Is one of your kids struggling with ADHD? You've come to the right place. Let's talk about the effects that gut health improvements (including probiotics) have on ADHD, so you can work on helping your child from the gut where so much health starts.
ADHD is prevalent these days, wreaking havoc on personal lives, families, and kids in school. There are drugs on the market to deal with it, and lots of different natural remedies for ADHD, but what if there was a way to help support your body from the root of the problem?
Energy, excitement, and bursts of activity are surely normal (and entertaining!) aspects of being a kid that any parent is happy to see. But in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these traits can show up more intensely:
out-of- control hyperactivity
constant disruption of those around them
having trouble focusing
difficulty shifting between tasks
Unlike typical bouts of wandering attention, ADHD is a medical disorder that researchers believe is the result of a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. It can affect many aspects of a person’s life, including learning, connecting with others, organizational skills, and time management.
As a parent, this can be disheartening when you begin to peel back the layers to discover that a medical disorder may be at the root of your child’s focus and behavior troubles. But if you feel your child might have ADHD—or if they have already been diagnosed—don’t worry. You are not alone (LOTS of parents struggle with this), and you have more options than you might think.
Help for ADHD
Obviously, as parents we will do whatever is possible to set our kiddos up for independent, healthy, and fulfilling lives. So the question becomes: what’s the best option for achieving this when approaching ADHD?
For those dealing with ADD and ADHD, there are several options from drugs to natural supports, and even a few “off the beaten path” options like brain games for kids.
If you’re like most parents, psychiatric medications like Ritalin might seem an obvious choice to improve your child’s school and family life (because let’s face it: an ADHD diagnosis can impact everyone involved). Drugs are an “easy” choice but not always what a parent wants to turn to.
But how do these drugs work? What's interesting is that these drugs help ADHD children by increasing neurotransmitters norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin in the central nervous system.
But guess what else also does that?
Yes, the same neurotransmitters that are given a boost by ADHD drugs are actually naturally created in our guts by trillions of microorganisms that live there (a.k.a. our microbiome) and then delivered to the brain.
This all literally all begins in the gut, and this is important to understand when looking at ADHD.
The Gut-Brain Relationship
Our little ones’ brain health and the gut are more connected than most parents realize.
In fact, making sure the gut microbiome is healthy and teeming with a diversity of friendly flora may have a big impact on the chemical balance in children’s brains, along with their overall health and development.
You see, those bacteria in the gut can communicate with the brain directly. They do this by sending messages via the vagus nerve, which runs from our brainstem all the way to our abdomen.
Gut microbes are crucial for the creation and regulation of neurotransmitters needed by the brain to produce healthy signals throughout the body—the same neurotransmitters that drugs like Ritalin are designed to increase in ADHD children.
But most of that serotonin isn’t being made in the brain—about 80-90% of it is made in the GI tract!
This is why we need that healthy balance of bacteria in our little one’s belly: to promote a healthy balance of chemicals in the brain.
Gut Health and ADHD Symptoms
Gut bacteria support nearly every facet of health and are part of the inner ecosystem of microbes that develop in each of us, beginning in the womb.
That’s why healthy gut flora are important for so many functions in the body, including optimal mental and emotional function (the creation of neurotransmitters and proper chemical balance in the brain), which is crucial for children with ADHD.
For the gut microbiome to be healthy, it requires an abundance of the good bacteria, also known as probiotics. About 85% of gut microbes should be a variety of probiotics in order to optimize important functions in the body and brain.
This is easier said than done, since so many things work against us (and our children) when it comes to the good flora we need to keep us healthy and thriving.
Here’s a quick list of things that can wipe out the good guys…
10 Things that Damage Good Gut Health
1. Processed and Sugary foods
Processed foods are often full of GMO oils that can destroy the gut. Plus these foods are full of refined carbs and sugars that lead to gut issues including candida and leaky gut.
There is so much wrong with all of these. Just avoid them as much as possible.
Stress has many bad effects on the body and the brain, with impaired gut health being one of them.
4. Certain medications
Besides antibiotics, other meds also affect the gut–birth control pills being one offender.
5. Widespread Presence of and Overuse of Antibiotics
Antibiotics kill life. That is what their name means. They destroy not only the “bad guys”, but also the “good guys” in the gut. That's why you often have gut issues after taking an antibiotic and need to restore the balance.
Besides those listed above, there are other pollutants to consider like flame retardants, chemicals in cleaning compounds, air pollution that comes in from the outdoors or from appliances.
7. Limited time outdoors (limited exposure to soil and animals)
Exposure to animals and soil is a good thing as it exposes us to small amounts of soil based organisms that can be beneficial to the gut.
8. Over-sanitizing (ex. antibacterial soaps)
Antibacterial soaps have been linked to the destruction of good bacteria (Source).
9. Cesarean birth vs. vaginal birth
When babies are born via C-section, they miss out on the benefits of mom's gut flora that lines the vaginal cavity.
10. Not being breastfed
Breastmilk contains beneficial bacteria along with so many other things that benefit baby's well being.
