supplement protocol for ADHD or attention and focus. Otherwise, you’ll just be feeding those expensive supplements to the garbage gang. This is one reason why children can react or regress dramatically when given a new supplement, before cleaning up the diet or without first directly treating gut microbes that shouldn’t be there. You might just be fertilizing the weeds, so to speak; they bloom, and create an explosion of toxins that can be systemically absorbed. No good. It’s also why you might see a supplement do nothing in particular, when all signs indicate it should really help. Things can really change once that gut microflora environment is in good shape. Even prescription medications for ADHD can work better (or not be needed at all), once these pieces are optimized.
Once you’re ready to supplement, pay attention to minerals. These are critical for the brain to focus and learn. Iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, calcium, selenium, and chromium all have tiny but crucial roles to play, in helping the brain smoothly produce neurotransmitters – as well as dismantle neurotransmitters as needed, to keep things balanced. Serotonin, dopamine, GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), and dozens of other neurotransmitters let us do what we need at the right moments: Sleep, relax, be alert, concentrate, read, remember, process, react, stay calm, and so on. These amazing chemicals do all sorts of things in our brains. Too much serotonin can build up and create more anxiety, or even a deadly state called serotonin syndrome, but too little can leave you depressed, or paradoxically, too anxious. Too little dopamine can mean you can’t focus or learn very well; too much can mean you have obsessive compulsive behaviors. Too little GABA may mean you have seizures; too much can leave you lethargic. It’s all in the balance, and the body uses a steady supply of several nutrients to maintain that balance: Glucose, iron, B vitamins, protein, magnesium and more.
Most kids I encounter with ADHD are eating diets low in minerals. They tend to eat starchy, sugary diets that are marginal for healthy brain fats, low for good proteins, and nearly nil for minerals. If your child isn’t eating a lot of fresh vegetables, leafy greens, seeds, or nuts /nut butters, and fresh meats or eggs, then they aren’t eating a lot of minerals. This describes most kids I’ve met in my practice.
First on my list of minerals to check is iron. It has a history when it comes to attention deficits. Kids can need anywhere from 5 to 15 to as much as 50 mg per day, depending on their iron status. This one is a deal breaker for turning tyrosine, an amino acid that we get from protein we eat, into dopamine in the brain, which allows us to pay attention. Children with poor iron status will have attention problems; they may also be quite hyperactive as they languish in a weakened status known as pre-anemia. Before medicating, ask your pediatrician to do an iron study. Because iron is so complex in its many roles in the body, your doctor will have to do more than look at just serum iron (which means little all by itself) or hemoglobin and hematocrit (which many pediatricians like to check with a quick fingerprick and blood drop). Before iron is supplemented, do this careful footwork first with your pediatrician.
An iron study, a tool I use often in my practice, should include a blood draw for serum iron, transferrin, ferritin, iron binding capacity, and a blood count to show how red blood cells look. Ferritin levels (in my experience) should be at a robust 40 or better for kids to have optimal functionality from iron status, even though the reference range drops to 10 or even 6 from some labs. Low ferritin means low levels of iron are available for the body to use. Whether or not a child is being placed on a medication for attention, iron status should be solid; otherwise, it will interfere.
Iron rich foods? The usual suspects include red meats and eggs, but I also like to suggest pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, sunflower seed butter, dark leafy greens (chard, kale, spinach), cashews, molasses, quinoa, and of course, legumes like lentils and all sorts of beans. Eating iron rich foods with citrus or vitamin C will help the gut absorb more iron. Even using iron cookware can help.
If you and your doctor find that your child needs an iron supplement, consider easier to absorb forms like ferrous bis-glycinate rather than ferrous sulfate, which can be harder for some to tolerate. Iron supplements in the correct form and dose do not usually trigger constipation. Iron is one nutrient that most microbes really, really like. For that reason, I hesitate to enrich iron in kids without first knowing status for bowel microbes or other infections. If a child reacts especially badly to efforts to reverse iron depletion, it may be because gut microbes are enjoying that iron and creating a toxic bloom. Clear those out, and things can go better.
