*The following is part of a Facebook series on How to Address Behavioural Issues Naturally
Behavioural issues are one of the most prevalent issues facing children and teens today. They can also follow us into adulthood with symptoms manifesting slightly differently.
ADD- Attention Deficit Disorder as well as ADHD- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, are two of the most common. ADD and ADHD are found in approximately 5-15 percent of school age children and diagnosis is continuing to skyrocket.
There is about a 2:1 ratio for boys vs. girls being affected. Typical signs are hyperactivity, emotional instability (such as mood swings and outbursts), clumsiness, and disordered attention (short attention span, poor concentration, or easily distracted).
Behavioural issues generally start around age 3; however most are diagnosed once the child starts school and the behaviour becomes more apparent, around age 7.
The causes of these behavioural issues are of course multifactorial and while there is a genetic component, like most conditions, environmental and dietary factors play a significant role in determining how these genetic factors are manifested in the child.
The main “treatment” used for behavioural issues are pharmaceutical drugs such as Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, and Vyvanse.
These medications reportedly improve behaviour by up to 75% in placebo controlled studies, however in clinical practice it is seen to be much lower. Follow up studies have failed to show long term benefits, and have actually shown many adverse side effects such as anxiety, aggressiveness, agitation, and loss of appetite. Long term effects of these drugs can be extremely detrimental to brain function and behaviour.
These drugs work by pushing an increase of dopamine in the brain to stimulate attention and energy. However, an excess of dopamine can be just as harmful as a deficiency.
Non-stimulant drugs such as Atomoxetine also known as Strattera have been promoted as a safe alternative. However, it comes with it’s own set of side effects including an increased risk of suicidal thoughts. The risk for addiction and abuse of these drugs is also high.
Overall, it’s clear we would benefit from finding more natural solutions that don’t involve scary side effects.
In this post I’m going to focus on foods to avoid in cases of behavioural issues.
Our gut is the foundation of our health and is interconnected to our brain via something called the gut-brain axis. 80% of serotonin (our ‘happy’ hormone) is made in our gut.
The foods we eat and don’t eat influence this directly.
The irony of Ritalin being used to treat behavioural issues is that the non-medical ingredients of Ritalin include Yellow No.10, and Green No.3 which are food dyes known to contribute to behavioural changes.
Researchers focus on 10 food dyes, however, there are over 3000 different food additives that are of concern. There is conflict of interest in the studies done in the US, as most of the negative studies (stating these additives are safe to use) have been funded by Coca-Cola, Nabisco, and other major food corporations using these substances.
Sugar of course is next on the list for its effect on the brain and our blood sugar. Sugar acts as an opioid in the brain giving a similar reaction as heroin, increasing dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for energy, memory, and focus.
The following list of foods to avoid is taken from this article by Dr. Josh Axe, I have added information to the points where I felt necessary.
ADHD Foods to Avoid
Sugar – This is the primary trigger for most children, and some adults with ADHD. Avoid any forms of concentrated sugar including candy, desserts, soda, or fruit juices.
Sugar also causes blood sugar spikes and crashes also known as hyper and hypoglycemia or “hangry” as we all probably know. Blood sugar can have a huge impact on our mood and behaviour causing aggression, anxiety, depression, crying spells and more.
Gluten – Some researchers and parents report worsening behavior when their child eats gluten, which may indicate sensitivity to the protein found in wheat. Avoid all foods made with wheat such as bread, pasta, and wheat cereal. Look for gluten-free or even grain-free alternatives.
Gluten also docks opioid receptors in the brain causing us to “crave our poison” most people find the thing they’re most reactive to is what their body craves most. Gluten can also cause autoimmune reactions (the body attacks itself) in the brain.
I would say if your child or anyone is severely suffering to ditch the grains completely at least for a while as many find just going gluten free not entirely helpful. I know for myself I only noticed a drastic change in my health when removing all grains. Also be aware of gluten free products and their ingredients as many can be full of modified and unhealthy ingredients. Choose naturally gluten free foods such as brown rice and gluten free oats. My favourite option is organic lentil pasta, its full of fibre, protein, and healthy carbs.
