Vitamins & Minerals

6 Essential, Natural Supplements for ADHD

Zinc for impulsivity. Omega-3s for concentration. Iron for better behavior. Plus three more ADHD natural supplements shown to improve symptoms. How to augment your ADD treatment plan with vitamins and minerals that work — and skip those that don’t.

ADHD vitamins and supplements
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ADHD Natural Supplements & Nutrition

Most experts recommend an eating a balance of fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, and lean protein for overall health and wellness. But can this so-called "ADHD diet" (often augmented with natural supplements) actually help children and adults manage symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD)?

"Nutrition can really make a huge difference in the success of both adults and children with ADHD,” says Dr. Sandy Newmark, founder of the Center for Pediatric Integrative Medicine in San Francisco, and the author of ADHD Without Drugs: A Guide to Natural Care of Children with ADHD (#CommissionsEarned). “I've seen time and time again in my practice that simple nutritional changes, like adding protein to breakfast or lunch, can really, really make a difference."

It’s true that not everyone eats the right foods to achieve beneficial levels of certain nutrients. But it’s also true that our bodies don’t always produce the nutrients we need, so we have to get some of them from ADHD supplements, like omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron and magnesium.

Read on to find out which food changes, vitamins, herbs, and supplements may diminish ADHD symptoms.

Donuts and sugar
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Complex Carbs for the ADHD Brain

Carbohydrates are not innately evil. In fact, they are essential. When digested, carbs turn into sugar, or glucose, which is crucial to many bodily processes. “Your brain works exclusively on glucose,” Newmark adds. “So, [glucose] is very, very important.”

However, when carbohydrates are converted to sugar too fast — which is the case with simple carbohydrates like white bread, pancakes, or waffles — blood sugar goes up very quickly and then bottoms out quickly after insulin is released. Studies1 confirm that this results in a hyperglycemic, stressed-out individual who is then unable to concentrate and work well.

Eating complex carbohydrates balanced with protein is a great way to avoid a glycemic rollercoaster.

1 Conners, C. Keith, and Arthur G. Blouin. “Nutritional Effects on Behavior of Children.” Journal of Psychiatric Research, vol. 17, no. 2, 1982, pp. 193–201., doi:10.1016/0022-3956(82)90022-x.

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Protein and Complex Carbs for Breakfast

Artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives are troublesome for individuals with ADHD. “Across the board, [artificial additives] cause people to be more hyper and less attentive,” Newmark says. Studies2 show that almost all children “are more hyper and less attentive when given certain artificial colors and flavors and certain preservatives. I think this is even more striking for some individuals with ADHD.”

Where do many of these artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives hide? Your child’s breakfast cereal, cereal bar, or toaster pastry. When a child eats a breakfast of processed foods, it causes his blood sugar to go up and then drop. “Then, halfway through the morning, we have a child with low glucose, low blood sugar,” Newmark says. “Stress hormones are being released, and things are not good.”

Newmark recommends a breakfast containing some protein, some fat — which slows digestion of carbohydrates — and unprocessed, low glycemic carbohydrates, also called complex carbohydrates.

[Free Download: What to Eat (and Avoid) for Improved ADHD Symptoms]

2 Mccann, Donna, 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, vol. 370, no. 9598, 2007, pp. 1560–1567., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(07)61306-3.

Fish oil supplement for managing ADHD symptoms
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Omega-3 Supplements for ADHD Brains

Besides being good for heart health, omega-3 fatty acids improve symptoms of ADHD, including behavior, cognitive skills, and focus. A comprehensive look at many studies3 showed that ADHD-optimized doses of omega-3s are moderately as effective as stimulants in relieving symptoms. Research4 also suggests that striking the right balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is important, and should be undertaken with a physician’s help.

