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ADHD – what else could it be?

There are so many ways changing diet can help with behaviour issues, or even with diagnosed ADHD.  In this article, I am going to focus on conditions that mimic ADHD, and give you an understanding of how some diet and lifestyle interventions can resolve ADHD-like symptoms.

Iron deficiency

A 2014 study of more than 1200 children between the ages of 5 and 18 looked at the levels of nutrients in the children’s blood.  Half the children had ADHD, half didn’t.  There was a statistically significant difference in the children with ADHD compared to the children without ADHD for serum iron, ferritin and haemoglobin.  These are all measures of a child’s iron status.  So already, you can see how nutrition can affect ADHD like symptoms.  Many children are iron deficient simply because they don’t eat enough iron-containing foods like red meat.  In the short term, they may need a supplement, but never ever give a child an iron supplement without a blood test and without working with a practitioner.  Other children have leaky guts so they don’t absorb their iron as well as they should, so a nutritionist can put together a plan to heal the leaky gut, and therefore improve absorption.

Magnesium deficiency

Magnesium deficiency is a big issue in Australia, for adults and children.  We are deficient because we are not eating enough green leafy vegetables, and also because our soils are quite depleted of minerals.  A 2006 study involving 40 children who had ADHD symptoms were given magnesium (plus vitamin B6) for 8 weeks.  Their ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity, aggressiveness and lack of attention were scored over the 8 weeks.  By the end of the 8 weeks, hyperactivity and aggressiveness were reduced, and attention at school improved.  When the supplements were stopped, the symptoms came back!  Supplements are great to look at in clinical studies like this, as it is easy to monitor how much of a vitamin and mineral a child is taking.  But in real life, nutrients should come through food, and by improving a child’s diet, you don’t have to rely on supplements forever.

Zinc deficiency

In 2004, 400 children with diagnosed ADHD were split into two groups.  Half were given zinc supplements, the other half were given a placebo.   At the end of 12 weeks, tests were conducted that showed that the zinc was better than placebo at reducing hyperactive, impulsive and impaired socialisation symptoms.  Zinc can be lacking in a child with a restrictive diet, and being low in zinc affects children’s sense of taste so they get even more restricted!  With zinc, it is also really important to get a blood test to check levels, as if you give zinc to someone, it can throw other minerals out of balance.

Vitamin D deficiency

We have become so sun-safe that lots of kids are vitamin D deficient.  The best bits of your body to convert the sun’s rays into vitamin D is belly and bottom, so let your kids have a little nudie time in the backyard!  We have also shied away from lots of foods that used to provide vitamin D in our diet, like fatty fish and liver.  In 2012, 37 children with ADHD and 37 children without ADHD were tested for vitamin D levels.  The children with ADHD had significantly lower levels of vitamin D in their blood than the children without ADHD.  Again, get this checked, and get your kids bellies out in the sun for short periods!!

Omega 3 fatty acid deficiency

These are fats that are found in fish, nuts and seeds.  They are really important for brain health and lots of other issues.  A small trial of 13 primary school-age children with autism and severe tantrums, aggression or self-injurious behaviour took place in 2007.  After 6 weeks, the children who took an omega 3 supplements had less hyperactivity than the children who took the placebo.  Don’t be fooled by the omega 3 gummies on the shelf.  The amount of omega 3 in these is ridiculously low, and you will never see a change in your kid’s behaviour.  You have to invest in a high quality, high dose supplement from a practitioner.

Exposure to lead

It’s sad to say that even today, with all we know about lead toxicity, lots of children are still exposed to it.  Mining communities have a big issue, and some parts of Australia routinely test children for lead.  Outside of mining areas, one of the biggest sources of lead that children are likely to be exposed to is house paint.  Lead isn’t allowed to be in paint any more, but have you ever lived through renovations?  As the walls come down and the paint comes off, the lead is exposed.  Cheap imported toys will often be a source of lead, and children of course chew on their toys.   I do hair mineral analysis on kids that display symptoms of lead poisoning, or when I talk to parents and there are ways that the child could have been exposed to lead.  If there is lead, it is then a slow process to remove the lead from the child.  One very gentle way to do this is by using lots of herbs in the child’s food, like coriander and parsley.  A US study looked a blood-lead concentrations  in children with ADHD.  The conclusion was that lead exposure is responsible for nearly 300,000 cases of ADHD in US children.

Exposure to mercury

Mercury can get into our children through dental amalgams (unbelievably some dentist still use mercury amalgams!) and some fish.  The term “mad as a hatter” comes from a time when people who made hats used mercury in the process, and it eventually had an impact on their mental health.  In a 2012 study mercury was associated with inattention and impulsivity/hyperactivity.  The study also showed that fish intake was protective against ADHD!  So the message is to eat fish, but only the low mercury type (like salmon or sardines).

