How the Gut-Brain Connection Impacts Kids With ADHD
A lot of people are convinced that without a proper diet, their kids are leading a healthy life: with or without ADHD.
Dana Kay, CEO and founder of ADHD Thrive Institute, thinks otherwise.
Kay is a board-certified holistic health and nutrition practitioner, and her goal is to help parents reduce their children’s ADHD symptoms from home with an all-natural family approach to health and wellness. Having worked tirelessly to alleviate her own son’s ADHD symptoms, she now uses the wisdom, education, and skills she gained on her own journey to help her community find peace in their households.
Our Gut, and What Many Don’t Know
“A big missing piece I find in families that I work with is ensuring that their kid’s gut is functioning well,” Kay explains. “I have countless families come to me for guidance with their child’s ADHD symptoms, and when I ask whether there’s any family history of sickness, people usually tell me that everyone is fit and healthy. But when I press forward and ask whether their child has suffered any diarrhea or constipation, they often tell me that they have. They’re surprised to learn that it’s not healthy or normal. It might be common, but it’s a byproduct of an unsatisfactory diet. Through step-by-step change, we can improve our children’s diets and get their gut health back on track.”
As Kay maintains, a healthy gut is essential to ensure that children with ADHD learn, function, and behave to the best of their ability. What people might not realize is that the connection between the brain and the gut is far closer than we think. “One of the first signs of disconnect in the brain is a gut that’s not functioning well,” Kay says. “There’s constant communication between the two, and when one’s not working, the other won’t either. That’s why your gut is referred to as your second brain.”
The Brain-Gut Connection
The brain has many areas involved in gut function. Chief of which is the frontal lobe; it’s the area of the brain that talks to the gut via two-way chemical messengers and nerve branches. Kay explains that, “Most people know that those with ADHD have a weak frontal lobe. That’s why they struggle to hold focus and suffer from poor attention spans. As a result, they have a comparatively worse executive function, planning, and problem-solving skills. For these reasons, ensuring the healthy gut function is the best way to give the frontal lobe an opportunity to work at its best.”
Kay is the first to agree: healthy gut function influences our emotions, mood, and cognitive function much more than people realize. “70% of children with ADHD suffer from major emotional dysregulation in the form of hyperactivity, tantrums, anger, and meltdowns,” she explains. “But the gut is responsible for 95% of our serotonin and 50% of our dopamine which are our happy feel-good hormones in our body. Because of this, a healthy gut function is almost always the defining factor in finding relief from symptoms.”
The consequences of poor gut health are far-reaching. Without incorporating better dietary practices and ensuring good gut health, children with or without ADHD will be ill-equipped to both learn at school and mature into adults. After years of gut inflammation, toxicity, and mucosal damage, the lining of the gut will be the first to suffer. As a consequence, children may be predisposed to in-attention, brain fog, anxiety, and a whole host of debilitating mental ailments. These are all avoidable if parents take action and put productive practices in place. Kay explains that “Despite the damage done up until this point, you can still heal your child’s gut. When you incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, spring water, grass-fed animal protein, and gut-healing supplements, you start to build a solid foundation of growth and healing. This is exactly the process that I teach to my community step by step.”
The Vicious Cycle of Leaky Gut
One of the most common conditions in children with ADHD is leaky gut. Leaky gut is a consequence of stress, toxins, parasites, or bad bacteria in our bodies. If there are enough of these bad actors on a consistent basis, it triggers inflammation, compromises nutrient absorption, and children begin to suffer from leaky gut. Leaky gut typically presents with inflammation of the lining in the small intestine. When functioning well, the lining absorbs over 90% of nutrients from our food. The macronutrients we eat — carbs, fats, and proteins — are digested and converted into micronutrients, which are then absorbed by villi and delivered to the bloodstream. However, when the lining is compromised, it introduces toxicity into our body instead and robs us of the nutrients that we need for proper body, brain and gut health.
Kay says, “When leaky gut is present, larger molecules begin to leak into your system. If that large molecule is infact a large food macronutrient or protein, it can go through the holes in our gut and into our bloodstream. The way the body is designed, when something foreign goes into our bloodstream, it’s recognized as a foreign object. This turns on our immune response and then your immune system might start sending signals to create antibodies to attack it. Because your body has such good memory, your immune system is going to see that food as dangerous every time you eat it.
It will keep attacking it, leading to more inflammation and more breakdowns in the gut lining. This is what causes food intolerances: damaging toxins or parasites cause leaky gut, then the leaky gut causes food intolerances, and the food intolerances continue to worsen the leaky gut. It’s a vicious cycle.” As explained by Kay, the only way to heal the gut is to remove these foods as a priority. Otherwise, they will continue to wreak havoc and break down the lining of the gut. “To add fuel to the fire,” Kay elaborates, “all of these invaders cause your villi to shrink, become blunted, and flatten out. This leads to further nutrient and vitamin deficiencies as less and less can be absorbed by the body. If left without treatment for too long, it can cause anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and emotional dysregulation — many of which are symptoms of ADHD.” While these factors each play a defining role in maintaining proper gut health, they’re all but meaningless if you don’t take action and make a change.
As Kay says, “without a solid foundation, your house will fall down. Your body is the same.” The key is to make your child’s diet the foundation: reduce the foods that cause inflammation in their body, and focus on foods that enrich and nourish them.
The Path to Healing
Eating nutrient-dense foods doesn’t have to be a guessing game. Kay equips her community with everything they need to know about strengthening the gut-brain connection naturally in the foods that we eat. Alleviating ADHD symptoms can, in fact, be achieved without medication. She shares, “You should introduce nutritious, micronutrient-rich organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed animal protein, gluten-free grains, and plenty of healthy fats into your child’s diet.”
Her advice is clinically supported: in 2017, studies concluded that the addition of micronutrients in the diet improved attention and emotional regulation while reducing impairments and aggression.
But in the pursuit of healthier options, there’s much to be said about avoiding chemicals in otherwise innocuous foods. She continues, “Organic foods are free from pesticides, and you should always choose them if they’re available. Every family has a different budget, but you must minimize your exposure to less healthy foods.”
One valuable resource about food containing pesticides is the “Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen”. It’s a list of foods ranked based on pesticide contamination, and it’s worth bringing with you next time you go shopping. Foods in the “Dirty Dozen” list are okay to eat in moderation as long as you choose organic — that way, you avoid introducing dietary chemical contamination.
To help your child heal from their food sensitivities and alleviate their ADHD symptoms, take Kay’s advice and follow her step-by-step plan. When it comes to your child’s long-term health, take ownership: accountability, support, and clarity around clean eating are second to none. For parents who fear they’ve tried it all, the road back to normal family life starts here.