Omega-3 fatty acids, melatonin, and an elimination diet are a few options that may be helpful for ADHD.

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If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may already be aware of how helpful the right treatment can be for managing symptoms.

Whether that treatment includes medication, therapy, or complementary approaches, it can make a big difference in someone’s quality of life with ADHD.

Dietary therapy for ADHD, which involves approaches such as eliminating or adding certain foods to the diet, is often considered a complementary approach to ADHD treatment — one that is best used in combination with other approaches. And although the research on diet and ADHD is mixed, there are a few interventions that have shown promise.

A 2020 review article shares findings that children who have ADHD also tend to have lower blood levels of certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, iron, and zinc. In children with these particular deficiencies, supplementation may help reduce ADHD symptoms.

In adults with ADHD, certain nutrient deficiencies may also contribute to a worsening of symptoms. One 2016 study found that adults with ADHD tended to have lower levels of certain B vitamins, including B2, B6, and B9. Lower levels of both B2 and B6 were also associated with an increased severity in ADHD symptoms.

Another 2019 study showed that children with ADHD not only had lower levels of vitamin B12, folate, and vitamin B6, but also ferritin and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA). Plus, they had higher levels of saturated fatty acids (SFA), a higher omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio, and higher levels of phosphorus.

The researchers share that children with ADHD also tend to eat foods that are higher in sugar and fat, while also eating less nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. Dietary differences like these may explain why children with ADHD are more likely to have lower levels of certain nutrients.

Early research suggested that eliminating certain food products, such as foods that contain added sugar and artificial food coloring, may also help reduce ADHD symptoms — especially in children. Many of the studies on these potentially harmful ingredients found that eliminating them from the diet had a positive effect on ADHD symptoms.

However, the research on the subject has evolved since the early 2000s, giving mixed results about diet and ADHD.

A 2019 review of 14 studies on a potential link between dietary patterns and ADHD found that diets high in refined sugar and fat may potentially increase ADHD risk, whereas diets high in nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables were potentially protective against ADHD.

Still, despite this evidence, the researchers mention that given the low number of studies on the subject — and potentially poor study designs for some of the studies included — more research is needed to support this possible link.

Another 2020 review of the literature sought to investigate the role of diet in the treatment of ADHD in children. Within the review, only two out of six studies recommended removing artificial food colorings from the diet, while 10 out of 12 studies included recommended following an elimination diet. Results also showed no current recommendations for cutting either sucrose or aspartame from the diet.

Recent research on the role of supplementation for ADHD is still somewhat mixed, but evidence suggests that there are a handful of foods and supplements that may help reduce some of the symptoms of ADHD.

Foods high in omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that are important for the regulation of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that have been shown to play a role in ADHD. One 2018 review study, which included over 500 children and adolescents with ADHD, found that omega-3 supplementation was effective at improving both ADHD symptoms and brain performance.

Eating omega-3 rich foods such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, flax seeds, and chia seeds may help improve serum levels of omega-3s — but these food sources are unlikely to have the same effect as a high dose dietary supplement.

Foods high in iron, zinc, and magnesium

Research from 2020 has suggested that deficiencies in iron, zinc, and magnesium may be linked to ADHD symptoms, and that supplementation may help reduce symptoms in individuals with these deficiencies. One 2021 study found that iron supplementation in children with ADHD and iron deficiency, who were taking methylphenidate, helped improve ADHD symptoms on the Conners’ Parent Rating Scale (CPRS).

Dietary sources like nuts and seeds, beans, and leafy greens are essential sources of minerals like iron, zinc, and magnesium, but eating these foods will not have the same effect as supplementation.

Foods high in vitamin D

Vitamin D has been suggested to play a role in multiple mental health conditions, including ADHD. A 2021 study found that as little as 8 weeks of supplementation with a combination of a very high dose of vitamin D (50,000 IU) and magnesium may help improve the emotional and behavioral symptoms of ADHD.

Sun exposure, fatty fish such as salmon and trout, milk, eggs, and fortified food products are all good sources of vitamin D. However, supplementation is the only way to meet an intake of 50,000 IU, as mentioned in the study above. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that this high of a dosage should only be taken if prescribed by a medical professional.

Supplements containing melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that plays a crucial role in regulating sleep, which is commonly affected in people with ADHD. However, research on the benefits of melatonin for ADHD sleep symptoms, like insomnia, is promising.

