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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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Nutrition and the Brain: Do Certain Foods Aggravate ADD?

Carly Frintner

By Carly Frintner
Paper #2 for Neurobiology and Behavior, Spring, 2005
Professor Paul Grobstein

I was diagnosed with ADD 2 years ago at age 19, and immediately, the doctors I was seeing recommended prescription drugs to help alleviate my symptoms. Since the time of my diagnosis, I have tried varying dosages of at least 4 different drugs to treat ADD: Strattera, Concerta, Ritalin, and methylphenidate (the generic brand of Ritalin.) I finally settled on methylphenidate because it does not cause noticeable side effects when I take it. (I experienced headaches, irritability, anxiety, and other side affects when I tried the others.)

It was not until this year when I moved into Batten House, however, that I noticed how much the food I eat influences not only my mood and energy level, but my concentration. All meals cooked communally at Batten are prepared only with vegan ingredients. That means there are no animal products (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, gelatin, honey, etc.) in any of these meals. Additionally, we use organic ingredients in many of our recipes. Over time, I did not consume certain foods with as much regularity as I had before I lived in Batten, including milk, sugar, greasy foods, caffeine, alcohol, and foods with preservatives and artificial color and flavors. I began to notice that when I did consume these things, I often felt much more sluggish, irritable, tired and introverted. I found it significantly more difficult to start or stick to tasks, especially academic tasks. I began to wonder how some of my ADD symptoms might be affected by the nutrients I get (or don't get) from the foods I eat, and if I might experience better results in altering my consumption patterns rather than taking symptom-suppressing medications.

How does food affect my emotions, my energy level, my ability to think critically? Has ADD always been as prevalent as it is today? To what extent to external factors affect attention? Is it possible to use our "I-function" to override the factors that affect attention? Is it more difficult for people with ADD to do this than for those who do not have ADD? How frequently is ADD the result of genes vs. environmental factors? Can I significantly limit the degree to which ADD affects me by changing my eating habits? Could the effects of such changes be significant enough that I might not need to use prescription drugs to treat my ADD anymore? The research I found suggests that it is definitely worth a try.

To start on a very basic level: The brain needs glucose to function. It is "dependent on a second-by-second delivery of glucose from the bloodstream, as neurons can only store about a 2-minute supply of glucose (as glycogen) at any given time." (1). Blood sugar and blood insulin levels greatly affect the brain's ability to absorb glucose from the blood. Ideally, blood should have a normal blood sugar level and low blood insulin. Blood sugar levels rise rapidly when refined sugars and starched are consumed, causing blood insulin levels to increase "10-fold within minutes, and keep on increasing insulin to even higher levels for 2-3 hours." (1). The result is "a rapid glucose uptake by almost all body tissues, leaving far less than optimal supplies for the brain." (1).

After a large meal, or eating heavy or rich foods, I often feel sleepy. Sometimes I feel downright exhausted. I know this is a common phenomena—the Thanksgiving Dinner Effect is something I think most people have experienced. Many people have come to believe that tryptophan in turkey and red wine causes the drowsiness we experience after a Thanksgiving feast. Actually, it is simply the large amount of food the body has to digest that draws blood away from other parts of the body—most significantly, the brain. It wouldn't matter whether a person ate turkey and drank wine—the effect would occur either way, as long as he or she had consumed a large amount of food—and the more fat and sugar present in those foods, the stronger the effect. (6). For someone with ADD, however, the effects may be significantly more debilitating.

When I recently began researching certain chemicals and nutrients in foods and the very specific ways in which they affect a person's body and brain, I found that I often do get enough of the vitamins and minerals that I need for my body and brain to be healthy and functional. However, I hadn't realized that I may be consuming other foods and chemicals that cancel out their benefits. I also found that stress can affect the way nutrients pass through the body.

Vitmains B, C and E, Magnesium and Zinc are only a few vitamins and minerals that are essential to brain function. Even when consumed in sufficient amounts, consumption of other types of foods can limit intestinal absorption, rendering them useless in our bodies before they even reach the bloodstream. In the case of Magnesium, "high intake of phosphate (common in meat, soft drinks and baked goods) calcium, fat, phytate (found in unleavened bread and wheat bran), lactose (milk sugar), oxalate (found in spinach, rhubarb, chocolate), and alcohol... all inhibit intestinal Mg absorption.... [Also,] urinary loss of Magnesium is caused by the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, diuretics (including caffeine), some antibiotics, digoxin, alcohol, high sodium, calcium and sugar intake...and birth control pills." (1).

"The cell membranes and synaptic endings of neurons in our brains and nervous systems are composed of DHA, an omega-3 essential fatty acid. These membranes go rancid unless protected with antioxidants [such as vitamins C and E.] Since most people don't get enough DHA, other types of fats are incorporated into the brain, but they do not function as well because they are the wrong shape." Also, "the all-important neurotransmitters are manufactured by the body from dietary sources." (2). In order for these neurotransmitters to function well, the B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and Vitamin C must all be present in sufficient amounts. "Some studies have shown a relationship between fatty acid deficiencies and ADD, learning disorders, and behavior problems." (2). (For more information on Magnesium and the brain, as well as how deficiencies in B-vitamins, vitamin C, and Zinc affect the brain, go here (1). or here (2).)

