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Could Your Child’s Diet be Affecting Their Brain?

Written by Melissa Robertson

Is your child’s diet affecting their brain development? New research is suggesting that ADHD could be caused by more than just genetics and changing your child’s diet may help their behaviour. Check out PLN’s in-depth look at the connection between food and behaviour.

Five percent of children are diagnosed with ADHD worldwide. While that figure may seem low, ADHD is underrecognized and underdiagnosed despite the fact that it is the most treatable psychiatric disorder.

What does an ADHD brain look like?

Dr. Michael Lyon, MD  has studied the brains of people with ADHD and said that the executive centers deep within the cortex of the brain are both underdeveloped for the age of the child and also very inactive.

“If you measure the brain waves from this part of the brain when a child with this condition is awake that part of the brain will be asleep,” he says in a webinar addressing the link between nutrition and ADHD.

“I believe that ADHD is a condition of many different causes,” he says.

Dr. Lyon said the chemicals in our environment, toxins built up in the body of the mother passed onto the baby, as well as the food we are eating as possible contributors to these types of neurological conditions.

“Even though the brain is kept alive under all types of adversity, it is not able to thrive unless it has a far different circumstance in terms of its nutrition. The brain is the most nutritionally demanding organ in the body,” he says.

Can we treat ADHD with diet?

Traditional treatment of ADHD does not typically address diet. Treatment is usually a combination of ABA therapy (applied behaviour analysis) and medication.

According to the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, “the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD is increasing, but it is unclear why.” Most physicians and research indicate the increase in ADHD is directly linked to the food we eat.

Jess Sherman, a former teacher turned Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Author, says that what and how we eat affects how we feel and that in turn affects how we think, behave and learn.

Her book, Raising Resilience explores the connection between the health of the body and the function of the brain. She teaches parents how to eliminate biological stress on their children through nutrition in order to improve their behaviour. She says that poor gut health, infection, blood sugar instability, nutrition deficiency, allergies, constipation, and poor sleep can lead to depression, anxiety, ADHD, self-injury, aggression and hyperactivity.

The brain and body work as one unit so when you improve the health of the body – which you can do by making certain food choices – you also improve the function of the brain. And when you do that, behaviour changes,” she says.

“Nutrition is really a foundation for anything else to work well. If you have holes in that foundation you are not going to get as good of results from any other treatment you are doing,” says Nicole Beurkens, PhD.

She suggests changes to diet to improve behaviour in children in her therapy practice. Sugar and high fructose corn syrup can impact the mood of children, their anxiety levels and behaviours in a negative way. She also said that chemicals in food can also exasperate mood, anxiety and behaviour issues.

Is diet the answer?

While Heidi Bernhardt, Founder, Director and Executive Director of the Center for ADHD Awareness Canada agrees that five percent of children worldwide suffer from food sensitivities, she does not believe that diet is the answer to resolve ADHD.

“Doing things like taking sugar out of the diet or restricting certain foods is not going to change ADHD. It is not going to make ADHD go away,” she says.

Instead, she suggests a multi-faceted approach that includes parental education, school intervention, behaviour therapies and if necessary, medication.

According to the an article published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, ADHD is multidetermined and complex, requiring a multifaceted treatment approach. Nutritional management is one aspect that has been relatively neglected to date.

Nutritional factors such as food additives, refined sugars, food sensitivities/allergies, and fatty acid deficiencies have all been linked to ADHD.

There is increasing evidence that many children with behavioral problems are sensitive to one or more food components that can negatively impact their behavior. In general, diet modification plays a major role in the management of ADHD and should be considered as part of the treatment protocol.

What foods can be triggers?

Jess Sherman says that while any food has the potential to trigger behaviour shifts, certain foods do tend to be more of a problem for a lot of kids, mostly because they are hard to digest, they cause a certain degree of stress on the body, and because they have the potential to interfere with nutrient absorption.

“I have also seen a lot of kids triggered by chemicals, both in foods and around the home. There are even some naturally occurring chemicals in foods like histamine and oxalate and glutamate that can be triggers for some kids.”

According to the Child Development Institute, there are five food groups that can affect your child’s mood, whether they have a diagnosis or not.

Dairy – If your child is lactose intolerant or allergic to the proteins found in dairy, you may see changes in her mood and behavior. Many children become irritable, cranky, or aggressive. Children with dairy allergies or intolerance also tend to suffer from frequent colds and ear infections. Babies may exhibit colicky symptoms, whereas toddlers and older children may become inconsolable and irritable.

Artificial Coloring – Many countries have banned artificial coloring due to the detrimental effects these chemicals have on children. Linked to ADHD, anxiety, hyperactivity, and headaches in children, artificial coloring can also cause significant behavioral changes. Because artificial coloring is found in many sugary foods, parents often blame behavioral changes on sugar. Artificial coloring is also often hidden in unexpected foods like bread and yogurt. Avoid products with yellow No. 5, red No. 40, and blue No. 1 if you’re concerned about your child’s mood swings after consuming food with artificial coloring.

Sugar – Sugar can cause a child to be hyperactive, which is often an immediate indicator that sugar is the culprit. However, sugar is in just about everything the average child eats unless the child is eating a whole foods-based diet. Sugar has been shown to cause long-term health damage, and a diet high in processed foods has been linked to depression, cognitive delay, and sleep problems.

Preservatives – There are several preservatives that may cause behavioral problems in children. They include but are not limited to nitrates, nitrites, and sodium benzoate. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer that also causes mood and behavior changes, including headaches and hyperactivity. Sodium benzoate is commonly found in juice products marketed toward children.

Food Allergens – Common food allergens are dairy, nuts, eggs, soy, and corn. When a child has an intolerance or an allergy to a particular food, it can cause significant health and behavior issues. However, it can be difficult to pinpoint which allergen is making your child sick without the help of an allergist. A food intolerance, for example, is often missed and a child is instead diagnosed with ADHD.

If you notice behavior changes or mood swings in your child, consider keeping a food journal. Track what they eat and when they exhibit concerning behavior. Try eliminating suspicious foods to see if the behavior changes. While food isn’t the cause of all behavioral issues and conditions, it’s important to make sure that your child is not suffering from something that can be easily remedied.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Parent Life Network or their partners.