ADHD – Could Leaky Gut be to Blame?

September 22, 2014
Student daydreaming
Categories: ADHD

September is ADHD Awareness month.

The number of children diagnosed with ADHD is skyrocketing. In the past 11 years cases of ADHD have risen an astonishing 43%, with 11% of school-aged children now affected, and nearly 20% of boys receiving a diagnosis by high school. Most families are given one option – ADHD medication. And it is understandable why many would try them – parents do not want their kids to fall behind; plus they often feel pressure from teachers whose classes are being disrupted. But according to this article, there is insufficient data to prove the long-term safety of ADHD medications.

However, the research to support dietary approaches to ADHD dates back over 40 years.  A pioneer in the area of nutrition and behavior, Pediatric Allergist Dr. Ben Feingold began to study how certain foods and chemicals affected behavior back in the mid-1960s, and his studies found a link. According to Dr. Feingold, “Hyperactivity can be triggered by synthetic additives – specifically synthetic colors, synthetic flavors and the preservatives BHA, BHT, (and TBHQ – added later, and also a group of foods containing a natural salicylate radical.”   He believed that “any compound, natural or synthetic, can induce an adverse reaction if the individual has the appropriate genetic profile, i.e., disposition.”

When a child has issues with their behavior, focus, or attention; right away we think there is an issue in the brain.  And yes, there generally is an imbalance of important brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. But what if the problem first originated within the gut?

Leaky Gut

Our digestive system has a barrier that is designed to allow nutrients to pass through, yet keep toxins out.  I think of our intestinal wall kind of like a bouncer at a nightclub who is paid to keep the troublemakers out (toxins), and let the high paying clients in (nutrients).  But sometimes this barrier can develop gaps and become “leaky.”  If this happens, things that are not supposed to be outside the intestines (like toxins, proteins from foods), can leak out into the blood stream and cause our immune system to go haywire – creating inflammation, an overactive immune system, and can manifest in many different health problems.

A leaky gut could explain why certain foods, dyes, vaccines, and other chemicals can affect some people; while others seem to be relatively unaffected.   But the next question is – how does the gut get leaky in the first place?

Many different things can contribute to a leaky gut: prolonged high stress, a viral or parasitic infection; bacterial imbalance; repeated exposures to genetically modified foods, antibiotics, steroids, alcohol abuse, or NSAIDs to name a few.  Another common cause (as well as a symptom) of leaky gut is food sensitivities.  Some of the most common foods linked to leaky gut are wheat/gluten, soy, dairy, certain chemicals; and inflammatory diets that are high in sugars and damaged fats like trans fats and unstable polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oil.

Our Second Brain

You might be wondering how all of this relates to our brains? We all are familiar with our cerebral brain – the one in our skull that is hard at work whether we are doing math problems, or a Words with Friends puzzle. But we have another brain, inside our guts – coined “the second brain,” by Dr. Michael Gershon. Our second brain is lined with a complex and extensive set of neurons, called the enteric nervous system. “Gut reaction” helps to explain what our second brain does – it guides our feelings, moods, certain behaviors, and reactions.

When there is a leaky gut, there often can be mood imbalances and neurological manifestations, because our enteric nervous system is also responsible for manufacturing important neurotransmitters that play a role in our mood and brain function. Over 90% of our serotonin, often referred to as “the happiness hormone,” is found in our guts. Another important neurotransmitter involved with focus and attention is dopamine, which is involved in focus, attention and motivation.  The interesting thing about dopamine, is it competes with histamine – which can be elevated or depressed in people with food sensitivities and allergies.

This can help us to make sense of why digestive troubles can contribute to poor absorption, nutrient deficiencies, and imbalances in neurotransmitters and amino acids – which can drive depression, anxiety, mood disorders; and other problems like ADHD.

