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Healthy Habits and ADHD: Food for Thought

Brain Food: 11 ADHD Diet, Nutrition, and Supplement Rules

An unfortunate schism has existed in the world of AD/HD for many years. “Mainstream” medical researchers, more familiar with the arsenal of pharmaceuticals available to treat AD/HD, have tended to ignore or discount “alternative” approaches. Meanwhile, the “alternative” crowd has demonized the use of stimulant medication, grossly exaggerating or distorting the facts.

In the controversial world of AD/HD, people declare themselves to be in the “medication camp” or the “anti-medication camp.” For many years, individuals have asked about dietary approaches or nutritional supplements that could “treat” AD/HD in place of stimulant medication. Such a question is born of this false dichotomy – an either/or presumption. Rather than asking “What can I take instead of stimulant medication?” a better question is, “What are all the steps I can take to enhance my cognitive and emotional functioning?”

Medication remains the most powerful and proven way to reduce AD/HD symptoms, however not all people respond well to medication, and stimulant medication is not a panacea. A responsible approach to taking charge of AD/HD is to be open to learning about multiple approaches that, together, can greatly increase daily well-being and quality of life. There is increasing evidence that diet plays an important role in our emotional and cognitive functioning.

Keith Conners of Duke University was one of the first AD/HD researchers to explore this issue. He found that children who ate a breakfast containing protein showed significantly improved functioning in the classroom during the morning – with increased attention, alertness, and productivity – in contrast to children who consumed the more typical breakfast high in refined sugar and starch. (Conners, K. (2001) Feeding the Brain: How Foods Affect Children)

More recently, Daniel Amen, M.D., author of Healing the Hardware of the Soul (New York: Free Press, 2002) emphasizes the importance of diet in managing AD/HD, depression, and other coexisting conditions. For individuals with AD/HD, Amen recommends a diet high in protein and low in processed sugar and carbohydrates. In particular, he recommends a high protein breakfast (in agreement with Conners) and the strict limiting or elimination of simple sugars (cakes, candy, ice cream, and pastries) and simple carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes) throughout the remainder of the day. Such a diet stabilizes blood sugar levels, helping to regulate both energy and concentration, and helps to increase dopamine levels in the brain. In addition, Amen recommends taking L-tyrosine (500-1,500 milligrams two to three a day). He believes that L-Tyrosine increases brain dopamine levels and writes that his patients report improvement in energy, focus, and impulse control when they take this supplement regularly.

A mix of protein and complex carbohydrates at breakfast supplies the correct amino acids to the brain. serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine have all been linked to diet. More information on the interaction of diet and mood can be found in Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best by Elizabeth Somer.

Self-medication with food and alcohol

Very little has yet been written about the relationship between problem eating patterns in women with AD/HD and the brain’s neurochemical reaction to specific types of food. In an informal survey of women with AD/HD several years ago, many women reported patterns of “self-medicating” with carbohydrates in the evening, as well as a pattern of binging on carbs in response to stress. Improved knowledge of the interaction between dietary intake and brain chemistry makes it much clearer how these behaviors, long labeled “self-medicating”, are just that. Amen writes of the link between carbohydrates and serotonin levels in the brain. So – stressed or depressed? – Dunkin Donuts has just what you need! While sugar and starch will raise serotonin levels, they also come with a raft of negative side effects – low self-esteem, shame, guilt and weight gain – not to mention the health risks associated with weight gain.

Mood, Focus, and ADHD in Women

Women with AD/HD can help improve focus and decrease AD/HD symptoms by:

  • Developing a daily diet with protein at every meal, complex carbohydrates, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a minimum of processed sugar and starch. Four to five smaller meals are preferable to two or three large meals. This diet will help keep your energy and focus stable throughout the day.

Stress is a given for women with AD/HD, but stress levels can be managed and reduced.

  • Become aware that you may be “treating” depression with carbohydrates or alcohol. An evening pattern of over-eating or too much alcohol is common in women with chronic stress or depression. Stress reduction, emotional support, and, in some cases, medication for depression can help you curb these destructive patterns.

More information on problem eating patterns and substance abuse for women with AD/HD can be found in Understanding Women with AD/HD, edited by Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D. and Patricia Quinn, M.D.


  • Daniel Amen – Healing the Hardware of the Soul
  • Keith Conners – Feeding the Brain: How Foods Affect Children
  • Kathleen Nadeau & Patricia Quinn, Eds. Understanding Women with AD/HD
  • Elizabeth Somer – Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best

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