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Improving Gut Health May Reduce ADHD Symptoms

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Do you 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.

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 plays 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, some studies 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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