Videogames – A Dopamine Rollercoaster

Parents of kids with focus and attention issues might scratch their heads wondering how their kid who can’t sit still for 10 minutes in class, can sit still for hours in front of a video or computer screen? In fact, it might be difficult to drag them away from it. Videogames flood the brain with dopamine, an important neurotransmitter needed for motivation, focus & attention.  According to ADHD Expert Dr. Daniel Amen, “Many ADD children literally become addicted to playing video games. Video games bring pleasure & focus by increasing dopamine release. The problem is that the more dopamine is released, the less neurotransmitter is available later on to do schoolwork, homework, chores, and so on. Many parents have told me that the more a child plays video games, the worse he does in school. If you have a child with ADD, consider limiting their time spent on video games.” Kind of like a sugar rush & crash, videogames can lead to dopamine depletion, which can exacerbate focus issues.

Heal Our Second Brain

So back to that leaky gut. A healthy digestive system is critical for a healthy brain, metabolism, immune system, detox channels, and overall health.  Here are some things you can do if you suspect that you or your child might have a leaky gut:

  1. Identify Food Intolerances – when there is a leaky gut, food intolerances are often present.  A food and chemical sensitivity panel can clearly identify which foods should be removed. This is the ideal approach, because almost any food can be causing a reaction – I have seen odd foods like artichokes, beef, and even vanilla and cinnamon show up! For those that are looking for a less expensive option, you could try a food elimination diet –which involves removing the most common foods that cause a reaction for a few weeks and reintroducing them (one at a time, with 2 days in between) to see if there is a return of symptoms.  Some of the key foods/substances to remove are wheat/gluten, soy, corn, dairy, artificial colors/additives, and sugary foods. *Do they have to be avoided forever?  It depends. Sometimes after the food has been avoided for a time and the gut is healed, certain foods may be tolerated in the diet again on a limited basis.  But be careful to not overdo it – or you could end back in the same place again.  Time will tell. But some of the eliminated foods do not support overall health anyway, so ideally you won’t want to reintroduce certain foods anyway.
  2. Boost the good bacteria – taking a high quality probiotic is essential to help rebuild the healthy bacteria and crowd out the bad bacteria.  A healthy digestive system should have more good bacteria than bad. Gut bacteria affects our immune health, metabolism, moods, and so much more. Read The Importance of Good Bacteria to learn more.
  3. Boost/Replenish Nutrients – Swap out the nutrient-deficient processed foods for nutrient dense high quality organic proteins, plant-based foods, and low glycemic slow release carbs. I also like to supplement key nutrients like omega 3s, B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc.  Make sure to replace trans fats and vegetable oils with healthy fats like coconut oil, grass fed butter, and omega 3 fats.   Try to get more superfoods like chia seeds, hemp, raw cacao and antioxidant rich berries in the diet!  If your child wants something sweet, make sure to avoid high fructose, artificial colors, and instead choose something that is naturally sweet that also has nutritional value – like fruit or smoothies.  One of the easiest ways to get kids to eat superfoods and veggies – are with smoothies!
  4. Supplement – When the gut is leaky, there can be nutrient deficiencies because the digestive system is not able to properly absorb the nutrients from the foods. Often it is helpful to supplement with key vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids. See this article for some key nutrients that tend to be depleted in people with ADHD.
  5. Heal and seal the gut.  Once offending foods are removed, the leaky gut can be healed.  Foods like bone broth, grass fed gelatin, cultured and fermented foods and drinks, and supplements like L-Glutamine or colostrum can help to heal the gut barrier.

If the above do not work, there could be an infection in the gut.  Infections or overgrowths of bacteria, yeasts can all wreak havoc on the digestion and overall health. Identifying an infection generally involves a stool test.

Although nutritional approaches do not work for everyone, studies conducted by Dr. Feingold found that a high percentage of his patients did respond to nutritional changes, and a recent study published in the Lancet found that 63% of cases of ADHD in the study could be linked back to a food sensitivity.  For more information, read Food Intolerance & ADHD and Could You Have a Food Intolerance? to learn more.

Some tests that can be useful:

  • Food & chemical intolerance test
  • Neurotransmitter & cortisol test
  • Micronutrient test (identifies nutrient deficiencies)
  • Stool test (checks for parasites, bacterial imbalances or infections)
  • Gut permeability test (leaky gut)
  • Methylation/MTHFR test (key for conversion of nutrients, mutations can manifest in neurological and cardiovascular symptoms).

Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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