Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most common neurobehavioral disorder seen in children and adolescents in Australia, and its prevalence is increasing. There’s no singular cause of ADHD, however, we know it affects neurochemistry, resulting in:
- poor impulse control
- an inability to pay attention and concentrate
The current treatment model of ADHD uses medication to correct a given symptom. Sadly, the medication only acts like a bandaid, so the symptoms usually reappear once the medication is stopped..
Medications used to treat ADHD work by increasing the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, two of the main neurotransmitters that may play a role in ADHD.
But WHY are these neurotransmitters low?
What if we tried another treatment approach for ADHD – a functional medicine approach?
One that can be used in conjunction with mainstream medication if required.
A functional medicine approach involves investigating and addressing the root causes of a condition rather than just suppressing symptoms.
7 key factors affecting the production of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and norepinephrine:
- To make neurotransmitters, you need amino acids. Therefore, the diet must contain adequate protein (and you need to be able to digest those proteins).
- co-factors, such as zinc, B vitamins, iron and magnesium, are required to make neurotransmitters. If any of these are deficient, production will be affected.
- Food intolerances. Regular consumption of irritating foods create inflammation of digestive system, dysregulation of the immune system and impairment of detoxification pathways.
- High intake of refined sugars. There is a HUGE body of (rapidly growing) evidence proving the detrimental effect of sugar on all children, especially those with ADHD. The impact of sugar is carried out by a number of mechanisms – disrupting blood sugar regulation, neuronal activity and gut microbiome balance.
02. Environmental Toxins
Heavy metals, PCBs, cigarette smoke and pesticides… can all affect the “production line” of neurotransmitters. For example, did you know it takes about 100 molecules of zinc to support the breakdown of one molecule of cadmium? And 1000 molecules of zinc to support the breakdown of one molecule of mercury? As a result of using up all this zinc, these metals reduce the bioavailability of zinc for other essential pathways (like cognition and immune function).
Blue light is a massive environmental pollutant these days. Gone are the days when the light was dim and warm from the glow of fire or candle light once the sun went down. And yet light exposure is one the key factors that regulates our hormones and neurotransmitters. With excess blue light exposure, especially after sun down, our ability to produce melatonin is impaired, which means poor sleep and sets us and kids up for a cycle of fatigue, difficulty concentrating and a tendency to reach for sugary snacks and stimulants to keep as awake and somewhat alert and able to concentrate during the day.
03. Gut Health
- Low levels of beneficial microbes. Some of which are responsible for the production of neurotransmitters. 90% of your serotonin for example – the calm, ordered, relaxing rest and digest neurotransmitter is made in the gut by beneficial gut microbes.
- Overgrowth of pathogenic microbes. All life forms eat and poop – microbes included. Some of the biproducts from microbes directly affect the brain – like excess propionic acid or LPS (lipopolysaccharide). Others indirectly affect brain function by impairing mitochondrial function, dysregulating hormones, neurotransmitters and or immune function.
- Reduced digestive secretions Not enough digestive acids (stomach acid, bile acid) or enzymes (salivary and pancreatic enzymes) means it’s hard to digest (breakdown) the foods you eat and extract the nutrients from those foods. Those nutrients are the building blocks for your neurotransmitters!
- Inflammation, reduced integrity of the gut mucosal lining and “leaky gut”.
04. Immune Dysregulation
Did you know there are more immune cells in the brain than there are brain cells? It’s a staggering thought! The immune cells in the brain are called glial cells, or microglia. These cells can become hyperactive in individuals who have allergies, eczema and asthma. This is why it is so common for kids with asthma, eczema and allergies to have trouble sitting still and concentrating. Their immune system is hyperactivating their brain.
The lymphatic system of the brain is called the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system removes toxins from the brain, mostly while we are in deep sleep.
More and more research is emerging about the destructive consequences of chronic sleep deprivation. The WHO states we have been in a sleep loss epidemic for the last 50 years! No food or supplement will outweigh the costs of lack of sleep. Getting good sleep is CRUCIAL.
It is becoming more apparent how stress affects cognitive function. Through the fight or flight response, the frontal lobe is effectively taken off line, removing one’s ability to take in information, process it and respond in a measured way. Stress also affects the amount of cortisol in circulation – a stress hormone that impacts our ability to take in new information and to memorise. This is why you’ll often notice during times of stress you have a terrible memory! For kids stress can mean change, uncertainty, lack of emotional attunement with parents or caregivers and of course picking up on stress that parents or caregivers are going through.
Kids are emotional antennas – hard wired to pick up on nonverbal cues that indicate a lack of safety. If you’re going through a tough time, no matter how you try to protect your child from it, they will pick up on it. The best thing you can do for them in stressful periods of your life is to learn how to regulate and support your own nervous system. Your child co-regulates off your nervous system, so the more regulated you are, the more regulated they are.
07. Genetic Predisposition
A child (or adult) may be genetically predisposed to reduced neurotransmitter production. How can this be supported? Epi (on top of) genetics refers to all the diet, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect gene expression. Are any of the above factors further impacting production? Epigenetics is generally more of a powerful consideration than genetics.
Other important areas to focus on are metabolic screening of the patient, including liver function and essential nutrient levels (e.g. zinc, iron, copper, vitamin D and B12). Functional testing, such as methylation, genetic profiling, or a GI-MAP stool analysiscan help identify underlying causes and direct what kind of holistic treatment approach will be most helpful. .
There is sooo much we can do to support ADHD and diet is a great place to start! Diet alone can have a MASSIVE impact on gut and brain health. Start by eliminating processed foods, sugar and food additives. Put a focus on good quality fats and protein – these foods help balance blood sugar levels, are the most nutrient dense, and improve satiety (so you – or the kids – aren’t hungry every half an hour!).
Want some one on one support? Book in with our nutritionist Elly Smith.