3 Bloch, Michael H., and Ahmad Qawasmi. “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation for the Treatment of Children With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptomatology: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 50, no. 10, Oct. 2011, pp. 991–1000., doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2011.06.008.
4 Johnson, M., S. Ostlund, G. Fransson, B. Kadesjo, and C. Gillberg. “Omega-3/Omega-6 Fatty Acids for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial in Children and Adolescents.” Journal of Attention Disorders, vol. 12, no. 5, 2009, pp. 394-401

Optimal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, fish oil, reduce ADHD symptoms, making them an ideal ADHD supplement.
Optimal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, fish oil, reduce ADHD symptoms, making them an ideal ADHD supplement.
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The Optimal Amounts of Omega-3s

ADHD expert Dr. Edward Hallowell typically recommends up to 5,000 milligrams of an omega-3 supplement for adults each day and up to 2,500 milligrams a day for children. According to Newmark, children between four and eight years old should take between 1,000-1,500 milligrams a day.

One study5 backing the efficacy of omega-3s in ADHD treatment was published in Pediatrics by lead author Paul Montgomery, D.Phil., a researcher in the psychiatry department at the University of Oxford in England. Montgomery recommends choosing a fish oil supplement that contains a high ratio of EPAs to DHAs, two different types of omega-3s. "The right ratio of [EPA] to [DHA] seems to be about four to one," he says. Look for a product that has twice the amount of EPA to DHA — the two main types of omega-3s.

Liquid or capsule forms of omega-3s are best. Other versions have lower amounts of EPA and DHA. (See our recommended omega-3 supplements for kids who hate pills.)

5 Richardson, A. J., and Paul Montgomery. “The Oxford-Durham Study: A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Dietary Supplementation With Fatty Acids in Children With Developmental Coordination Disorder.” Pediatrics, vol. 115, no. 5, 1 May 2005, pp. 1360–1366., doi:10.1542/peds.2004-2164.

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What Is Zinc Good For? ADHD Impulsivity

Some studies6 have shown that people with ADHD may naturally have lower levels of zinc. Taking zinc supplements may reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity, but not inattentiveness. High levels of zinc, however, may be dangerous.

Have your doctor check your or your child’s zinc levels before starting a supplement. If you do add a zinc supplement, Newmark suggests that children with ADHD take no more than 20 milligrams daily.

6 Oner, Ozgur, et al. “Effects of Zinc and Ferritin Levels on Parent and Teacher Reported Symptom Scores in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, vol. 41, no. 4, 18 Aug. 2010, pp. 441–447., doi:10.1007/s10578-010-0178-1.

Iron for managing ADHD symptoms
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Iron for Better Behavior

Some experts believe that iron deficiencies may contribute to ADHD symptoms. A 2008 study7 showed that children who were not anemic but had low ferritin levels — a protein needed to store iron in the blood — showed improvement of symptoms after taking iron supplements for 12 weeks.

Before starting an iron supplement, Newmark recommends that you speak with your doctor or your child’s doctor about checking iron levels first: High iron levels can be dangerous.

[Free Handout: Flavorful Fish Oil Picks]

7 Konofal, Eric, et al. “Effects of Iron Supplementation on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children.” Pediatric Neurology, vol. 38, no. 1, Jan. 2008, pp. 20–26., doi:10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2007.08.014.

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Magnesium for Relaxation and Sleep

Healthy levels of magnesium in the blood can help relax individuals with ADHD. Some small studies8 have shown that adding magnesium supplements decreases some symptoms of ADHD. Magnesium certainly helps with sleep and relaxation — big challenges for adults and children with ADHD — and should be discussed with your doctor.

8 Baza, Farida El, et al. “Magnesium Supplementation in Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, vol. 17, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 63–70., doi:10.1016/j.ejmhg.2015.05.008.

Benefits of vitamin C for ADHD
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Vitamin C for Dopamine

Vitamin C is important in modulating the neurotransmitter dopamine at the synapses in the brain, Hallowell says. (ADHD stimulants are effective because they increase dopamine levels in the brain.) Hallowell recommends getting vitamin C from food, but if you or your child doesn't eat healthily, try a daily supplement.

