Foods and nutrients — such as complex carbs, fish oil, protein, and certain vitamins — could boost ADHD brain power. Discover how!

Scientists finally agree with parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) who have suspected a connection between the kinds of foods their children eat and their behavior and symptoms.

Two recent studies show a relationship between diet and ADD/ADHD symptoms. One, published in Pediatrics, concluded that pesticides, specifically organophosphates, found on fruits and vegetables may be linked to ADD/ADHD. The higher the levels of the compounds detected in a child’s urine, the more likely the chance of having ADD/ADHD. (Solution? Eat organic, suggest the study’s authors.) Another study, published in Journal of Attention Disorders, showed that a Western diet — processed meats, fast foods, high-fat dairy products, and sugary foods — doubled the risk of having an ADD/ADHD diagnosis, compared with eating a healthier diet.

Nutrition affects the ADD brain in three ways. Brain cells, like other cells in the body, need proper nutrition to carry out their functions; the myelin sheath, which covers the axons of brain cells, as insulation covers electrical wires, needs the right levels of nutrients to speed transmission of the electrical signals between brain cells; neurotransmitters — dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine — are dependent on diet for their production.

Carbs and ADD/ADHD Brain Power
Carbs affect brain function and mood. The rate at which sugar from a particular food enters brain cells, and other cells of the body, is called the “glycemic index” (GI). Foods with a high glycemic index stimulate the pancreas to secrete high levels of insulin, which causes sugar to empty quickly from the blood into the cells. Insulin regulates the ups and downs of blood sugar, and the rollercoaster behavior that sometimes goes with them. Low-glycemic foods deliver a steady supply of sugar, helping a person with ADD/ADHD control behavior and improve performance.

Foods with the best brain sugars include:

Fruits: grapefruit, apples, cherries, oranges, and grapes. Fruits have a lower glycemic index, or Gi, than fruit juices, because fiber in fruit slows the absorption of fruit sugar. A whole apple is more brain-friendly than apple juice; a whole orange better than orange juice.

Cereals and grains: oatmeal, bran, higher-fiber cereals and pastas also have a low Gi. Corn flakes and sugarcoated breakfast cereals have higher Gis.

Vegetables and legumes: legumes, such as soybeans, kidney beans, and lentils have the lowest glycemic index of any food.

Dairy products: Milk and yogurt have low Gis, slightly higher than legumes, but lower than fruits. Plain yogurt has a lower glycemic index than yogurt with fruit preserves or sugar added.

Fat, Fish Oil, and ADD/ADHD Brain Power
“Fats make up 60 percent of the brain and of the nerves that run every system in the body,” says William Sears, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. “The better the fat in the diet, the better the brain will function.”

Most important to brain function are the two essential fatty acids found in fish oil, linoleic (or omega- 6) and alpha linolenic (or omega-3). These are the prime structural components of brain cell membranes, and an important part of the enzymes that allow cell membranes to transport nutrients in and out of cells. Western diets contain too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few of the omega-3s, which are found in coldwater fish (primarily salmon and tuna), soybeans, walnuts, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and eggs. Flaxseed and canola oils are good sources of omega-3s.

“ADDers who have low levels of omega-3s will show the biggest improvement in mental focus and cognitive function when they add more of these healthy fats to their diet,” says Richard Brown, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Protein and ADD/ADHD Brain Power
Proteins affect brain performance by providing the amino acids from which neurotransmitters are made. Neurotransmitters are biochemical messengers that carry signals from one brain cell to another. The better you feed these messengers, the more efficiently they deliver the goods, allowing your ADD/ADHD child to be alert at school and you to be more on top of things at work.

Two amino acids, tryptophan and tyrosine, are precursors of neurotransmitters, the substances from which neurotransmitters are made. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. The body does not make it; it must be supplied by the diet. The body can make tyrosine if there is not enough in the diet.

These amino acids influence the four top neurotransmitters — serotonin, which is made from the amino acid tryptophan, as well as dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which are made from the amino acid tyrosine. “Because the body makes brain-awakening neurotransmitters when you eat protein, start your day with a breakfast that includes protein,” says Laura Stevens, M.S., a nutritionist at Purdue University and author of 12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child. “Also look for ways to slip in lean protein during the day, as well.”

“Protein helps keep blood sugar levels steady, and prevents the mental declines that come from eating a meal containing too many simple carbs,” says ned hallowell, M.D., author of Driven to Distraction.

Vitamins and ADD/ADHD Brain Power
Studies indicate that children in grade school whose diets are supplemented with vitamins and minerals, to insure the standard recommended dietary allowances, scored higher on intelligence tests than those who took no supplements. Here are some specific vitamins and minerals that affect behavior and learning in children and adults:

Vitamin C is required by the brain to make neurotransmitters. In fact, the brain has a special vitamin c “pump,” which draws extra vitamin c out of the blood into the brain.

Vitamin B6 deficiency causes irritability and fatigue. Adequate levels of the vitamin increase the brain’s levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, increasing alertness.

Iron is also necessary for making dopamine. One small study showed ferritin levels (a measure of iron stores) to be low in 84 percent of ADD/ADHD children, compared to 18 percent of a control group. Low iron levels correlate with severe ADD/ADHD.

Zinc regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, and may make methylphenidate more effective by improving the brain’s response to dopamine. Low levels of this mineral correlate with inattention.

More of these nutrients is not necessarily better. Studies using megavitamin therapy in children with ADD/ADHD showed no effect.

5 Balanced Breakfasts
A nutrition-packed breakfast should contain a balance of complex carbohydrates and protein. Think grains, plus dairy, plus fruits. For example:

1. Granola cereal, yogurt, sliced apple

2. Scrambled eggs, whole-grain toast, orange

3. Veggie omelet, bran muffin, fresh fruit with yogurt

4. Whole-grain pancakes or waffles topped with berries and/or yogurt, milk

5. low-fat cheese melted on wholegrain toast, pear