Dr. Allen Buresz believes that ADD and ADHD symptoms may often be caused in part or in full by "allergies to one or more foods (usually milk, cane sugar, chocolate, American cheese, or wheat (with sugar, additives, and cow's milk being the most frequent problems.)" (2). He notes that the majority of patients he has treated have shown significant behavioral improvement upon removing these foods from their diet (especially after 6 weeks of maintaining the altered diet.) I personally have noticed an improvement in my physical health since cutting out dairy products. When I occasionally consume dairy products now, I do sometimes notice that I my attention falters. However, as I usually consume dairy in the form of ice cream or chocolate, it is hard to tell whether that effect is a result of the milk or the sugar.

Another topic worth examining is the way in which food additives affect mood and behavior. Many sources I reviewed for this paper mention the work of Dr. Benjamin Feingold. The Feingold Hypothesis asserts that food additives are responsible for learning and behavior disorders, or more specifically, that "food additives cause hyperactivity." (3). Feingold tested this hypothesis on children in 1973 with 1,200 cases, examining over 3,000 different food additives. "About half of them reported greatly improved behavior and another 25% reported some improvement in the clinical trials." (4).

Additional studies have found evidence to both support and refute Feingold's claims. The evidence I have seen, as well as my own experiences, are limited and very informal, yet for me, they do lend credibility to Dr. Feingold's case.

The most hyperactive boy I ever knew, a close friend from elementary school, had a diet that daily included Kool-Aid, soda and fruit roll-ups, among other things. Likewise, two boys I babysat for one summer ate almost no natural foods. The foods they ate included (not exclusively) white bread, Ritz crackers, pepperoni with red dyes, American cheese, colorful and/or sugary cereals, potato chips and cheese curls. One had severe ADHD, and one was almost always irritable, restless, disobedient, aggressive and throwing temper tantrums. Contrary to this case, another boy I babysat whose parents were more conscious about limiting the amount of sugary and non-natural foods they gave him was quiet, obedient, and calm whenever I saw him.

Within my own family, I have noticed that, as children, my sister and I were generally calmer, more attentive, less argumentative, and more obedient than my cousins, both male and female. I'm starting to think this may be due in part to the fact that my parents raised us almost exclusively on all-natural foods, with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and alternative proteins (tofu, nuts, and beans for example) while my aunt and uncle allowed their children to eat a wider variety of junk food more frequently.

The following excerpt from a study by KL Harding, RD Judah and C. Gant indicates several factors that contribute to ADHD (with indications for ADD, as many symptoms are the same.)

"Numerous studies suggest that biochemical [causes] for AD/HD cluster around at least eight risk factors: food and additive allergies, heavy metal toxicity and other environmental toxins, low-protein/high-carbohydrate diets, mineral imbalances, essential fatty acid and phospholipid deficiencies, amino acid deficiencies, thyroid disorders, and B-vitamin deficiencies. The dietary supplements used [in the study] were a mix of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids, essential fatty acids, phospholipids, and probiotics that attempted to address the AD/HD biochemical risk factors. These findings support the effectiveness of food supplement treatment in improving attention and self-control in children with AD/HD and suggest food supplement treatment of AD/HD may be of equal efficacy to Ritalin treatment." (5).

For me, the results of this and other studies are not surprising—I know I feel better and think better when I've eaten natural, healthy foods, when I've taken my vitamins in the morning, and when I haven't eaten dairy products. I notice a big difference in my energy level and ability to focus based on what I eat. I know, for instance, that eating vegetable sandwich with hummus keeps me alert and energized for hours, whereas having a can of soda and a few cookies gives me a boost of energy and attentiveness for a while, but then causes me to crash after about 30 minutes. I now understand much more about the neurobiological reasons I have those respective responses to those foods.

Maintaining a healthy diet is important for everyone, whether or not physical or mental differences or disabilities affect one's life. The evidence of physical and emotional benefits that come with a healthy lifestyle is widespread. However, in the specific cases of individuals who have ADD or ADHD, it seems very clear that there are several foods, or vitamin/mineral supplements that can help improve brain function in such a way that many negative patterns and symptoms that show up in individuals' moods and behaviors can be limited or even ended completely. For me, methylphenidate has been effective. However, I am newly encouraged and inspired by what I have found in my research to try to reduce the effects of ADD in other, healthier, more natural ways that will not wear off as the medication does.


1) Beating Attention Deficit Disorder or Nutrition and Nootropics for Focus & Attention., James South, MA.

2) Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity Success. (What are the true facts?), Dr. Allen Buresz, (Natural Health and Longevity Resource Center)

3) Issues: ADHD and Food Additives. (A review of Feingold's findings.), Family Links International.

4) Food-Induced Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: The Research., Shula S. Edelkind, 1998.

5) Study: Outcome-based comparison of Ritalin versus food-supplement treated children with AD/HD.
KL Harding, RD Judah, and C. Gant. (McLean Hospital, Belmont, MA, USA.)
PubMed, National Library of Medicine. From "Alternative Medicine Review." August 8, 2003.

6) Will Eating Turkey Make You Sleepy? The Facts About the L-Tryptophan Effect., Environment, Health and Safety Online

7) More information on how vitamins and minerals affect your body and your brain

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