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Improving Gut Health May Reduce ADHD Symptoms

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Do your or your child suffer from ADHD? New research suggests that gut health plays a role in behavioral issues.

Do you or your children suffer from ADHD symptoms? In May of 2013, the Center for Disease Control released statistics that show that approximately 10 percent of Americans suffer from an attention-related problem. This data may not be completely accurate, thanks to the somewhat ambiguous diagnosis for ADHD. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Health Economics indicated that at least 20 percent of those children may be misdiagnosed due to inconsistent evaluation techniques.

Regardless, concentration problems are on the rise. In fact, the number of children showing concentration trouble in school has increased by 22 percent since 2003, according to data from a 2010 US government survey.

Factors leading to ADHD

According to Dr. Leo Galland, pediatric ADHD expert, there are many factors that can lead to attention problems. These factors can include:

Poor nutrition: According to Dr. Galland, a diet high in sugar is one of the leading factors in children with concentration problems and ADHD. However, contrary to popular belief, sugar does not cause hyperactivity. Instead, sugar replaces food from more nutrient-dense sources and can lead to an increase in food intolerances. Other supplements, such as fish oil and other supplements high in Omega-3 fatty acids, can help replace missing nutrition in the diet. A 2005 study published in the British journal Pediatrics found that the right balance of Omega-3s to Omega-6s in the diet is 4 to 1. Most Americans have a diet that is much too high in Omega-6 acids, as most vegetable oils contain a high concentration of Omega-6 acids.

Food additives: Dr. Benjamin Feingold conducted tests on hyperactive children in the 1960s. He found that children whose diets are rich in salicylates (present in many kid-friendly foods like apples, raisins, food dyes, and artificial flavoring) were more hyper than children whose diets had fewer salicylates. Removing salicylate-rich foods from the diet may help improve the hyperactivity level of children with ADHD.

Food allergies: A follow-up study to the Feingold study conducted by the Hospital for Sick Children in London showed that children with ADHD commonly suffered from food allergies from cow’s milk, wheat, soy, corn, and eggs. 80 percent of children with allergies to these foods who were also sensitive to salicylates showed increased ADHD symptoms after consuming those foods.

Mineral deficiencies: Children with frequent headaches, sleeping problems, and stomach aches may be mineral-deprived. A supplement of magnesium and calcium can help restore the balance of minerals in a child with ADHD. This will help overcome headaches and other sleeping problems for children with ADHD or other attention disorders.

Poor gut health: Poor gut health can lead to concentration problems in children. Children who frequently take antibiotics may have an overgrowth of yeast in the gut which can lead to hyperactivity symptoms. Restoring the balance of bacteria in the gut can help reduce hyperactivity.

Studies relating to brain function and gut bacteria

A 2011 study from McMaster University compared the behavior of 8 week-old mice exposed to bacteria with that of mice not exposed to bacteria. The bacteria-free mice showed elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), and altered levels of BDNF in the brain (related to anxiety and depression). The mice were also more likely to take risks. This study is one of the first to show that gut health and brain function are related.

A follow-up study from McMaster University showed that when researchers swapped the gut bacteria of two separate mice, the behavior of the mice changed significantly. In this experiment, the researchers switched the bacteria of risk-taking mice with timid mice. As expected, the timid mice began to take more risks, while the risk-taking mice became timid. This study further confirms that microbiota play a significant role in controlling certain behaviors.

However, a 2004 study from Japan, published in The Journal of Physiology, showed that there may be only a small window for influencing behavior and brain function through gut flora. In the Japanese study, researchers could change behavior patterns for mice up to 9 weeks of age. After that, no change in gut bacteria levels influenced the stress and anxiety levels of the mice. This study suggests that the factors children face early on in development play a huge role in the development of a child’s brain and cognitive function.

The role of bacteria in the development process

Researchers are just beginning to explore the role that gut bacteria plays in the health of humans and the consequent brain function. There are no studies that have linked hyperactivity and ADHD to a lack of bacteria in the gut. However, there are studies that show that children exposed to bacteria early-on in life have stronger immune systems throughout life. A 2011 study published in Clinics in Perinatology, comparing the health of babies born vaginally versus babies born through cesarean section showed that bacteria picked up in the vaginal canal may give babies a healthy dose of bacteria that can strengthen the immune system throughout life.

Another study conducted by Yale researchers in 2012 showed that vaginally-birthed mice had greater levels of the protein, UCP2, which helps improve memory function.

Supplements that can improve brain function

Although research is sketchy on how long the window of improved gut immunity and control of behaviors through bacteria changes lasts in humans, eating the right foods can certainly help improve brain function and memory throughout life.

In addition to the supplements and food sources listed above, Psychology Today recommends adults and children add the following supplements to their diet (through natural foods and additional supplements)

Supplements that improve cognitive function
B vitamins
Fish oil and flaxseed oil

The role of probiotics in ADHD

The above studies show that gut health plays a large role in the cognitive function of the brain. Children low in beneficial gut bacteria have a higher chance of having ADHD and other cognitive issues. By adding probiotic-rich foods back into a child’s diet (or an adult suffering from ADHD), you should be able to repair some of the damage that an unhealthy gut causes on brain function.

Where to find probiotics

Probiotics come from a variety of different sources. The easiest sources come from fermented foods and probiotic supplements. Eating a variety of fermented foods will give you exposure to different bacteria, and will also continually resupply any bacteria lost by taking antibiotics and from other sources.

Sources of probiotics

Tempeh (fermented beans)

Fermented dairy (yogurt, buttermilk, kefir)

Probiotic supplements (in powder, wafer, or liquid form- the more strains the better)

Foods pickled in fermented brine (kimchi, sauerkraut, brine pickles)

Miso paste (fermented soybeans)

Live enzyme sourdough bread

In addition to these sources, you can add probiotic cultures to nearly anything. Any liquid-based product can be fermented, including gelatin snacks, sauces, and beverages. Unpasteurized beer is also a natural source for probiotic strains. Dr. Leo Galland, the pediatric ADHD expert, as well as many other health professionals, have seen probiotics used effectively to help control attention problems in children.

Although there are no direct studies linking probiotics with a reduction in ADHD symptoms, the most recent findings exposed by the researchers from McMaster University and Yale University indicate that it is a topic that should be explored further. Supplementing the diet with probiotics can’t hurt, and it will most likely help.





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