In this report, we take a look at Sugar and ADHD. Whilst very few would seriously think that sugar could be the sole cause of ADHD, it’s reasonable to wonder: “Could sugar make ADHD worse?”
In this report, we look at the research on Sugar and ADHD, and in Part 2 we get practical by looking at how we can avoid exacerbating ADHD by making simple adjustments to the way we eat, especially at breakfast time.
Breakfast: The Most Important Meal of the Day
They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. After all, during your sleep is the longest period of time most people go without eating, hence the term “breakfast” literally meaning “break the fast.”
It therefore makes sense to eat something sugary, or high in carbohydrates, to give your brain the instant energy hit that it requires, right?
Wrong! Eating like that can overload the brain with sugar very quickly, cause an insulin spike and lead to a “sugar crash”.
After all, many cereals are so laden with sugar, that the measly 40 grams recommended serving size (which is way too modest and most children have double that) already tends to cause children to have half of their day’s sugar consumption by breakfast time. We should also remember that sugar makes you more hungry because it digests so quickly!
Children have half their recommended Daily Sugar Before School, The Times, 2017https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/03/children-have-half-daily-recommended-sugar-school/
A much better approach is to give the brain a mixture of healthy fat and protein (slower digesting) with a little carbohydrate to avoid the inevitable energy-slump.
But Didn’t Research Find No Link Between Sugar and ADHD?
It is true that researchers tested the possibility that sugar might make ADHD worse, but the mainstream consensus seems to be (depending who you speak to) that statistically there was little evidence for such a link between Sugar and ADHD.
I have for years, however, despite the case apparently being “done and dusted”, been telling people that there may still be a link between Sugar and ADHD. Am I just being ignorant of the research? I don’t think so. I think I’m advocating being cautious, so hear me out…
On a technical point, researchers have long debated whether the brain responds to Sugar’s cousin, the artificial sweetener, the same way as they do to sucrose? If the brain does respond similarly, it is possible that the results from such research comparing sugar to artificial sweetener may have suggested “no difference” because both groups were reacting similarly.
Another technical point: if there are sub-groups of children, some being more sensitive to sugar than others, then that can explain why some studies found a significant difference but others didn’t, and why overall there appeared to be no significant statistical link. If some children are different than others, generalised results do not always paint the full picture.
In addition to this question, I have also noticed within myself and others with ADHD that some of us tend to be “carb sensitive” – in other words, particularly reactive to sugar/carbohydrates. This is something that has been noticed by many other ADHD researchers, including Thomas Hartmann (author of many books on ADHD such as “ADHD: A Different Perception).
Why We Need to Stop Thinking of Fat as the Bad Guy
More superficial evidence that such a connection does exist, is that I have also heard many parents talk about their ADHD child’s “sugar addiction”. Addictions are common amongst those with ADHD, and that may be because it is a way to “chase the dopamine” that appears to be lacking in our brains.
It’s also undoubtedly linked to our problems with impulse-control. Some research suggests people with ADHD are more likely to be obese, although this is more common in females than males. Either way, Sugar and ADHD make for a potential recipe for disaster.
Understanding the Link Between Obesity and ADHD – Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/when-your-adult-child-breaks-your-heart/201603/understanding-the-link-between-adhd-and-obesity
Sugar is effectively a very addictive drug. As Dr. Joseph Mercola covered in his report “The Sugar Industry Exposed”, the sugar industry did a good job of tricking us into thinking that fat is the “bad guy”, and promoting sugar and carbohydrates to the point where we eat them excessively without question.
The Sugar Industry Exposed – Dr. Joseph Mercola: https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/07/25/sugar-industry-secrets.aspx
In short, fat and protein are not the enemy. If anything, sugar is. It’s shocking how many people have this backwards. For example, I have lost count of the number of people who think an avocado (which is full of healthy fats) is “fattening” compared to something full of carbohydrates like a piece of toast! People have been miss-educated.
Another frustrating result of the sugar scam, is that people go on diets and start eating “low fat” options, which actually makes people more hungry and then more likely to “snack” (on carbohydrates and sugar).
In the case of ADHD, it may also mean you are more likely to become hypoglycemic and experience a loss of energy, which in turns leads to poor(er) concentration or mood problems due to the dreaded “sugar crash.”
Why We Should Err on the Side of Caution when it Comes to Anything Artificial
I have also read and spoken with many nutritionists who say to steer well clear of sugar’s more recent cousin, artificial sweeteners. I have yet to meet or hear one who recommends using them! Why?
Because we know that whole, organic, foods are good for our health, but artificial sweeteners (and other artificial products) do not fall into the same category and are often found in processed foods.
Because having artificial sweeteners may then be interpreted as license to indulge more because you “saved calories.”
Because they have been found to mess with our guts’ “microbiome” (which research shows can affect the brain).
Animal and human studies are conflicted as to whether they lead to weight gain or not.
Some studies suggest the possibility that they may give us a “sweet tooth” and lead to weight gain.
Some animal and human studies show increased possibility of hyperactivity.
