Food affects our behavior, and that can be even more important for children struggling with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders who already are more vulnerable.
Though brain map-guided neurofeedback treatment is our primary method for treating ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders, new clinical findings suggest that ADHD diets may provide partial symptom reduction for some children as well as enhance the improvements from neurofeedback.
In fact, we feel that the optimal method for treating ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders is to combine a proper ADHD diet with our clinically-driven, brain map-guided neurofeedback therapy process with behavioral modification, as this gives the child a fuller opportunity to maximize substantial improvements in brain functioning, symptom reduction, etc.
In a lecture for continuing medical education for physicians, Dr. Anna Esparham of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Kansas Medical Center presented many significant findings for helping patients with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders, including recommendations that early healthy nutrition, sustained through adolescence, is most important in promoting long-term brain development and functioning.
This post outlines our thoughts on the most important nutritional and dietary guidelines for parents looking to optimize their child’s development and brain functioning to support neurofeedback treatment and training.
To begin, we must first take a look at how processed foods can negatively affect both the health and the behavior of children suffering from ADHD.
Processed foods can be loaded with artificial colorings and high sugar content, both of which can have detrimental behavioral and health effects. We know there is a connection between ADHD and diet in some children, and decreasing your ADHD child’s intake of foods that contain artificial colorings and high-sugar content may improve behavioral symptoms in some ADHD children.
Sugar does dysregulate neurotransmitters (i.e., dopamine) similar to drug addictions and may reduce the total number of dopamine receptors in the human brain. In fact, the effect of sugar is so powerful, that studies have shown that mice prefer sugar over cocaine.
For many years, parents have told our staff how their child with ADHD craves sugar, and in response, the parents sometimes have attempted to substitute sugar with artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame and Saccharine. However, it is important to note, that these artificial sweeteners are actually neurotoxins.
Also, of concern is that the amount of products that contain artificial food colorings has become so numerable, that in some cases, it can be challenging to find foods that don’t contain artificial food colorings. Compounding this issue is the fact that many foods that contain artificial food colorings, such as soda, snacks, and others, are specifically marketed towards children.
It’s important that parents attempt to eliminate or minimize these types of processed foods from their child’s diet, including “processed fast foods”, as they may negatively affect the child’s behavior.
Foods that are bad for the gut also include ones that contain high amounts of sugar, artificial food colorings, and toxic preservatives. In addition there are non-food factors which can negatively impact on gut flora such as childbirth by cesarean delivery as well as antibiotics (this is not to suggest to avoid antibiotics when necessary).
Children with ADHD and Autism have a greater prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms. Our gut microbiota (gut flora) is composed of many microorganisms that are very important to both our physical and mental health, immune system functioning (65% to 75% of all immune system functioning is taking place in the gut), brain development, and the synthesis of neurotransmitters. In fact, 90% of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, is actually produced in the gut and not in the brain.
Probiotics, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, can improve gut flora, and parents should also consider including foods such as yogurt into their child’s diet which can have a beneficial effect on the gut flora.
A proper ADHD diet plan should resemble and mimic any other diet plan that focuses on the consumption of nutrient dense foods that do not contain excessive amounts of sugar and artificial colorings or sweeteners. Additionally, supplements can be taken under medical professional guidance to help battle any deficiencies that may be present; however, it is recommended that the individual suffering from ADHD or Autism first try to obtain their essential minerals and nutrients through the consumption of healthy foods.
The 3 essential trace minerals that have been studied the most and are very important for brain development and functioning are zinc, iron and magnesium. Again, it’s important to note, that any treatment plan that consists of vitamin or mineral supplementation should first be consulted with a medical professional.
Zinc levels have been found to be lower in ADHD and Autism. Zinc is a called a “cofactor” in neurotransmission, and it plays an important role in the healing of tissue and immune system functioning. In addition, zinc protects the gut barrier and the blood-brain barrier, and if one has a zinc deficiency, these barriers could breakdown.
One study showed that zinc improved hyperactivity and impulsivity but not the symptoms of inattention. High copper to zinc ratios have been found in children with impulsivity, aggression, and Autism. Pediatricians can test for low zinc levels and guide supplementation if zinc levels are low.
Foods Rich in Zinc:
Iron is also a cofactor in the production and metabolism of neurotransmitters, and an iron deficiency can affect dopamine metabolism. Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter involved in ADHD. Iron deficiency in ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders can cause restless legs syndrome, sleeping problems, and sometimes fatigue and tachycardia (elevated heart rate).
Low ferritin (a protein that stores iron in the body and releases it) and abnormal iron indices are seen in ADHD children, particularly in children who are experiencing sleeping problems. ADHD children, who are taking stimulant medications, could also have an increased risk for iron deficiency as these medications tend to suppress the child’s appetite, which may result in the child not consuming enough nutrients.
