ADHD is one of the most prevalent neurobehavioral disorders in the United States. Lifestyle interventions such as exercise and a healthy diet provide promising alternatives treatments for people with ADHD, discover the changes scientifically proven to help below.
Dr Laurie Marbas, who saw the power of a plant-based diet to treat ADHD first-hand.
This study included 2,868 participants from birth and followed up with them 14 years later to collect data on their diets throughout adolescence and incidence of ADHD. Dietary patterns were split into ‘western’ and ‘healthy’ and after analyzing the data, the researchers found the participants who had been following a western diet had over twice the odds of developing ADHD. A healthy diet was not associated with ADHD 3.
This study reviewed the available scientific literature looking at exercise for ADHD treatment. The researchers found acute benefits of cardio exercise on impulsivity and response time, and beneficial long-term effects of exercise on various functions including executive functions, attention and behavior. The researchers concluded that physical exercise may therefore represent an effective treatment option that could be combined with other treatment approaches of ADHD 4.
A study of 345 children and adolescents found that as diets become more plant-based, the odds of having ADHD fall significantly. Children eating a diet with the most plant-foods had 68% lower odds of ADHD than children eating the least plant-based, and more animal or processed foods 5.
Sleep hygiene practices and standardized behavioral strategies were delivered to the participants by trained psychologists during two fortnightly consultations and a follow-up telephone call. At three and six month follow-up, children receiving the intervention had significantly improved ADHD symptoms compared to the children that received standard clinical care. The intervention also improved the children’s sleep, behavior, quality of life, and functioning, mostly sustained to six months after the intervention 6.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people's behavior, and is characterized by difficulty paying attention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity. It is one of the most common mental health disorders in children and for many it continues into adulthood 7 4.
The exact cause of ADHD is not known, but it is thought to be a combination of genetic, environmental, and neurological factors. Research suggests that ADHD may be caused by differences in certain brain structures and the way certain chemicals (neurotransmitters) function in the brain.
Environmental factors, such as use of alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy, exposure to toxins during pregnancy, brain injury, and premature birth can contribute to the development of ADHD.
Recent research also suggests that diet from birth to adolescence plays a role in the risk of developing ADHD 5.
Symptoms of inattention:
Symptoms of hyperactivity:
To diagnose ADHD in adults and adolescents, healthcare providers use the guidelines in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth edition (DSM-5). Five symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity and impulsivity are needed, that have been present in the individual for at least 6 months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for the person's developmental level to diagnose that person with ADHD 8.
Lifestyle interventions including exercise, better quality sleep, and a plant-based diet represent promising additional or alternative treatment options for people living with ADHD.
Plant foods have a protective effect against inflammation and oxidative stress which both are involved in the processes leading to psychiatric disorders including ADHD.
Exercise likely results in enhanced generation and development of new nerve cells which may explain the cognitive benefits that exercise can have. Cardio exercise also increases hormones and proteins that are typically reduced in ADHD, such as dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is a key molecule involved in learning and memory 4.
ADHD can have a vast and damaging range of consequences on an individual's life, which is why it is important to find the best, and safest, treatment options for each individual. Exercise, sleep, and movement towards a plant-based diet can have significant benefits on the symptoms of ADHD, especially in children and adolescents, and are an important treatment avenue to be explored.
An empathetic and dedicated lifestyle-focused medical team can make all the difference.
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4. Den Heijer, A. E. et al. Sweat it out? The effects of physical exercise on cognition and behavior in children and adults with ADHD: a systematic literature review. J. Neural Transm. 124, 3–26 (2017).
6. Hiscock, H. et al. Impact of a behavioural sleep intervention on symptoms and sleep in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and parental mental health: randomised controlled trial. BMJ 350, h68–h68 (2015).
7. Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S. et al. Nonpharmacological Interventions for ADHD: Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses of Randomized Controlled Trials of Dietary and Psychological Treatments. Am. J. Psychiatry 170, 275–289 (2013).
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