Next on my list is magnesium. This mineral is needed for smooth nerve impulse transmission and can be quite calming when used correctly. It works with B vitamins to allow the brain to have a steady supply of glucose, which is its preferred fuel. Skip the blood work, because this is a safer mineral to supplement (iron can quickly become toxic). You can go directly to magnesium rich foods: Banana, dark leafy greens, unsweetened cocoa powder (omit the sugar by using the powder in smoothies with some stevia), avocado, lentils, chick peas (hummus), pumpkin seeds, and nuts. Another trick: Let your child soak in a tub near bedtime with a cup of Epsom salt in it. This is magnesium sulfate, which handily absorbs through skin to enrich pathways needing this mineral. The sulfur helps too, as it is needed to run liver and digestive enzymes. This can help your child fall and stay asleep easier.
If supplements are easier, there are many that give magnesium, in powders, capsules, and liquids. Know this: Magnesium citrate and magnesium oxide are particularly effective laxatives, so if you don’t want that result, dose carefully or use a different form (magnesium glycinate for example). And, the body carefully balances magnesium relative to other minerals, especially calcium. Many products include both in a 2:1 ratio (twice as much calcium as magnesium). Kids need about 300 mg magnesium daily. Some in my practice with constipation and neurological challenges safely use up to 700 mg. Don’t do this without professional guidance. Magnesium can reach toxic levels, where it will impact cardiac, nerve, and muscle function.
Next stop: Zinc. When I hear a child is wiggly, chewing shirts or sleeves, gnawing on pencils, paper, or fingers, bothered by tags and fabric, and just all around distractible, I will look at zinc. It’s not imperative to do blood work here because clinical signs for weak zinc status are easy to spot (white dots on nails, penchant for chewing fabric, picky appetite, sluggish growth pattern and appetite), but blood work can give you a concrete idea of what is needed. Zinc levels should be squarely in the middle of the reference range, not toward the bottom. Blood work can also reveal levels of zinc relative to copper in the body. An upside down ratio (too little zinc, too high copper) is often present with aggressive, impulsive, inattentive, or combative behavior. Correcting this ratio with careful supplementation can lessen these behaviors.
Most of our zinc is found in the brain, and in the hippocampus in particular, which is pivotal for memory and mood. Marginal zinc status has many impacts on the brain and how it balances things like GABA (which gives a calmed, attentive state) and glutamate (excitatory and unable to remember or learn). Less zinc will tilt that balance away from GABA.
Zinc is found in foods already mentioned here – nuts, seeds, meats, pork, chocolate, eggs, tahini, chick peas, legumes – and in others like salmon, scallops, flax seeds, or garlic. It needs a properly acid stomach to initiate its absorption, like any minerals. Supplements abound, from liquid (tasteless to those needing zinc, metallic tasting to those in good zinc status) to lozenges to capsules. I often place children on 25-40 mg of zinc daily, when warranted.
Chromium, selenium, iodine, and calcium all have parts to play in optimizing attention and focus as well. You’ll find these in the same foods – seeds, nuts, meats or pork, fish, dark greens, or deep colored fruits like blueberries or cranberries. You can choose from multivitamins that provide a strong complement of these minerals, but whole food sources deliver additional benefits: Good energy sources, fiber, proteins, healthy fats and oils, and in some cases, phytochemicals not classified as nutrients but noted for other benefits (anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, or neuroprotective).
Nothing ever exists in a vacuum when it comes to nutrients. A lot of one mineral may mean displacing another – so monitoring the whole child, the whole diet, and the whole complement of supplements, if you use them, is important. Approaching your child’s ADHD as a nutrient balancing act rather than a stimulant shortage can not only resolve the attention piece, but can create better health over all for your child in the end.