Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on
July 22, 2021
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on:

Do you feel like you’re stuck in a sugar spiral and if you don’t have it the world will come to an end?

The relationship between sugar and ADHD has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. Many researchers have been wondering if there is a connection between the two.

It’s important to know what symptoms are related to sugar intake so you can make informed decisions about your diet.

We will explore how sugar addiction and withdrawal affect those with ADHD as well as how to curb sugar intake. Lastly, we’ll cover other treatments for ADHD symptoms that may be related to sugar consumption. Some of them are behavioral therapy and an ADHD diet of balanced meals.   

Read this article now!

The Science on Sugar and ADHD

The link between ADHD and sugar consumption is complex. Some studies have shown a connection, while others have found no notable correlation when it comes to the two. In children, sugar intake has been linked to ADHD and chronic diseases. It may also produce a low concentration state after a while, due to variations in adrenaline.

ADHD and chronic sugar intake may have common effects on the brain. Both are associated with a reduction of dopamine. This means that intermittent sugar intake may exacerbate ADHD symptoms. 

In addition, children with ADHD may ingest more sugar than other children, which could result in “sugar addiction”.

The sugar withdrawal symptoms are pretty similar to other addictions. Inattention, brain fog, irritability, and lethargy are some of them.

This is why ADHD and sugar addiction two may be linked. The cycle of eating sugar or anything else that provides a quick hit of dopamine could lead to an addictive pattern. In this situation, sugar is needed to feel “normal” again.

Studies have found that rats with sugar withdrawal may experience anxiety, weight gain, and depression.

As a result of sugar intake, your dopamine levels are spiked and you feel good for the short term. But as soon as sugar leaves the bloodstream, you crash back down which can make you feel moody, have brain fog, restless and inattentive.

You might feel like you’re now stuck in a sugar spiral and it’s hard to feel good with the way your body is addicted to sugar. But don’t worry, there is hope for you!

All those cravings and mood swings? They can be dealt with by adopting some healthier lifestyle habits that will help you get your energy back up and kick the addiction.

How Does Sugar Impact ADHD?

When it comes to ADHD, the relationship between sugar and hyperactivity is unclear. Some studies have found that there is no correlation. Others suggest that sweet food can stimulate those with ADHD more than other types of food.

There are also studies that show a connection between sweetened beverage intake and the appearance of ADHD in children. 

Many individuals with ADHD are often looking for ways to manage their symptoms, besides taking medication. Sugar addiction can make you feel out-of-control, high, and then low. But here’s the problem…

Sugar can increase the risk of heart diseases, and it affects your cognitive function. It also interferes with sleep quality by affecting breathing.

You may become addicted to sugar and crave it constantly which is not good for your body. In fact, a recent study showed that children with ADHD had higher body weight and frequency of caries due to an elevated intake of sweetened foods.

The cravings you have might also make you feel like you’re caught in a vicious cycle. You crave sugar because your body needs it, but the cravings are impossible to resist once they happen!

However, with some healthier lifestyle habits, like eating a healthy and nutritious diet, you may be able to kick this sugar addiction.

So, what does sugar do to someone with ADHD?

For many, sugar makes them feel anxious, frustrated and exacerbates ADHD symptoms. If you have been eating a lot of sugar for a while, then you may start feeling restless and angry. It’s an awful feeling!

Sugar also makes you crave more sugary foods. The craving for more sweets is overwhelming and impossible to resist once it happens.

ADHD and Sugar Addiction

Sugar increases levels of opioids and dopamine in the brain, which may make it addictive. Addiction is a mental and physical problem. It may present as compulsive behaviors that intensify with repeated access to the substance, and cravings.

Most of the studies on sugar addiction are conducted on animals. And research about sugar addiction and its connection with ADHD is limited, with few studies discussing this topic. 

In 2010 a review found an association between overeating and ADHD. This study suggested that the addictive nature of sugar may extend to those with ADHD. The author highlights how impulsive or inattentive behaviors may contribute to overeating. This, in turn, creates an “addiction” to food as a coping mechanism.