Conventional Dairy – Most cow milk dairy contains A1 casein that can trigger a similar reaction as gluten and should be eliminated as well. If problematic symptoms arise after eating dairy, discontinue use. Goat’s milk however does not contain the protein, and is a better option for many individuals with ADD/ADHD.
I would recommend eliminating dairy altogether for a while in order to let the gut heal. Other dairy free options are almond milk, and coconut milk. Always check for additives in store bought versions of these as well (they are both super easy to make at home).
Food Coloring and Dyes – Children with ADHD can be sensitive to a variety of food dyes and colorings, therefore all processed foods should be avoided. Coloring and dyes appear in nearly every commercially processed food. That’s how they market it to kids! Food dyes can be found in sports drinks, candy, cake mixes, chewable vitamins, and even toothpaste!
Caffeine – While some studies have shown that caffeine may help with some ADHD symptoms, it is wise to minimize or avoid caffeine, as these studies have not been validated. In addition, the side effects of caffeine, like anxiety, and nervousness, can contribute to the symptoms of ADD/ADHD.
MSG and HVP – These two additives are believed to decrease dopamine levels in both children and adults. Dopamine is associated with the brain’s pleasure and reward systems. For individuals suffering with ADD/ADHD, balanced levels of dopamine are essential.
Nitrites – Commonly found in lunchmeat, canned foods and many processed foods, nitrites are linked to an increase of childhood Type 1 Diabetes, certain types of cancer, and IBS. In addition, it can cause rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, and restlessness which worsen ADHD symptoms.
Artificial Sweeteners – Artificial sweeteners are just bad for your health, but for those living with ADHD, the side effects can be devastating. Artificial sweeteners create biochemical changes in the body, some of which can harm cognitive function and emotional balance.
Soy – Soy is a common food allergen and can disrupt hormones that cause ADHD.
Personal Food Sensitivities/Allergens – Eliminate the top 7 allergens, including soy, wheat, and conventional dairy mentioned above, as well as peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, and shellfish. In addition, eliminate any foods or beverages that are personal allergens. This might include papaya, avocados, bananas, and kiwis (for those with latex allergies), and/or coriander, caraway, or fennel (all from the same family), and/or chocolate.
Overall, it’s clear there can be so many triggers for behavioural issues. It’s so important to eat food without labels (like vegetables, fruit, organic meats etc.) whenever possible. When eating food with labels, carefully check ingredients to ensure you’re getting the highest quality food without fillers and additives like those listed above.
Good guidelines and elimination diets to follow include the GAPS diet (the gut and psychology diet) which has helped so many people reduce or eliminate symptoms of behavioural issues by addressing food allergies and healing the gut. The Specific Carbohydrate diet is similar, removing all suspected allergens from the diet.
The SCD diet is the one thing that helped me when I was suffering so much from digestive/hormonal/completely unexplained issues, I had whole body symptoms that no one could piece together which is what started me on this journey and I have only just figured out that my liver and gallbladder are the root of all of these issues recently by working with one of my teachers. This is most likely from very harsh medications I took as a teen for acne, 10 years later I’m working my way out of the damage. This is why I’m so passionate about finding the root cause of these issues and working naturally to eliminate them rather than turning to medications to mask symptoms, because pharmaceuticals have had a severe impact on my life.
I still mostly stick to a paleo type diet which eliminates grains, dairy and processed foods. Once you start supporting the body with what it needs and heal the digestive system, the brain and the rest of the body thrive. If issues are serious I always recommend working one on one with a holistic nutritionist to address diet and it’s role in behavioural issues.
As a dental hygienist I see countless teens on harsh medications to control their behaviour (plus more to control symptoms from the original medication). However, as a yoga teacher, teaching kids, I see first hand the impact of yoga on behaviour and hyperactivity. Finding an activity that can help your child relax, as well as bring the focus to their own breath and body can be extremely helpful in working with behavioural issues where the majority of focus is on external stimuli.
A List of Resources:
Dr. Doris Rapp
Book: Is This Your Child?
Specific Carbohydrate Diet
Book: Breaking the Vicious Cycle