What are the affects of nutrition, supplements and food additives on ADHD?

Dr. Douglas E. Severance, MD
Family Practitioner

Regularly taking vitamins and supplements may offer benefits for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, researchers have not uncovered much evidence to support the benefits. Of course, a daily multivitamin may be effective for overall health and wellness. Many parents report benefits when children with ADHD take herbal supplements, including hypericum, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, and traditional Chinese medicine formulas. 

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are necessary for proper brain function, so taking these regularly may improve ADHD symptoms. Other people have reported success with glyconutrients, consisting of eight sugars found to be crucial for brain function. These supplements help to form important compounds known as glycoproteins, which may reduce ADHD symptoms. Regardless of the supplement, it is important to know how much to consume. Megadoses, which far exceed the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), can be very dangerous.

Regularly taking a mineral supplement may hold benefits for our health and wellness. But in regard to treating symptoms of ADHD, no evidence has yet been found. Taking megadoses—doses much larger than the recommended dietary allowance (RDA)—of minerals and other nutrients can be very dangerous.

Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a California pediatrician, observed that many hyperactive children became excited after eating foods containing high concentrations of salicylates. These phenolic compounds occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables and are especially concentrated in raisins, nuts, apples and oranges. They are also used as preservatives (butylated hydroxytoluene [BHT] and butylated hydroxyanisole [BHA], for example) or as the basis for artificial colors or flavors. Feingold developed a low salicylate diet that has helped many children overcome attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

The National Institute of Mental Health convened a consensus panel which concluded that 8 to 10 percent of children with ADHD are sensitive to salicylates and benefit from the Feingold diet. Shortly afterwards a study was done at the Hospital for Sick Children in London and published in the leading British journal, Lancet, which demonstrated that most children with severe ADHD are salicylate sensitive, but that 90 percent of these children have additional food intolerances. The conclusion is that the Feingold diet will not significantly benefit the majority of children with ADHD because they have more than one type of food sensitivity.

Evening primrose oil in general can benefit the brain because it contains an omega-6 fatty acid important for maintaining brain chemistry. Specific studies involving children with ADHD have produced mixed results.

Some research reports that getting plenty of omega-3 fats in your diet could improve symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People in Western societies tend to consume super-high amounts of omega-6 fats but precious little of omega-3 fats like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). And some early research suggests that this imbalance of super-high omega-6s and super-low omega-3s could make symptoms of ADHD worse. Still other research suggests that getting more omega-3s may benefit mood, behavior, and overall brain function. For more omega-3s, eat fish, walnuts, avocados, and olive and canola oils.

ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder of childhood, affecting about 3 - 5% of school-aged children. ADHD is diagnosed much more often in boys than in girls. The symptoms of ADHD fall into three groups:

  • Lack of attention (inattentiveness)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsive behavior (impulsivity)

In some instances, dietary alterations may improve symptoms of ADHD. It is believed, in some children, ADHD is a form of “allergic reaction”. The use of Elimination Diets (specific foods or additives are removed from the diet to gauge response) or strict diets may lessen the severity of ADHD symptoms. More emphasis on protein foods and whole grains/fiber and reduced sugar diets may also improve symptoms in those with ADHD. As for specific nutrients, there is some evidence to show that zinc and Omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil may improve symptoms. Dietary sources of zinc include oysters and other seafood, red meat, poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, whole grains, and fortified cereals. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, trout, and sardines. It is worth investigating dietary interventions. Before making such changes though, consult with your doctor to gauge the impact of any dietary modifications.

Sometimes people may have food intolerances or food sensitivities that affect attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. Avoiding these foods may help them get a better handle on their ADHD. Ask your doctor about allergy testing if you suspect that food intolerances may be contributing to your symptoms. Citrus, corn, eggs, wheat, soy, nuts and dairy products are just a handful of food items to which some people with ADHD are sensitive. If you have any food sensitivities, an elimination diet may help you feel better.

Dr. Lara Honos-Webb, PhD
Psychology Specialist


While nutrition doesn't cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) it is likely true that poor nutrition can lead to a misdiagnosis of ADHD and that improvements in nutrition can improve ADHD symptoms.

The basics of nutrition are that the brain is 60% fat and that healthy fats can improve concentration and focus. Research suggests that Omega 3 supplements can improve general executive functioning.

Laura Russell
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

There is not any fully researched data on diet and supplements to help with ADHD at this time. Eliminating preservative, additives and added sugar from the diet is a good place to start. After that trialing gluten-free and/or dairy-free may also help. If there are not any noticed results from following these restrictive diets in 6-12 weeks I would not recommend that you continue. Meet with a registered dietitian experienced in this arena for more ideas and a personalized plan.

Continue Learning about ADD/ADHD Treatment

How can I tell if my ADHD treatment is effective?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) treatment is often a work in progress. You may h...
More Answers
What is a medication holiday for ADHD?
Dr. Michael Roizen, MDDr. Michael Roizen, MD
A medication holiday is a break from ADHD medications. You or your child might stop taking ADHD me...
More Answers
How Can I Communicate Better With My Partner If I Have Adult ADHD?
How Can I Communicate Better With My Partner If I Have Adult ADHD?
What Are the Different Types of ADHD Treatment for Children?
What Are the Different Types of ADHD Treatment for Children?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.