If you have ADHD or have a child with ADHD, life can feel overwhelming at times. To sit still and focus on a task can seem like a jail sentence. There is so much to think and do besides focusing on what is in front on you. For some, it can feel like you might explode if you don’t get up and do something. For others, it may leave you stuck on what to do next, leaving you feeling defeated and uncapable.
I wanted to share my experiences with ADHD, personally and as a parent, so it might help others in their journey. As a dietitian, I’ve always dug deeper on these issues and questioned doctors. Being military, we have moved 5 times in 12 years so I’ve gotten to ask doctors all over the world their take on ADHD and how to treat it. I never stop learning or looking for information about ADHD, so I am excited to share what I have learned so far in the last 6 years, especially as it pertains to diet and lifestyle. ADHD is not a one prong approach. It’s a multifaceted one that treats the whole person.
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post.
ADHD is a divided into 3 types by the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th edition). The severity of each type can vary greatly between individuals.
- Inattentive Type
Inability to focus and pay attention for a duration of time
- Hyperactive Impulsive Type
Can be classified as an inability to sit still or think before they act
- Combination Type
Combination of inattentive type and Hyperactive/Impulsive type
The current standard in medical practice is a subjective behavior checklist that is given to parents and teachers with specific questions related to ADHD. That’s it.
I do feel like we need to do more clinically to get a big picture of the whole child before we jump all into the ADHD camp when going through a diagnostic process.
I didn’t accept the subjective checklist as my only option when we first started this journey. I also sought out the help of an occupational therapist. Being taught to research a diagnosis worked to my benefit. I found the book, Raising a Sensory Smart Child. I took it to my pediatrician with their free questionnaire and home screening tool. There are a lot of similarities between sensory processing disorder and ADHD. I refused medication for my son until I had a full picture of what may be going on.
It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. In fact, he does have sensory issues as well as inattentive type ADHD. The OT (occupational therapist) started us on a sensory diet which helped us pinpoint what he needed to be more effective at learning and focusing. I’m still not convinced he isn’t more sensory vs ADHD. However, ADHD gives him more rights at school and the ability to have an IEP.
Before we jump in, please understand that You cannot medicate ADHD out of a child. Medication is a tool to help them focus and organize for a certain amount of time. Lifestyle and management skills will still need to be taught. Executive function is something these kids will continually need help in developing. Medication can be a tool in the toolbox.
2 types of medications are available for ADHD, stimulants and non-stimulants.
All of these medications have side effects so it’s important to know them if your child starts them. The medications are all trial and error. It will be like throwing darts at a board and seeing what works and at what dosage.
When I finally decided to try medications, non-stimulants did not work for us. It changed my child’s personality and we took him off immediately. We ended up on stimulants, specifically Concerta. However, he stopped eating and it set him up for disordered eating behaviors. I wasn’t going to make him binge eat before his meds and when they were wearing off. As a dietitian, I could never ethically feel good about that. We finally settled on Focalin which did not have side effects for him.
Medications are trial and error and each person reacts to medication quite differently to different medications. What works for one person may not work for another. I am not advocating medications. It is a personal decision you make for your child.
Supplements are an individually based recommendation depending on height, weight and age. Working with your doctor and Registered Dietitian can help track the effectiveness of chosen supplements, as well as making adjustments in diet.
Omega 3 fatty acids are well researched to be beneficial if the correct EPA/DHA ratio is chosen as well as the dosage. Many times, I see parents just buying a random gummy on the market and think that will have benefit when in fact, it’s not enough and the wrong ratio.
Some people may have low iron, zinc, magnesium, and Vitamin D levels but a blood test and dietary recall would be helpful in discovering that information.
ADHD DIET AND FEEDING CHALLENGES
Diet is not one size fits all. It’s very individual to the adult or child. Genetics and environment are big factors that come into play. Working with a Registered Dietitian can help in determining what specific challenges you may be facing. I will have more specific diet information in following posts with this series. If you want to virtually learn about ADHD and diet, I highly recommend The ADHD Diet for Kids by Jill Castle. She has created a self study course that walks you through the most important aspects and nutrients these kids needs. She is a pediatric dietitian with over 27 years of experience.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate after personally taking her course.
Feeding challenges can come from 2 different places.
First, rule out any sensory issues. You may have a sensory eater. If you work with an OT, Speech Pathologist, or Registered Dietitian who specializes in working with sensory kids, you can see if tastes and textures bother them. You can refer to the sensory checklist I mentioned above as well to help you in this process.
Second, look at medication side effects. If meds are decreasing appetite so much that they barely eat, it may be more beneficial to look at another medication. Kids are still growing, and meds that suppress appetite may do more harm than good. It can also set them up for disordered eating patterns that could persist if the medication is stopped. I know many doctors say not to worry about that but as a dietitian, I do worry about the long-term effects on behavior and eating patterns. Weight loss is especially concerning to me.
ADHD AND EXERCISE
Studies show exercise is extremely beneficial for ADHD. It helps improve concentration, working memory, and aids in managing symptoms. Weight bearing exercise is especially helpful and used in sensory diets. It’s often referred to as “heavy work”. Heavy work can center you and engage your vestibular system that controls balance and movement. Again, you can see the thin line between sensory processing and ADHD. Trial and error with duration and intensity of exercise can be an effective part of treatment with ADHD.
ADHD AND SLEEP
Sleep is an often overlooked contributor to unmanaged ADHD symptoms. Disordered sleep behaviors put ADHD kids at an even higher risk for anxiety and depression. By implementing healthy sleep practices like calming and structured bedtime routines, caffeine avoidance, exercise, avoiding naps, and reducing screen time close to bedtime, can help your child be more successful at school and at home.
ADHD AND SCHOOL
School can be very difficult for some of these kids. The large class size, lack of movement, and reduced recess time are huge barriers for these kids since they struggle with paying attention, organization, impulsiveness, and forgetting things, among a few.
Having an IEP in place can help your child be successful in a school environment. Ask specific questions to the IEP team. Having specific guidelines in the IEP such as not having recess taken away as a punishment, taking movement breaks, and even having a high protein snack are some suggestions that can be part of an effective plan. Weekly feedback from the teacher(s) written in the plan is also going to help your child be successful.
Don’t be passive in the IEP meetings! Please understand that this is your child. You know your child better than anyone. Be bold in having your voice heard at IEP meetings. Have very specific goals written in with timelines and measurement. You also have a right to write in your own goals. Very few parents know or understand how much say so they have when your child has an IEP. You have to sign off on it. If you don’t agree, don’t sign it. I highly recommend the book from Emotions to Advocacy to help you in the IEP process.
MY FAVORITE ADHD RESOURCES
(affiliate links included)
I hope you found this information helpful. ‘One size fits all’ doesn’t work with these kids in school, life, or ADHD management. They are unique individuals with different learning styles and different tastes. Working closely with a team of doctors, psychologists, dietitians, teachers, occupational therapists, and behavior therapists are your best bet to getting your child on the right path. You can help them develop a toolbox of strategies in diet, exercise, and life. It takes time. It takes dedication as a parent. Don’t give up! Make small changes and don’t overwhelm your child or yourself. Modeling healthy behaviors are key for these kids.
As a parent of a child with ADHD, I adore our kids! I love helping them, and I hope you enjoy this post and the posts to come tackling this complex topic.
I’d love to hear from you and your experiences and challenges with ADHD. Post in the comments below.
Betsy Ramirez, MEd, RDN
Author: Betsy Ramirez
Betsy is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, homeschool mom, & fairy tale junkie, who loves getting crafty. Being on my bike and lifting weights are my therapy. Thinking outside the box is my jam!