Most doctors agree that proper nutrition is essential for ADHD treatment. In addition to general healthy eating, some specific vitamins and minerals may help improve ADHD symptoms.
Of course, make sure to consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian before starting your child on any supplements.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Many experts believe that a typical Western diet features too much omega-6 fatty acids (from corn oil, soybeans, etc.) and not enough omega-3 fatty acids (primarily from fish).
They believe that this imbalance may cause certain disorders with a neurological basis, such as ADHD. According to this popular theory, a lack of enough omega-3 fatty acids in pregnant and nursing women can negatively affect the brain development of their babies.
Individual nerve cells rely on structurally sound membranes to function. Omega-3 fatty acids are a key component of cell membranes. As a result, too-low amounts omega-3s in the diet may affect growth of these cells—which include your neurological system. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your child’s diet may help prevent, or control the course of, ADHD.
The omega-3 essential fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential part of nerve cell membranes. Studies have shown that people with behavioral and learning disorders, including ADHD, have low blood levels of DHA compared to “normal” subjects. (Stevens, et al., 1996) DHA is obtained primarily from fatty fish, fish oil pills, and krill oil.
Animal studies have also shown that a lack of dietary omega-3 fatty acids leads to lower amounts of DHA in the brain. It can also lead to harmful changes in the brain’s dopamine signaling system. Abnormal dopamine signaling is a sign of ADHD in humans.
Young lab animals born with a lack of DHA also lack normal brain function. When they are given extra DHA (from fish oil) in their diets, they regain some of that brain function. Some scientists believe that the same may be true for humans. (Calon and Cole, 2007)
Other studies have shown that a combo of essential fatty acids may help: DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Adding this combo to your diet daily for three months or more can produce improvements in ADHD symptoms (Huss, et al., 2010). However, other studies have been inconclusive, including a double-blind-placebo-controlled test in 2001 (Voigt, et al., 2001).
Zinc is an essential nutrient that plays important roles in many functions in the body. Its importance in proper immune system function is well known. However, scientists are only now beginning to fully appreciate its crucial role in brain function.
In recent years, low zinc levels have been linked to a number of brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and ADHD. Scientists speculate that zinc affects ADHD through its influence on dopamine-related brain signaling.
Studies have shown that zinc levels are lower than normal in a majority of children with ADHD. (Lepping and Huber, 2010). Clinical trials suggest that adding 30 mg of zinc sulfate to one’s daily diet may help reduce the need for psychoactive medications (and increase the effectiveness of medications) for the control of ADHD symptoms. (Arnold, et al., 2011)
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry concluded that women who don’t get enough folate (a type of B vitamin) during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to children with hyperactivity disorders. (Schlotz, et al., 2009)
Other small studies have suggested that taking certain B vitamins, including vitamin B-6, and other nutrients, such as magnesium, may be beneficial for the treatment of ADHD symptoms. (Mousain-Bosc, et al., 2006)
A study conducted in France found that a combination of magnesium and vitamin B6, given to patients for two months, significantly improved symptoms, including hyperactivity, aggression, and inattention. After the end of the study, when subjects no longer received supplements, symptoms gradually reappeared. (Mousain-Bosc, et al., 2004)
Magnesium is required for over 300 of your body’s enzymes to work properly. As a result, magnesium deficiency has been linked to a number of diseases, including asthma, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Some studies have suggested that supplemental magnesium may help treat ADHD, although scientists have not yet reached consensus on this issue.
As mentioned above, the combination of magnesium and vitamin B-6 has been shown in some studies to yield significant improvements in the symptoms of ADHD. (Mousain-Bosc, et al., 2004)
Although there is little direct evidence to support the claim, some experts have stated that selenium could help treat ADHD. This claim is based on the belief that too much of the heavy metal mercury in the body could lead to ADHD.
Scientific research has shown that selenium does help reduce the toxic effects of mercury—especially its most biologically damaging form, methylmercury. It does so by “regenerating” certain natural antioxidants in the body that work to remove methylmercury. (Bjerregaard, et al., 2011) However, more research needs to be done for this treatment method to be widely accepted.
Studies indicate that ADHD patients may be deficient in iron, and that taking iron pills may significantly improve symptoms of the disorder.
A recent study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to show that patients with ADHD have abnormally low levels of iron in a specific region of the brain associated with consciousness and alertness. (Cortese, et al., 2012)
A French study concluded that taking iron for three months had similar effects to stimulant drug therapy for the improvement of symptoms of ADHD. The subjects received 80 mg of iron daily, supplied as ferrous sulfate. (Konofal, et al., 2008)