For children who are suffering from ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders with sleeping difficulties, whose serum ferritin levels are below 50ng/ml, iron supplementation is recommended as it helps improve sleep in these children.
Foods Rich in Iron:
Magnesium is the third essential trace mineral and is involved in more than 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. To name just a few biochemical processes, magnesium is utilized in bone metabolism and growth, nerve function, neurotransmitter release, immune system functioning, and in the regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in the brain-body connection involved in the stress process.
Blood tests measuring magnesium levels have shown low levels of the mineral in both ADHD and Autistic children. Kids with ADHD, who can be under increased stress, could be more vulnerable if they have magnesium deficiencies. Clinical symptoms of magnesium deficiency in children include irritability, anxiety, and agitation. Magnesium can reduce anxiety or irritability through its calming effect. There is no evidence, though, that magnesium supplementation in children on the Autism Spectrum is helpful unless there is a magnesium deficiency; in fact, too much magnesium supplementation can cause negative side-effects such as diarrhea.
Foods Rich in Magnesium:
Fatty acid supplementation may be helpful too since every cell in our body (including our brain) is made up of fats. Excluding the water composition of the brain, the brain is composed of as much as 60% lipids. In improving brain functioning, research has shown that Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is 40% as effective for ADHD as methylphenidate (Ritalin) but without the side-effects. That is an amazing statistic when you consider that Omega-3 fatty acids are not a drug but are dietary healthy fats.
Best sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
In sum, a healthy diet for an ADHD child can make a difference. Whatever modifications you can make to eat more healthier foods, reduce sugar and processed “fast foods,” is only going to be beneficial for both you and your family.
And by improving your child’s diet, you can increase the benefits received from other treatment programs, like our non-drug ADHD treatment program, or our non-drug Autism treatment program. But even if you don’t layer in the non-drug medical treatment like ours, just improving your child’s diet alone could lead to some improvements, so it’s absolutely worth doing. It should be put in perspective though, that as important as nutrition is, nutrition by itself for many individuals may only take you so far without other clinical interventions included as well.
At the Drake Institute, we are advocates of evidence based, proven medical treatment programs utilizing the brain’s own resources, without drugs when possible, to improve disorders and symptoms with biofeedback and neurofeedback. Our ADHD and Autism treatment programs are non-drug and non-invasive.
Our ADHD and Autism treatment programs are centered on “retraining” the brain” for long term improvement, as opposed to simply medicating to control symptoms. Offering an improved diet for kids with ADHD & Autism is one of the best ways to help fully support our treatment process, and to increase the likelihood that your child will have the best possible long-term results from brain map guided neurofeedback.
As we have seen, by eating a healthier ADD diet, some of the symptoms related to ADHD and Autism in some individuals may be reduced. Likewise, failing to eat a healthy diet may lead to the negative symptoms associated with these two disorders to become intensified or more difficult to improve.
While our neurofeedback treatment programs can provide patients with sustainable, long-term symptom improvement or resolution, the treatment tends to work better, and faster, when combined with an optimized diet.
In addition to ADHD and Autism symptoms improvement, proper diets provide a wealth of other health benefits for parents and their children. So creating and sustaining a healthy diet should be a priority for all families, regardless of whether or not someone in the family is suffering from a related disorder.
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Interview with Dr. David Velkoff
Interview with Dr. David Velkoff
Spanish News Feature
“David F. Velkoff, M.D., our Medical Director and co-founder, supervises all evaluation procedures and treatment programs. He is recognized as a physician pioneer in using biofeedback, qEEG brain mapping, neurofeedback, and neuromodulation in the treatment of ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and stress related illnesses including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Dr. David Velkoff earned his Master’s degree in Psychology from the California State University at Los Angeles in 1975, and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in 1976. This was followed by Dr. Velkoff completing his internship in Obstetrics and Gynecology with an elective in Neurology at the University of California Medical Center in Irvine. He then shifted his specialty to Behavioral Medicine and received his initial training in biofeedback/neurofeedback in Behavioral Medicine from the leading doctors in the world in biofeedback at the renown Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. In 1980, he co-founded the Drake Institute of Behavioral Medicine. Seeking to better understand the link between illness and the mind, Dr. Velkoff served as the clinical director of an international research study on psychoneuroimmunology with the UCLA School of Medicine, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. This was a follow-up study to an earlier clinical collaborative effort with UCLA School of Medicine demonstrating how the Drake Institute's stress treatment resulted in improved immune functioning of natural killer cell activity. Dr. Velkoff served as one of the founding associate editors of the scientific publication, Journal of Neurotherapy. He has been an invited guest lecturer at Los Angeles Children's Hospital, UCLA, Cedars Sinai Medical Center-Thalians Mental Health Center, St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, and CHADD. He has been a medical consultant in Behavioral Medicine to CNN, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, Univision, and PBS.”