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Mitchell L. Gaynor M.D.
Mitchell L. Gaynor M.D.

Foods, Toxins, and ADHD

Find out what you can do about foods and toxins that worsen ADHD symptoms.

Kids can be fidgety, overactive, impulsive, and inattentive. In the age of social media, these behaviors, particularly inattentiveness, can be further amplified by the world of tweeting, Instagramming, and texting. And while some children can buckle down and focus when it matters (e.g., to do homework or to sit for a test), other children can’t. These kids are often restless, disruptive, and unfocused. And their inattentiveness and extremely active behavior affects all aspects of their lives and the people around them. These children have either been diagnosed with ADHD or will be diagnosed.

ADHD is one of the most common types of neurological disorders affecting children in the United States. Children and adolescents with ADHD have trouble focusing and exhibit impulse control and other behavioral issues. Unfortunately, as they get older, these symptoms persist in adulthood.

ADHD and Toxins

As an integrative oncologist, I’ve dedicated much of my career to exploring toxicogenomics—the science of how environmental toxins influence gene expression. Although I am a cancer specialist, my practice is structured toward treating the whole person through a combination of allopathic approaches and integrative therapies. And many times toxins play a huge role in diseases. In fact, toxins in the environment and in food have been linked to ADHD:

  • In one study the blood concentration levels of lead, aluminum, and mercury were measured in non-ADHD children who resided near a metal-processing plant.1 These children underwent testing to assess for issues in behavior (hyperactivity) and focus (inattentiveness). Of the three metals, lead was the only one associated with the development of ADHD-specific symptoms in the children.
  • In a six-week randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study, children who consumed foods and beverages that were devoid of sodium benzoate (a preservative) and food-coloring agents were evaluated.2 At weeks 2, 4, and 6, the children were either placed in a group that received either the plain juice (placebo) or juice that contained additives. The researchers reported that a significant increase in hyperactivity was observed among children who consumed drinks that contained artificial colors.

Avoid These Food Triggers

Because hyperactivity and inattentiveness underscore this condition, it is essential to avoid foods that exacerbate these symptoms. During your next run to the grocery store, keep these foods out of your shopping cart:

  • How Sweet It Is…Not: It’s no secret that sugar has kids bouncing off of the walls. In children with an ADHD diagnosis, foods high in sugar only worsen their condition. Sodas and fruit juices contain high amounts of sugar; don’t buy them for your kids. To ensure that your children aren’t overloading on sugars, you should read food labels. Avoid foods that contain ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, dextrin, molasses, malt syrup, and sucrose.
  • Skip the Food Bling: These attractive extras such as food coloring and preservatives are meant only to look and taste good. But the nutritional value is often lacking. Multicolored cereals, for example, should be avoided. And skip the artificial drinks that have added flavor and artificial color (Opt for 100% fruit juices instead).
  • Food Allergies: Some children have allergies or sensitivities to foods that contain gluten, wheat, corn, and soy that have been associated with hyperactivity and inattentiveness. Discuss testing for food allergies and sensitivity with your child’s pediatrician.

Pay Attention to Helpful Nutrients

Now that you have a mental checklist of what you need to avoid while shopping for your family, here are some healthier options to add to your child’s diet:

  • Omega-3 Fats: These fats are good for your health: boosts immunity, bolsters heart health, and transmits brain signals. Data show children with ADHD tend to have an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency. This is no surprise because omega-3 fatty acids are usually lacking in the typical American diet. Increase omega-3 levels by eating cold-water fish such as tuna and salmon. There may, however, be some children who may not like the taste of fish. Studies have shown that supplementing with omega-3 improves ADHD symptoms.3,4
  • Minerals: Not all mineral deficiencies trigger ADHD. For instance, iron deficiency has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems in children with ADHD.5 While stronger studies are warranted, preliminary findings in studies evaluating the effects of zinc and magnesium have shown promising results.6,7 Food sources for these minerals include poultry, lean meat, seafood, nuts, and fortified cereals.
  • Phytonutrients: Phytonutrients have also shown promise in the treatment of ADHD. One such phytonutrient is pycnogenol, an antioxidant from pine bark or grape seeds. Preliminary research suggests Pycnogenol® may reduce symptoms such as hyperactivity, inattentiveness, poor concentration, and visual-motor coordination problems in children with ADHD.8
  • B Vitamins: These vitamins help to synthesize neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine and serotonin) that are crucial to brain function. Research shows increasing low levels of B vitamins in children led to improvements in attention span and behavior.9

Yoga and meditation should not be overlooked; while larger-scale studies are warranted, current data on these therapies show encouraging results in improving symptoms of ADHD.10,11

Although there is no cure for ADHD, it’s manageable. Children can grow up to be well adapted, functioning adults. With early interventions such as thorough medical evaluations and treatments as well as a diet that promotes brain health, children can better manage their disease.


1. Nicolescu R, Petcu C, Cordeanu A, et al. Environmental exposure to lead, but not other neurotoxic metals, relates to core elements of ADHD in Romanian children: Performance and questionnaire data. Environmental Research. 7// 2010;110(5):476-483.

2. McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet. 2007;370(9598):1560-1567.

3. Sorgi PJ, Hallowell EM, Hutchins HL, Sears B. Effects of an open-label pilot study with high-dose EPA/DHA concentrates on plasma phospholipids and behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutr J. 2007;6(16):16.

4. Richardson AJ, Puri BK. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effects of supplementation with highly unsaturated fatty acids on ADHD-related symptoms in children with specific learning difficulties. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 2002;26(2):233-239.

5. Konofal E, Lecendreux M, Arnulf I, Mouren M-C. Iron deficiency in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine. 2004;158(12):1113-1115.

6. Akhondzadeh S, Mohammadi M-R, Khademi M. Zinc sulfate as an adjunct to methylphenidate for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children: a double blind and randomized trial [ISRCTN64132371]. BMC psychiatry. 2004;4(1):9.

7. Starobrat-Hermelin B, Kozielec T. The effects of magnesium physiological supplementation on hyperactivity in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Positive response to magnesium oral loading test. Magnesium research: official organ of the International Society for the Development of Research on Magnesium. 1997;10(2):149-156.

8. Trebatická J, Kopasová S, Hradečná Z, et al. Treatment of ADHD with French maritime pine bark extract, Pycnogenol®. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2006/09/01 2006;15(6):329-335.

9. Mousain-Bosc M, Roche M, Polge A, Pradal-Prat D, Rapin J, Bali JP. Improvement of neurobehavioral disorders in children supplemented with magnesium-vitamin B6. I. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. Magnes Res. Mar 2006;19(1):46-52.

10. Black DS, Milam J, Sussman S. Sitting-Meditation Interventions Among Youth: A Review of Treatment Efficacy. Pediatrics. September 1, 2009 2009;124(3):e532-e541.

11. Harrison LJ, Manocha R, Rubia K. Sahaja Yoga Meditation as a Family Treatment Programme for Children with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. October 1, 2004 2004;9(4):479-497.

About the Author
Mitchell L. Gaynor M.D.

Mitchell L. Gaynor, M.D., is a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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