Probiotics and ADHD — How to Restore Your Child's Gut Health
Ideally, we should expose our children to healthy bacteria as early as possible (even prenatally through maternal probiotic supplementation) and avoid practices that damage our friendly flora. This will give kids healthy connections between gut and proper brain chemical balance.
But since many factors in our modern environment can negatively affect the microbiome, one of the best ways to ensure our kids are continually exposed to strong probiotic colonies is through high-quality probiotic supplements.
In one promising study, probiotics combined with other nutritional supplements were shown to be just as effective at improving symptoms of ADHD as Ritalin (1). This makes sense because as we’ve already discussed, the neurotransmitters needed for healthy brain balance are produced in the gut!
In another fascinating trial, researchers gave 75 infants either probiotics or placebo for the first six months of life, and then followed them for thirteen years. At the end of the study, none of the kids in the probiotic group had developed ADHD, compared to 17% of kids in the placebo group (2).
10 Steps to Balance the Gut and Improve Mental Function
If we’re not actively stocking our guts with good gut bacteria, the scales will likely tip and the bad guys will soon outnumber the good guys. Thankfully, you can help your children fortify and improve their gut health.
First, Replenish Your Child’s Gut and Encourage Focus
1. Take a high-quality multi-strain probiotic formula to balance gut bacteria and promote a healthy digestive system. The best probiotics can withstand stomach acids and enable the bacteria reach the gut alive to perform their health-enhancing duties. Otherwise, the stomach's acidic environment might make the probiotic totally useless, which is a huge waste of money.
We've tried a bunch of probiotics over the years, but my youngest loves this probiotic, and I love the care that has gone into their products. I've corresponded with the company's owner and am highly impressed with her knowledge base and attention to detail.
2. Eat probiotic-rich foods such as non-dairy yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso soup, pickles, tempeh, and kombucha tea.
3. Consume prebiotic foods to ensure the friendly flora in your gut stay alive and thrive! Prebiotics are a type of nondigestible fiber that feeds the probiotics in your gut. Some popular prebiotics include oats, bananas, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, and onions. You can also purchase a prebiotic like this one that we use.
4. Encouraging free playtime to help alleviate stress almost instantaneously while encouraging a more balanced microbiome.
For more microbiome-boosting, get kids outside to play and get extra dirty. This exposes them to healthy microbes that help to keep their digestive tract and immune system strong year long.
5. Revamp the family diet.
Focus primarily on whole, plant-based foods, preferably those that are organic, hormone, pesticide and antibiotic free. Include fresh vegetables with every meal to nourish the body with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
6. Avoid or reduce exposure to products that interfere with our body’s natural hormones (endocrine disruptors).
These can include items that contain BPA (plastics and aluminum cans); dioxins (animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy); atrazine (non-organic corn and unfiltered drinking water); phthalates (plastic containers and plastic wrap); arsenic (unfiltered drinking water); perfluorinated chemicals (non- stick pans or stain and water-resistant coatings) and pesticides (non-organic produce). Please, please, make sure that you have a good water filter in your home.
7. Remove or reduce exposure to possible triggers, such as added stressors and video games. These flood the brain with the important neurotransmitter called dopamine, leaving very little dopamine leftover for motivation, focus, and attention.
8. Consume an abundance of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and phospholipids.
Foods such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, avocados, whole grains, olive oil, and almonds are all fairly easy foods to sneak into your child’s lunchbox or mix in with their meals. Try my Chocolate Chia Pudding, Dairy-free Ranch Dressing, AIP Guacamole, Moroccan Vinaigrette, and Almond Joy Bars to see how easily and deliciously you can add these to your child's diet.
9. Watch the carbs. Excess carbs and refined sugars can lead to gut dysbiosis which can cause all kinds of health and behavioral issues.
As anyone with a child with ADHD knows, anything you can do to help make things more smooth is a big help.
There are loads of natural and conventional supports for ADHD that you can pursue, but why not get to the root of things? Look at the relationship between gut health and ADHD or probiotics and ADHD to see if these might be the right approach for you and your family. These things aren't a cure for ADHD, but they are great supports for the gut and brain. When you improve gut health, all kinds of other good things can follow.
Talk to your doctor to see if the suggestions in this post might be a good support to your child who is struggling with ADHD. Hopefully they can be of benefit and help your child feel better–because a happy gut leads to a happy, healthy, and balanced brain. And a healthy brain means a joyful, productive, and motivated child!
Do you give your kids probiotics?
What has helped for ADHD for you or your kids?
1. Harding, K. L., Judah, R. D., & Gant, C. (2003). “Outcome-based comparison of Ritalin versus food-supplement treated children with AD/HD.” Alternative Medicine Review : A Journal of Clinical Therapeutic 8 (3): 319–30.
2. Pärtty, A., Kalliomäki, M., Wacklin, P., Salminen, S., & Isolauri, E. (2015). “A possible link between early probiotic intervention and the risk of neuropsychiatric disorders later in childhood: A randomized trial.” Pediatric Research 77 (6): 823-28.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Stephen O'Connor, Emergency Medicine MD and Chief Medical Officer for Salutem Health Group. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you consult with your physician concerning any health issues.