Fish Oil, Food Dyes, Sugar: Debunking ADHD Myths

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Can fish oil or herbs like ginseng help children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) pay attention? Can sugar or food colorings make things worse? Here, our expert separates fact from fiction.


Can fish oil or herbs like ginseng help children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) pay attention? Can sugar or food dyes make things worse?

According to Indiana University Health pediatrician Dr. Nerissa Bauer, there are many different reasons as to why a child may have ADHD, and there are just as many suggestions for how to solve it. But there are no conclusive studies that prove any of the above ideas are actually true.

“In the studies that I have seen, there have not been any definitive results stating that food additives are the sole cause for ADHD,” Dr. Bauer explains. “There are lots of reasons that children behave this way. It’s really tricky to pinpoint specific environmental causes to a behavior disorder. However, if parents want to try to eliminate certain foods, they can, but it’s very difficult as these things are in a lot of foods. It’s also challenging because you can’t just do it for one child, you have to do it for the whole family.”

Families that attempt elimination diets (omitting sugar, dyes and more) sometimes claim that they work, but Dr. Bauer believes that is most likely due to the placebo effect. She explains that parents often need to look for other causes; they want to exhaust every possibility.

So, what about fish oil for increased attention? Dr. Bauer cautions that there is always a danger of over-supplementing. “With kids, there are certain levels that need to be maintained and it is better to provide your children with a varied, healthy diet, which includes the consumption of fatty acids twice a week from fish or shellfish,” she explains. “I don’t think you should go out of your way to buy extra supplements. You should eat foods in their natural form instead of taking supplements.”

And herbs? Can they calm children? Can they be a substitute for medication?

There have been no scientific studies to prove that herbs will actually calm children. Instead, Dr. Bauer recommends behavioral therapy as the first step to working with a child who has ADHD. It teaches children how to manage their actions by learning emotional regulation, distress tolerance and mindfulness skills. Then, if necessary, medication can be introduced.

However, while medication helps reduce certain behaviors, it does not give children the skills they need to learn to organize, to recognize and control negative emotions, to navigate friendships and conflicts in relationships or learn basic life skills.

In addition to behavioral therapy, movement breaks and exercise are beneficial to children with ADHD.  It will help them focus better in the classroom. “It is absolutely essential for kids with ADHD to have fidget breaks and time to play during the day,” says Dr. Bauer. “While all children will benefit from that, children with ADHD absolutely need it.”

The takeaway? Don’t believe the myths. A healthy and balanced diet, behavioral therapy and exercise are the keys to helping a child with ADHD, she says.

-- By Gia Miller

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