Exposure to mould

We used to think mould was unsightly and a bit stinky, but now we realise the enormous impact mould exposure has on our health.  When Polish researchers tested 277 children for IQ and inspected their homes for mould, they found that long-term exposure to mould led to lower IQs. This study looked a visible mould, but you can’t always see it.  If you are renting a mouldy home, see if you can move.  If you own your house and you know there has been some water damage or poor ventilation, get a proper assessment and take steps to remove the mould.

Food allergies

Food allergies can affect children in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways.  One of the less well-known ways is behaviour (and sleep, which indirectly affects behaviour).  Studies suggest that putting children on a diet excluding common allergens (milk, chocolate, soy, eggs, wheat, corn and legumes) can improve behaviour.  To find out what your child is sensitive to, I can organise a blood test for them, or I can put them on an elimination diet for a few weeks, then reintroduce the foods one at a time.  Parents never want their child to be the one that can’t eat whatever they want, but it’s time for parents to have resilience and see the bigger picture!

Blood sugar dysregulation

The impact of breakfasts of different glycaemic loads on the performance of nineteen children, aged six to seven years has been looked at. The glycaemic index of a meal reflects how quickly it makes your blood sugar rise.  High glycaemic load meals will make your blood sugar go high really fast, then plummet really fast.  Over a four week period, children attended a school breakfast club each day and ate one of three meals. Each meal offered a similar amount of energy but differed in their glycaemic load. The children’s behaviour, attention and memory were assessed in the classroom. Two to three hours after a low glycaemic load breakfast had been consumed, memory and attention were better.  There were fewer signs of frustration and focus was better.  The easiest way to eat a low glycaemic load diet is to eat real, whole foods, which are slower to digest.

Have you had your child assessed for all these things?

When you work with me on my 6-week coaching program, we work through all these factors.  All recipes are nutrient dense, and low glycaemic load.  We cover all the factors in your home which can be contributing to toxicity and affecting sleep too.  The program consists of 6 modules of online training, and 6 private sessions with me, to help get your child’s health back on track.  Get started here.

If you would like a meal plan for your family to help get all these important nutrients in to them, make an appointment here.  I develop 21 day meal plans for families to help them manage food allergies, likes, dislikes, cooking ability and available time.  The meal plans include recipes, shopping list, and even a food prep guide!!

Or if you just want to have a quick FREE chat to see how I can help your family, click here.

Best sources of iron for kids

It has been drummed into us that babies need to start solids, specifically fortified rice cereal, by the age of 6 months in order for them to top up their iron stores.  Human breast-milk is low in iron, so it is true that iron stores will get depleted if that is all that is eaten.  What isn’t true is that fortified rice cereal is the best way to top them up.  Did your baby start solids and magically and suddenly get constipated?  That’s because the form of iron that cereal is fortified with is the same as in cheap iron supplements, notorious for making adults constipated.  I made the mistake of giving my first child rice cereal, and watched the discomfort she went through with constipation straight away.  With my next two children, I skipped the rice cereal, and the constipation.

Why do we need iron?

Iron is a trace mineral that we need to make red blood cells.  These cells transport oxygen around our body.

Children need iron to keep their immune systems strong, to help them grow, and for brain development.  If they don’t get enough iron, they can be pale and listless, and have lower energy levels than their friends.

They can also get headaches and be breathless when they run around.

Not having enough iron can reduce your appetite, making it a vicious cycle.

Iron deficiency is also linked to restless legs.

What clues are there that my child might be low in iron?

  • Your child really, really, likes to eat ice
  • Your child is very sensitive to the cold
  • You child is very prone to infections
  • You child gets tired very easily, or lacks energy
  • You child has very brittle fingernails
  • Your child has a swollen tongue

These might prompt you to get a blood test done, by your GP or Nutritionist.

What types of iron are there?

There are two different type of iron – haem and non-haem.

Haem iron will come from animal products.

Non-haem comes from plants, animals and supplements.

Haem iron is the type that the body can most easily use.  Non-haem iron is poorly absorbed, but eating with vitamin C can improve absorption.

About half the iron in meat is haem, and the rest is non-haem, so it is good to have vitamin C when eating meat.

How can I get iron from my food?

Haem sources include:

  • Liver and other organ meats
  • Red meat
  • Oysters
  • Mussels
  • Eggs

Non-haem sources include:

  • Molasses
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Tomato paste
  • Lentils
  • Dried apricots
  • Almonds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Pecans

As you can see, it is much easier to get the iron from the haem sources than the non-haem sources.  If you are bringing your child up to be vegetarian or vegan, you will need to carefully construct each day’s menu to ensure a good intake of iron.

If your child is on reflux medication, you need to work extra hard to make sure they get enough iron.  This medication will reduce the absorption of iron.

Too much iron can be as bad as too little, and some people are genetically programmed to hang on to too much iron.  That’s why you should never supplement iron without having a blood test to check levels first.

Luckily, it is hard to overdose on iron when you are just eating food.  The body is clever enough to absorb more iron when your stores are low, and absorb less iron when your stores are sufficient.