Written by Dr. Savannah Muncy, Pharm.D on
August 1, 2021
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Written by Dr. Savannah Muncy, Pharm.D on:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a behavioral disorder that commonly affects children. Symptoms include short attention span, constant fidgeting, and impulsive behavior.

ADHD can impact children’s ability to perform well in school and their behavior at home. Not only that, but it can also affect their socializing skills. There is no cure for ADHD. But ADHD can be managed through behavioral therapy methods and medicines.

Allergens and ADHD

If your child has ADHD, you will want to understand everything about the disorder and what can trigger it. Perhaps you have heard among parent groups that certain allergens can trigger ADHD.

You may also have heard that certain food items can worsen ADHD symptoms. In this article, we will examine what science has to say about these beliefs. Do certain food items worsen ADHD symptoms? Is there a connection between allergies and ADHD? All your questions will shortly be answered.

Sugar Rush: Fact or Myth?

It is commonly believed that certain foods such as sugar can aggravate the symptoms of ADHD. Many parents say that they have noticed a ‘sugar rush’ in their children.

They say that when their children eat food high on sugar, they become hyperactive and difficult to control. But science has long proven that such a connection does not exist.

In fact, studies conducted way back in the mid-1970s had already proven that there is no such thing as sugar rush. Later studies have also proven that sugar does not worsen hyperactivity in children. So, where did this myth come from, and why has it persisted after all these years?

It all began with the publication of the Feingold diet in 1973, written by allergist Benjamin Feingold. Feingold introduced the idea that sugar can cause hyperactivity in children. Even though the theory was immediately debunked by several other researchers, the ‘sugar rush’ idea took root.

But why do so many parents swear that they have seen a sugar rush happen? There could be many reasons for that. Children are more likely to get lots of sweets on special occasions such as birthdays. These events could themselves be exciting and cause hyperactivity in children.

Another reason could be that parental expectation itself. A 1994 research suggests that parents expect their children to be hyperactive after eating sugar. They then respond by being more controlling of their children’s behaviors than usual. This actually caused the children to behave worse.

This is not to say that sugar is not bad for children at all. Too much sugar can cause a host of health problems, ranging from tooth cavities to diabetes. It is a good idea to restrict sugar in children’s diet, it just won’t have an impact on their ADHD.

What about food sensitivities?

While there is no indication of a connection between sugar and ADHD, diet can impact ADHD symptoms. Studies suggest artificial food colors and preservatives can worsen hyperactivity in children.

The impact is even worse in children with ADHD. These studies are at their early stages, and further studies are still required. Still, it is a good idea to limit artificial food colors and preservatives from your children’s diet. Sodium benzoate, a food preservative, is shown to be especially bad.

Here are some other food substances to look out for:

Preservatives, such as:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)

Artificial food colors such as:

  • D&C Blue No. 1 and No. 2
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine) and No. 6
  • FD&C Green No. 3
  • Orange B
  • Citrus Red No. 2
  • FD&C Red No. 3 and No. 40 (allura)

Some research has shown that children may even be cured of ADHD if these food additives are removed from their diet. It is therefore worth monitoring their food intake and watching out for food additives.

Is there a connection between allergies and ADHD?

Allergens are certain substances that can trigger an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction occurs when your body considers a harmless substance to be harmful and reacts to it. This could be to certain food items, or dust, pollen, or some metals.

Cases of ADHD have been on the rise alongside allergies. ADHD is especially connected to allergic diseases such as asthma, eczema, and rhinitis.

Researchers have increasingly shown interest in the connection between the two. Research suggests that children with ADHD are more likely to have allergies. This is especially true for boys.

But we don’t know yet if allergens cause ADHD, or they simply happen to occur together. Research on whether allergens cause ADHD have been conflicting.

Even so, we know for sure that children with ADHD are more likely to have allergies. It is a good idea to control exposure to allergens to manage these allergies.

Eczema

Eczema is often used to refer to atopic dermatitis. It can be caused by exposure to certain allergens. Symptoms include red, dry, itchy, and inflamed skin. Some allergens that can cause eczema include pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and some soaps. Food allergens can include:

  • Dairy products
  • Egg
  • Some nuts
  • Soy
  • Gluten

Very young children with ADHD are more likely to develop allergic eczema. Such children may also develop asthma in later life.

Asthma

Allergies can also induce asthma. Symptoms include wheezing, rapid breathing, tightening of chest, and shortness of breath. It can also be accompanied with eczema symptoms. Allergens that can induce asthma are the same as in eczema.

Rhinitis

Another response to allergens can be rhinitis. Allergic rhinitis presents as cold-like symptoms such as stuffy nose, sneezing, and itchiness. Symptoms usually start immediately after exposure to allergens. Research has shown that children with ADHD are more likely to have allergic rhinitis. This is especially the case with male children. 

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues if gluten is consumed. This damages the gut and hampers nutrient intake. Children with ADHD are more likely to also have celiac disease. 

