Dietary therapy for Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder

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/ Article By Mounika Bodala, Academic and medical writer, South Africa/

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder:
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sometimes also referred as attention-deficit disorder (ADD) is a psychiatric problem which is mostly diagnosed in 6-12 year old children. Children suffering from ADHD have symptoms such as hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity which hinder their performance, communicative and social skills in many of their daily activities, be at home or school or sports and etc. Now and then, it is common to observe such symptoms in most of the people. But if the symptoms continue to be present for at least 6 months and if they are observed in at least two different settings such as at home, school, sports and etc, then parents should become cautious and understand that those are the signals indicating that the situation needs assistance. Otherwise children may suffer from ADHD for the rest of their lives. It is the responsibility of the parents and teachers to constantly observe the children’s behavior in order to provide them a better future.
Currently, use of both medicines and psychological therapy is the best option to treat ADHD symptoms. For mild cases, psychological therapy should be fine. Psychological therapy trains the children about different ways to deal their day to day problems effectively. While medicines such as psychostimulants and atomoxetine provide relief from the symptoms, they do come with many side effects such as headache, loss of hunger, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting and liver injury. Moreover stimulants have abuse potential and are not safe to use especially in children. So a safe, tolerant and natural option is definitely a boon for children with ADHD.

Dietary therapy:
In a quest to discover a safe therapy, scientists came across few interesting facts. Many psychiatric disorders are associated with deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) (McNamara RK and Strawn JR, 2013). Children with ADHD usually have low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and zinc when compared to normal children without ADHD (Colter AL et al, 2008; Arnold LE et al, 2005). So a nutritional or dietary therapy with omega-3 fatty acids and zinc may help to correct the levels and there by alleviate the symptoms associated with ADHD. Both omega-3 fatty acids and zinc are required for the normal metabolism of our body. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated essential fatty acids that must be supplied through diet as they can’t be synthesized in our body. They are present in the seeds of few plants such as flax, rape, hemp and marine organisms such as fish, squid and krill. They help in the normal functioning of the brain as they are involved in the neurotransmission and neurogenesis in nerve tissue. Similarly zinc is also an essential cofactor which is required for the metabolism of fatty acids and neurotransmitters (chemicals released by the nerve cells which help in transmitting nerve signals) such as dopamine. Zinc deficiency decreases the levels of dopamine and dopamine deficiency leads to diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Research studies have shown that zinc supplementation either alone or in combination with medicines such as methylphenidate reduces the symptoms of ADHD and improves the efficiency of the treatment in combination therapy (Akhondzadeh S et al, 2004; Bilici M et al, 2004). Similarly, many studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acid supplements are safe, tolerant and can reduce the symptoms of ADHD either alone or in combination with omega-6 fatty acids or minerals such as magnesium or zinc (Richardson AJ et al, 2005; Sinn N et al, 2007; Huss M et al, 2010). Presence of eicosapentaenoic acid in an omega-3 supplement increases the therapeutic efficiency of the supplement (Bloch MH and Qawasmi A, 2011). That shows the significance of eicosapentaenoic acid in our body. So it seems that they indeed have a beneficial effect in reducing ADHD symptoms. Another interesting study has showed that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid supplementation can even work in patients where standard pharmacological therapies such as treatment with methylphenidate don’t work properly (Perera H et al, 2012) So this dietary therapy is a boon for patients where pharmacotherapy is either inefficient or unacceptable. Moreover, a recent study conducted by Politi P et al in 2013 has suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may also prevent the occurrence of psychosis in high risk groups. Further studies are warranted to validate and conclude the results properly and to find out the optimum dose of administration where potential benefits can be achieved (Ortega RM et al, 2012). Based on these studies, we can analyze that having a proper healthy diet which includes omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, zinc and magnesium may not only help to reduce the symptoms of ADHD but also to prevent it. As these are naturally available and required for the normal metabolism of our body, they are safe and tolerant and minimize or prevent the side effects which are usually caused by medicines.

Effect of diet on ADHD:
A paper published by authors, Millichap JG and Yee MM (2012) in Pediatrics journal, discusses about the importance and influence of diet on ADHD. The points discussed by them are noteworthy. The symptoms of ADHD can be reduced by having fatty acid supplements, sugar restricted diet and additive or preservative free diet. ADHD is usually associated with a diet which contains high levels of sodium, potato chips, saturated fats, aspartame, fried foods, processed meat, high fat dairy products, soft drinks and refined sugars. ADHD is not associated with a healthy diet which contains soluble fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, legumes, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy products, tomato, whole grains and folate. Healthy diet has the capacity to amplify the therapeutic efficiency of stimulant therapy. Parents and children should be educated about the importance of healthy diet and the damage caused by unhealthy foods which can predispose to ADHD. As prevention is better than cure, care should be taken to avoid or restrict the ADHD associated foods as much as possible. Public awareness about the healthy diet and incorporation of a healthy lifestyle is very crucial for the long term success of dietary therapy. Based on the studies it seems that nutritional or dietary therapy is a promising and alternative therapy for ADHD, especially for children where pharmacotherapy is either inefficient or unacceptable.

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