One caution: Don't take vitamin C within an hour before or after taking ADHD meds. Its ascorbic acid prevents the medication from being absorbed fully in the blood stream.

Protein smoothie for ADHD-friendly breakfast
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Protein for Focus

If you or your child doesn’t eat high-protein foods, which are key to increasing attentiveness and focus, or is a picky eater, try a protein-powder drink. Look for brands that are low in sugar and free of artificial flavors and preservatives. Organic whey protein is one popular source of lactose-free, soy-free protein that is found unsweetened and free of artificial ingredients.

A daily multivitamin is optimal for brain health, ideal as an ADHD supplement.
A daily multivitamin is optimal for brain health, ideal as an ADHD supplement.
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Cover Your Nutritional Bases

A daily multivitamin, containing the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals, is important for optimal brain health. However, many of the multivitamin/multimineral products on the market contain sugar, preservatives, and artificial colors, which may increase hyperactivity. Look for brands that are low in sugar with no artificial colors or flavors. Newmark recommends Carlson(#CommissionsEarned), Nordic Naturals(#CommissionsEarned), Nature’s Plus (#CommissionsEarned), and Child Life (#CommissionsEarned).

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Valerian for Sleep

Some limited evidence supports the idea of using herbs to treat ADHD. The herb valerian, for example, can calm hyperactivity and may reduce anxiety, but it doesn’t improve concentration.9

Valerian also helps with sleep problems and lessens the “rebound effect” that some people experience when stimulants wear off. Talk with your doctor or a nutritionist who specializes in herbs about valerian. Newmark recommends Valerian Super Calm (#CommissionsEarned), by Herbs for Kids.

9 Müller, S. F., and S. Klement. “A Combination of Valerian and Lemon Balm Is Effective in the Treatment of Restlessness and Dyssomnia in Children.” Phytomedicine, vol. 13, no. 6, June 2006, pp. 383–387., doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2006.01.013.

Melatonin supplement can help children and adults with ADHD fall asleep.
Melatonin supplement can help children and adults with ADHD fall asleep.
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Melatonin for Sleep

Melatonin is a natural hormone produced in our bodies to help us get to sleep. When we turn off the television, dim the lights, and settle down for bed, our body produces melatonin and we become sleepy. But for those with ADHD, racing brains can often stave off sleep. Melatonin supplements can help and are safe to take. Always start with the smallest possible dose.

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Research Ginkgo and Ginseng

Some small studies10 show that Ginkgo biloba helps improve memory and, when taken with ginseng, can decrease impulsiveness and distractibility. Other studies have shown no or minimal improvement.

Talk with your doctor or a nutritionist before trying them. These herbs can cause health problems, especially for those with a history of diabetes, seizures, or certain mental health disorders.

10 Shakibaei, Fereshteh, et al. “Ginkgo Biloba in the Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents. A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Trial.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, vol. 21, no. 2, Apr. 2015, pp. 61–67., doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2015.04.001.

Vitamins for ADHD symptoms treatment
Vitamins for ADHD symptoms treatment
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Supplements for ADHD: Precautions

“All natural” is not synonymous with “safe.” Many herbs and supplements have side effects, may cause or worsen health problems, or interfere with prescription medications.

Talk with your doctor before taking any supplements or giving any to your child. When your doctor asks if you are taking any medications, be sure to tell him about all vitamins and supplements you take on a daily basis.

Silhouette of sad ADHD teenage girl looking out the window on a cold autumn day
Silhouette of sad ADHD teenage girl looking out the window on a cold autumn day
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Listen to Your Body

No substantial research exists to determine the recommended daily dose of most supplements. Pay attention to your body and adjust the dosage if you notice something is wrong. For example, you may be taking zinc supplements and find yourself getting stomachaches. Discontinue or cut back on the supplement to see if the stomachaches disappear.

[ADHD Diet Plan: Foods to Eat & Avoid to Help ADD Symptoms]

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