ADHD and Caffeine

There is a broad range of research on ADHD and caffeine. This includes the impact caffeine has during pregnancy on ADHD risk, and how it affects ADHD symptoms.

Caffeine consumption may help reduce the symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention. This is most likely due to caffeine’s effects on the dopaminergic system, as well as other interactions with brain chemicals. Caffeine has also been shown to increase cognitive performance in people without ADHD when consumed prior to a task. Although it could also provide a benefit for those with ADHD.

On the other hand, the stimulant effect of caffeine may add up to the side effects of ADHD medication. This could cause agitation, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.

A study found that teens with ADHD consume more caffeine later in the day, and reported more sleep problems, compared to those without ADHD.

Despite the known benefits of caffeine, more research is needed to understand this connection.

How to Curb Your Sugar Intake

While most people think that all carbohydrates are equally bad for someone with ADHD, this isn’t the case. If you feel brain fog, inattentive, and tired after eating sugar, here are some changes you can do in your diet to help limit sugar consumption:

  • Make it gradually. Cutting back on sugar intake can be a difficult task, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Instead of cutting out all sugar intake immediately, start by gradually decreasing the amount you consume every week. Eventually, you’ll find yourself making the switch from sugary treats to healthier options such as fruit.
  • Replace sugary drinks. Sodas, fruit juices, and energy drinks may contain too many added sugars. Try replacing them by including more water, tea, herbal tea, or black coffee.
  • Minimize processed foods. Many processed foods have added sugars and high levels of refined carbs that can make you overeat. However, neither of them is helpful for ADHD symptoms. So, if you choose to eat some, try enjoying them every now and then, and in a mindful way.
  • Read the ingredients list. Be sure to learn how to recognize added and hidden sugars in order to know just how much of them is contained in each food. This can be particularly helpful for all the “diet” and “light” labels.
  • Explore options. Herbs and spices can help you reduce or eliminate honey, sugar, or other sweeteners. Try cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and other extracts to add flavor to your preparations. Lemon, ginger, or mint leaves are good sugar substitutes to add to your beverages too.

Sugar by Any Other Name

Sugar can be found in many different foods, but not only with that name. There are a few terms that signify sugar is present, that you should consider looking for in labels: 

  • Agave nectar/syrup
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Caramel
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup solids
  • Coconut sugar
  • Dehydrated/evaporated cane juice
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Galactose
  • Glucose
  • Glucose syrup solids
  • High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • Honey
  • Maltodextrin
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltose
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Panela sugar
  • Rice syrup
  • Saccharose
  • Sorghum or sorghum syrup
  • Sucrose

ADHD Treatments

There are a variety of ADHD treatments available, and the best decision for you should be based on your specific needs.

These treatments often include therapy and medication, in addition to lifestyle changes.

Medication

Medications are a big part of ADHD management. Doctors may prescribe different drugs to find the best fit for your symptoms.

Medications for ADHD may include stimulants and non-stimulant medications:

  • Stimulants. The most commonly used medication for ADHD is stimulant capsules, such as Adderall and Concerta. Stimulants work for 70% to 80% of people! They help improve focus and concentration. Some of them can be used in children over age 3, others, for children over age 6.
  • Non-stimulants. Non-stimulant medications can be prescribed when stimulants don’t work or cause too many side effects. Non-stimulants, such as Strattera and Pamelor, work to improve memory and attention.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy can be beneficial for individuals with ADHD. People with ADHD tend to have behaviors that cause them frustration or stress, according to research.

This therapy can be used as a treatment for the symptoms of ADHD by teaching practical skills that people can use to improve their quality of life.

Working to identify and cope with negative behavior patterns is the goal. It can be done by replacing old negative habits with positive ones. These strategies may help you have better focus and organization.

Behavioral therapy has also been shown to have positive impacts on people’s relationships, and the ability to care for oneself and others. They can be more successful at school, work, and home life.