“How Artificial Sweeteners May Mess With Your Brain”- Forbes 2016https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2016/07/12/how-artificial-sweeteners-may-mess-with-your-brain/#51ec01b62099
The evidence may be conflicting and the jury may still be “out” on this question, so does that mean there is no link between sugar’s cousin the artificial sweetener and ADHD and that we can relax? I don’t think so. As usual I suggest a precautionary approach:Why take the risk?
For more on the precautionary approach I love this article over at the “ChildrensMD” website by a mother and doctor, where the author points out that whilst the regulatory bodies make the argument that food dyes (E numbers) “are safe until proven guilty”, she nonetheless chooses not to take this risk with her children because some research does suggest a link.
Major Study Suggests a Link between Hyperactivity in Children and Certain Food Additives, Southampton University, 2007:https://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2007/09/hyperactivity-in-children-and-food-additives.page
Whilst the FDA continue onwards saying “until proven otherwise,” meanwhile the EU introduced a new warning label, “may have an effect on activity and attention in children.”
Her point is, a responsible parent has to weigh up the evidence, the pros and cons, and think for themselves. In her reasoning, which I think is faultless, she points out that we don’t need food dyes in our diet anyway (just as I would suggest we do not require artificial sweeteners or excessive sugar/carbohydrates at breakfast).
Pause a moment and consider what I’m suggesting: I’m actually suggesting that it is healthier to drink normal Coca-cola than diet coca-cola!
Does Red Food Dye Cause ADHD or Hyperactivity? –Children’sMD, September 3, 2013 https://childrensmd.org/browse-by-age-group/toddler-pre-school/does-red-food-dye-cause-adhd-or-hyperactivity/
In short, when it comes to sugar and ADHD (and anything artificial or processed in the diet) we should most definitely “err on the side of caution.” It’s not worth the risk.
The Sugar & Dopamine Connection
A few years ago my continued suspicion about the ADHD-sugar connection was vindicated when I came across a review by Richard J. Johnson MD, et. al., (2011) titled “ADHD: Is It Time to Reappraise the Role of Sugar?”
But the authors took this further with their theory that there is a link between ADHD, sugar and addiction, and obesity. They propose that sugar and other addictions essentially work on the same network in the brain involved with D2 dopamine.
One of the most common “explanations” we hear about ADHD is that of “low dopamine theory.” So in the case of sugar and addiction, the theory goes that if you have low dopamine you may become easily addicted.
The problem with using a drug, over-consuming sugar, or indeed any other addiction, is that it desensitises the dopamine networks in the brain.
In other words, sugar doesn’t help. It may give you the perception of a temporary boost or “hit” (that’s the feeling of dopamine) but then you require more and more sugar or carbohydrates to get the same hit.
In other words, it leads to dopamine burnout, meaning that your dopamine receptors become even less sensitive and thus you end up struggling to get your dopamine more and more, over time, without resorting to addiction.
Their report suggested that the brain networks involved in ADHD, sugar, addiction, and obesity, may share the same D2 dopamine network in common, and also suggested that ADHD diagnoses have risen in line with the proliferation of artificial sweeteners.
Remember, they – and I – are NOT saying that “Sugar causes ADHD”. We’re simply saying that sugar may make matters worse! People with ADHD, due to preexisting low-dopamine and problems with impulse-control and addiction, may end up desensitising their dopamine networks in the brain further, creating a chaotic concoction which will likely make ADHD worse.
Conclusion: Consume Less Sugar & Make Friends with Protein and Fat!
Most experts on ADHD, such as Sandy Newmark MD in her wonderful article “ADHD Diet for Kids Food Fix” over at additudemag.com, that I have come across recommend that you have some protein and healthy fats with your breakfast, in addition to opting for lower-glycemic carbs (such as whole-grain), and lowering sugar consumption in the diet generally.
The reason for this is that sugar and carbohydrates are “fast burn” sources of energy, and you can end up feeling hungry again very soon, as well as spike your insulin levels.This is especially true during the morning, mid-afternoon and evening “slumps” and can lead to hypoglycemia resulting in poor concentration, moodiness, and low energy levels.
Meanwhile, protein and healthy fats are “slow burn” fuel sources, and protein also helps with anxiety. Under stress and anxiety your adrenal glands burn up protein, so having extra protein alleviates this tendency.
COMING SOON … If you’re ready to get practical with this information and start making some changes to your diet, why not check out my “8 Steps to an ADHD Friendly Breakfast.”
Download your Free Copy of “Quickly Relax” hypnosis MP3 today, and get access to further reports, strategies, and tools to help you or your child learn to manage or even master your ADHD for more happiness and success. https://addvantagehypnotherapy.activehosted.com/f/3
Biography Jamie was diagnosed in 2004 (age 24) with ADHD, but it was in the 20% who respond poorly to medication or have side-effects. This led him to ask the question: “In addition to medication, what else can we do to manage and master ADHD?” By 2011, by discovering and applying an holistic-integrated approach to ADHD and training as a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist, he finally came out of his depression, began to manage his symptoms of ADHD, and was able to rebuild his life again after a decade of being out of work. He went from “ADHD Hell” to “ADHD Heaven” (well, almost, as he likes to joke) and began to help others do the same. Now it’s your turn. Jamie offers coaching and hypnotherapy for ADHD in Bristol as well as worldwide via Skype.
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