Symptoms of celiac disease include:

  1. Abdominal pain
  2. Diarrhoea
  3. Bloating
  4. Excessive flatulence
  5. Indigestion
  6. Nausea and vomiting
  7. Constipation

Celiac disease is triggered when gluten is consumed. Wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten. Any product with any of these can trigger the disease. This includes pasta, cakes, most breads, and breakfast cereals. If a child is diagnosed with celiac disease, it is extremely important to restrict gluten in their diet. 

Research has shown that restricting gluten in children with ADHD who also have celiac disease can improve their ADHD symptoms. 

Anaphylactic Shock

Sometimes, the body reacts severely to an allergen. This is called an anaphylactic shock. If not treated immediately, it can be deadly. Symptoms include:

  • Swelling of the mouth and face
  • Tightening of the throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting

An anaphylactic shock is rare. If it occurs, a shot of epinephrine must immediately be administered. The person should also be taken to the emergency room.

Even if the symptoms subside, there is a risk of a second reaction within 12 hours. Doctors can monitor the patient for this in the hospital.

Diagnosing Allergies

The most common method of diagnosing allergies is the skin prick test. A drop of liquid containing a potential allergen is placed upon the skin. The skin is then gently pricked.

If the person is allergic to the substance, a red bump appears on the skin. The skin prick test is not very painful, although it can be a bit uncomfortable. It is a very safe test.

Blood tests can also be carried out to determine allergies. In case of eczema, a patch test may be performed. This involves placing small amounts of the potential allergens in metal discs.

The discs are then attached to the body using patches for 48 hours. The person is then monitored to see if any allergic reaction occurs.

Treatment of Allergies

There is no cure for allergies. It can be managed by avoiding the allergens once identified. In case of exposure, antihistamines can help if the symptoms are not very severe. If anaphylactic shock occurs, you may need an epipen and a hospital stay. In case of asthma, an asthma pump can help.

For food allergies, dietary restrictions work best. Eliminating allergens from the diet can help prevent reactions.

We don’t know yet what the connection between allergies and ADHD is. Research on this is ongoing. We learn more of it every day as scientists uncover new information about ADHD and allergies.

We do know that children, especially boys, with ADHD are more likely to also have various allergies. We also have a wide variety of treatment and management methods at our disposal.

If your child has ADHD and allergies, a healthy diet that is monitored can help you. Make sure to remove artificial colors and additives from their diet.

Also, educate your child on what they can and cannot eat. Your child must know their condition very well and learn to manage it themselves.

Bibliography

Tucker, Ian. “Nutrition, Autism, ADHD.” Nutrition (2017).

Suwan, Panadda, Dussadee Akaramethathip, and Pongsak Noipayak. “Association between allergic sensitization and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” Asian Pacific journal of allergy and immunology 29.1 (2011): 57.

Pelsser, Lidy MJ, Jan K. Buitelaar, and Huub FJ Savelkoul. “ADHD as a (non) allergic hypersensitivity disorder: a hypothesis.” Pediatric Allergy and Immunology 20.2 (2009): 107-112.

Breggin, Peter R. “Psychostimulants in the treatment of children diagnosed with ADHD: Risks and mechanism of action.” International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine 12.1 (1999): 3-35.

Stevens, Laura J., et al. “Dietary sensitivities and ADHD symptoms: thirty-five years of research.” Clinical Pediatrics 50.4 (2011): 279-293.

Pelsser, Lidy MJ, et al. “A randomised controlled trial into the effects of food on ADHD.” European child & adolescent psychiatry 18.1 (2009): 12-19.

Ghanizadeh, A. “Parents reported oral sensory sensitivity processing and food preference in ADHD.” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 20.5 (2013): 426-432.

Jacobson, Michael F., and David Schardt. “Diet, ADHD & Behavior: A Quarter-Century Review [and] A Parent’s Guide to Diet, ADHD & Behavior.” (1999).

Verlaet, Annelies AJ, et al. “Nutrition, immunological mechanisms and dietary immunomodulation in ADHD.” European child & adolescent psychiatry 23.7 (2014): 519-529.

Pumphrey, Richard SH. “Fatal posture in anaphylactic shock.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 112.2 (2003): 451-452.

Brown, A. F. “Anaphylactic shock: mechanisms and treatment.” Emergency Medicine Journal 12.2 (1995): 89-100.

Sonuga-Barke, Edmund JS, et al. “Nonpharmacological interventions for ADHD: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials of dietary and psychological treatments.” American Journal of Psychiatry 170.3 (2013): 275-289.

Niederhofer, Helmut. “Association of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and celiac disease: a brief report.” The primary care companion for CNS disorders vol. 13,3 (2011): PCC.10br01104. doi:10.4088/PCC.10br01104

Pelsser, Lidy M et al. “Diet and ADHD, Reviewing the Evidence: A Systematic Review of Meta-Analyses of Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trials Evaluating the Efficacy of Diet Interventions on the Behavior of Children with ADHD.” PloS one vol. 12,1 e0169277. 25 Jan. 2017, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169277

Chen, Keyang et al. “Risk factors analysis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and allergic rhinitis in children: a cross-sectional study.” Italian journal of pediatrics vol. 45,1 99. 13 Aug. 2019, doi:10.1186/s13052-019-0703-1

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