An ADHD Diet of Balanced Meals

A healthy diet for people with ADHD includes foods that keep the blood sugar levels stable and help improve concentration.

The following tips will help you make the best choices for your daily meals:

  • Try not to skip meals. To avoid blood sugar crashes that lead you to a low energy state, stay well-fueled by eating balanced meals 3 to 4 times a day.
  • Eat more vegetables. Fill half of your plate with a mix of fresh and colorful vegetables.
  • Fiber. Choose whole grains rather than refined ones. They are higher in fiber that will help you feel full for longer and boost your digestion. Go for brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, oats, and whole wheat bread or pasta.
  • Protein. Include a good quality source of protein, such as organic meats, eggs, or legumes in every meal.
  • Omega-3: Don’t forget your omega-3 fatty acids for brain function support. Include a variety of fatty fish, walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds on your diet, and consider supplementing with fish oil.
  • Snacks. Keep a healthy supply of fruits, nuts, and chopped vegetables on hand for an easy snack.
  • Limit your intake of processed foods. Mostly those with added sugars and artificial additives. Learn how to read the nutrition labels and identify sugar by any other name as listed above.
  • Drink plenty of water! A hydrated body is crucial for optimal brain function, attention, and energy.

Vitamins and Minerals to Supplement Your ADHD Diet

It is known that several mental health issues are associated with nutritional deficiencies. Vitamins and minerals are important to maintain the chemical messengers in balance.

If you are diagnosed with ADHD, consider testing for vitamins and minerals implicated in brain function. Depending on your specific needs, supplements may help you improve symptoms and have a better quality of life.

Some of the most common nutrients that provide benefits in ADHD symptoms are:

  • Zinc: Zinc supplements can help you improve your attention. Studies have found that when zinc is taken alongside ADHD medication, it may help it work more effectively.
  • Iron: Research shows that people with low iron levels have a greater risk of having severe ADHD symptoms. Low iron storage in the body – ferritin- is also common in children with ADHD. Consider taking an iron supplement and include iron-rich foods in your diet such as meat, legumes, and dark leafy greens.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium deficiency is linked to fatigue, mood swings, and poor concentration. Studies have found that children with ADHD have lower magnesium levels. Supplementing this mineral may help improve attention and anxiety.
  • B Vitamins: Lower levels of vitamins B2, B6, and B9 are associated with ADHD. Particularly, a B6 vitamin supplement can normalize ADHD symptoms.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Some studies have found that taking an omega-3 supplement may benefit children with ADHD. It may help to reduce hyperactivity and improve attention.
  • Ginkgo Biloba: This herb added to the stimulant therapy may improve attention without adding extra side effects.

What Foods Should Be Avoided with ADHD?

High sugar snacks and drinks

Up until this point, you already know how sugar can affect your brain and ADHD symptoms. Stay away from sugary foods and drinks as much as you can.

Find nutrient-dense, healthy foods that give you sustained energy and make you feel focused. And remember to read labels carefully! Sugar isn’t always obvious on the label or in the ingredients list.

Artificial colorants and additives

There’s no evidence that artificial colorants cause ADHD. But some people may experience fewer symptoms if they avoid these ingredients.

A study shows that some additives increased hyperactivity among children with or without ADHD. They also seem to affect behavior and attention.

Removing artificial food colorings from the diet may help to decrease ADHD symptoms. This is especially for those who have had adverse reactions to these foods. It can be challenging to eliminate these items from the diet, but there is no harm in trying.

Foods that cause allergies

Some children are affected by gluten, wheat, corn, and soy. If you or your child have any increase in symptoms after consuming these foods, consider screening for food allergies.

Some studies have found that removing foods that cause intolerances may help, even if there is no allergy. Food sensitivity symptoms can present as fatigue, headache, and pain. By avoiding certain foods and then reincorporating them into your diet again, you will know if there is any kind of effect on your ADHD symptoms.

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