In one 2019 study, researchers explored the benefits of melatonin in children with ADHD who were receiving treatment with methylphenidate. According to the results of the study, at least 4 weeks of melatonin supplementation helped improve sleep symptoms in over 60% of the study participants.

Melatonin is often taken as a supplement, with a safe dosage of up to 1 milligram (mg) in infants, between 2.5–3 mg in older children, and up to 5 mg in adolescents and older. As with any supplement, it’s best to speak with a healthcare professional first to discuss the ideal dosage and any possible risks or medication interactions.

One theory on ADHD and diet is that sugar intake, especially added sugar (like the kind found in candy, chocolate, and other snacks), can make ADHD symptoms in children worse.

However, one large 2019 study in over 1,100 children with ADHD found that there was no significant relationship between added sugar intake and ADHD symptoms. Still, the researchers did note that young children with ADHD were more likely to eat foods high in added sugar — which may explain why sugar intake can sometimes seem to contribute to ADHD symptoms.

Another 2022 study, which explored the nutritional intake of 100 children with ADHD, found that children with ADHD were more likely to eat ready-made foods and foods higher in simple sugars, while also eating fewer nutrient-dense foods when compared with children without ADHD. Plus, children with ADHD were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference — both of which may contribute to the severity of symptoms.

Another common theory is that foods containing food coloring may worsen ADHD symptoms in children, but once again, the literature is mixed.

An in-depth 2012 literature review found that many studies on food dye and ADHD had obvious flaws, making it difficult to come to any solid conclusions. Plus, while the research does suggest that food dye can have a small behavioral impact in children, this effect applies to all children, not just those with ADHD.

Elimination diets have been suggested as a way to help improve symptoms of ADHD.

An elimination diet involves identifying and removing foods that you suspect may be making your symptoms worse — and then later re-adding them, slowly and systematically, to determine which foods may be triggers. By learning which foods and ingredients are making your ADHD symptoms worse, you can more easily manage your symptoms in the long run.

One type of elimination diet, the few-foods diet, seems to be the most effective diet for reducing ADHD symptoms. For example, one 2020 study found that following a short-term few-foods diet under the supervision of a trained professional can significantly reduce symptoms of both ADHD and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD).

However, outside of following an elimination diet, there are no other diets that are currently shown to be effective for reducing ADHD symptoms.

If you’re interested in trying an elimination diet to see if it may improve ADHD symptoms, it’s strongly recommended to only do so under the guidance of a trained professional.

If you’re interested in incorporating more ADHD-friendly foods into your diet, here’s what a sample 3-day meal plan may look like:

Day 1

  • Breakfast: smoothie made with unsweetened Greek yogurt, frozen mixed berries, and almond butter
  • Lunch: beef cheeseburger with a whole-grain bun and sweet potato fries
  • Dinner: Indian lentil curry with brown Jasmine rice
  • Snacks: trail mix made with mixed nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate (optional)

Day 2

  • Breakfast: unsweetened oatmeal topped with fresh berries, chopped nuts, and chia seeds
  • Lunch: whole-wheat pasta with grilled chicken, sautéed spinach, and mushrooms
  • Dinner: baked salmon with roasted broccoli and brown rice
  • Snacks: cottage cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and whole cherry tomatoes

Day 3

  • Breakfast: yogurt parfait made with Greek yogurt, mixed berries, and chopped nuts
  • Lunch: leftover baked salmon salad made with your choice of leafy greens, sliced veggies (your choice), and salad dressing
  • Dinner: beef and red bean chili topped with sour cream (optional)
  • Snacks: mixed granola made with whole-grain granola, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds

Whether you’re taking care of a child who has ADHD, or living with ADHD yourself as an adult, one of the most important steps in managing this condition is having a treatment plan.

If you’re concerned that diet may be playing a role in your or your loved one’s symptoms, a good first step is to consider scheduling a meeting with a nutrition professional. Consider choosing a specialist who has experience treating clients with ADHD and can help you create a customized diet plan for your symptoms.

It’s also good to remember that most of the foods that may be beneficial for ADHD are beneficial for the brain in general. So, even with limited research, it’s never a bad idea to consider adding these kinds of nutrient-rich foods to your diet.