Iron levels are low in children with ADHD. Iron is a mineral that plays many roles; most notably, it is part of the heme molecule that carries oxygen in the blood to cells throughout the body. Some studies have shown that supplementation with iron (ferrous sulfate) in people with ADHD improves symptoms of distractibility and hyperactivity. However, these trials were small. Additional larger studies are needed to determine whether iron supplementation would benefit others with this disorder.
Iron supplementation should not be undertaken unless blood tests indicate that a person has low iron levels. Iron tends to accumulate in the body and is difficult to get rid of (except in the case of adult women who are menstruating, because the blood loss accompanying their monthly cycle removes iron from the body). Proper dosing of iron depends on weight and should only be undertaken with the help of a health-care practitioner.
The mineral Magnesium is involved in over 300 metabolic reactions in the body. It plays a role in the production of energy, creation of nucleic acids (the basic building blocks of life) and the conduction of nerve impulses. In a small study, children with ADHD who took around 200 mg a day of magnesium reported a dramatic reduction in their symptoms. The study was small and needs to be repeated on a larger scale, but given the importance of magnesium in the body and the relative safety of supplemental magnesium, a trial period of supplementation for children with ADHD may be warranted in some cases. Diarrhea is the most common side effect of supplementing with this mineral. Magnesium can interfere with many medications and should only be taken with the advice of your health practitioner.
Zinc is another mineral that is responsible for many functions in the human body. Zinc supplementation was tested in a small trial along with a standard ADHD medication (Ritalin) and demonstrated positive results on both parent and teacher assessments of attention and hyperactivity. Researchers used approximately 15 milligrams of Zinc; however, this large amount should only be taken under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner.
Zinc is usually well tolerated, especially at normal doses. Large amounts of Zinc can interfere with copper absorption, so copper should also be added to the diet. Zinc can also cause problems with antibiotics and shouldn’t be taken with these medications.
A medical doctor has developed a special diet (the Feingold diet) for people with ADHD. Dr. Feingold theorized that certain chemicals in food called salicylates caused children to become hypersensitive and develop the symptoms of ADHD. While this theory has been widely discredited (salicylates don’t actually seem to impact ADHD), the diet is still used with some success. The diet consists of avoiding foods high in salicylates, synthetic dyes, artificial flavorings (including sugar substitutes) and the preservatives BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and TBHQ (tertiary butyl hydroquinone).
Avoiding sugar, wheat, and dairy are other dietary approaches that have been used to treat ADHD. All of these dietary approaches have had some success in reducing ADHD symptoms, but they are often hard to implement on a consistent basis. Caregivers must think carefully about the feasibility of starting a dietary treatment, because restrictive diets are often hard for children to maintain.