Could better nutrition be the answer to ADHD?

Written by: Susanna Elliott

May 17
Could better nutrition be the answer to ADHD? Dr. Aoife Lyons speaks at the Health and Wellness session.

Five percent of children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), according to the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In some U.S. states, rates have reached as high as one out of every 10 children.

What is behind this modern epidemic? Could better nutrition be the answer?

According to Dr. Aoife Lyons, licensed clinical psychologist, DHA supplementation could hold promise for prevention and treatment of ADHD and other cognitive health challenges.

She outlined the development of the brain in her presentation at the Alltech Health and Wellness Seminar on May 17, as part of Alltech’s 30th International Symposium. An infant brain weighs only one pound and is delicate, almost the consistency of jelly, but it has far more neural connections than an adult brain.

“The job of childhood is to develop the brain,” said Dr. Aoife Lyons.

She explained the commencement of neural pruning, a process that occurs in a child’s brain to strengthen neural connections like vision, language and motor skills, while other less important neural connections “fall away.”

A five-year-old brain has twice the neural connections as an adult brain, but the frontal cortex, which handles planning, concentration, impulse control and morality, remains very immature. Even as a teen, the frontal cortex is still not fully developed.

ADHD affects an individual’s ability to respond appropriately to situations, plan, manage impulsivity and reconstitute, giving them the ability to draw upon past memories and come up with novel solutions in the present and future.

As children become teens, ADHD evolves its clinical presentation from hyperactivity to inattentiveness. This inattentiveness often leads to learning disabilities or poor scholastic performance. Children with learning disabilities are typically two years behind, and this leads to decreased self-esteem.

“Imagine going to work each day knowing you are not doing a good job and having your supervisor tell you are not doing a good job,” said Dr. Aoife Lyons.

ADHD is frequently treated with the use of a stimulant. Why? It targets the frontal lobe.

Yet these medications are not without significant physical and psychological side effects: loss of appetite, insomnia, mood changes, slowed growth, decreased self-esteem and learned helplessness, for example, “If I keep trying and am never successful, I will not keep trying.”

“Could we eradicate stimulant medications through natural supplementation?” asked Dr. Aoife Lyons.

DHA supports the growth and development of the central nervous system, which is in charge of brain development. It is abundant in brain and cell membranes and is important to the establishment of neural connections.

Research examining its impact on children has been revealing:

  • A recent study found that kids who had the lowest DHA levels had problems with learning, cognitive skills, visual skills and attention.
  • A year ago, a pin-prick test in England was conducted in both typically developing kids as well as those with ADHD. Those low in DHA had below average reading skills, poor working memory, higher oppositional behavior and emotional ability (lots of emotional highs and lows). They also examined the children’s sleep. They then gave them DHA supplementation for 16 weeks. They found improved sleep (58 minutes more per night) and reduced waking episodes. In the group of children with ADHD, the children regularly experienced night waking and short sleep duration. Short duration of sleep is associated with higher risk of ADHD and oppositional behavior.
  • In a Canadian study with 37 children, they saw improvement in attention and a decrease in impulsivity following DHA supplementation. Eight of the 37 children saw improvement in their academics as well.
  • In a larger study in Australia with 90 children, they saw improvements in reading and a decrease in oppositional behavior following DHA supplementation.

According to the CDC, healthcare costs for ADHD were $36 to 52 billion in 2005. Meanwhile, special education costs nearly two times as much as regular education.

Could better nutrition lead to decreased spending on treatment and special education? Dr. Aoife Lyons indicated that more cross-cultural studies are needed along with standardized global diagnostics to better determine how DHA in the diet correlates with ADHD.

“We are looking for happier children who are more available for learning,” said Dr. Aoife Lyons. “This can lead to decreased stress at home and school.”

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