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ADHD Causes: Sugar

The link between sugar and ADHD is probably one of the most controversial topics in the field of ADHD and nutrition. Most medical doctors reject this, citing several studies that showed no relationship between the two. But some parents have observed such a strong worsening of ADHD symptoms when their children consume sugary foods that you could never convince them that sugar is not involved. In fact, the issue is so emotionally charged that a group of scientists decided to settle the debate once and for all. They performed a study on ADHD children, telling parents that their children would be given sugary drinks. Parents were then asked to evaluate their children's behavior. But the researcher tricked the parents – instead of giving the children a sugary drink (as parents believed), they gave them only water. Some of the parents thought that their child's behavior got worse after the drink. The researchers concluded that it is the parent's beliefs about sugar that leads them into thinking that sugar is responsible for the worsening behavior.

Who, then, do we believe? From our perspective, the real issue is this: When Western medicine and science study a phenomenon, they draw conclusions based on groups and statistics. We, on the other hand, are interested in the case of the individual child. Let's say a researcher takes 100 children and gives them sugary foods. He observes that only 10 children have a worsening in behavior. Since the vast majority had no problems, he will conclude that sugar does not cause hyperactivity. From a statistical perspective, he is right. If sugar caused ADHD, we would all have it. However, this researcher is missing the point. The point is not whether sugar causes ADHD overall or statistically speaking; the point is what happens to the individual child. In our example, 10 children are affected and would benefit from reducing sugar. For those individuals, that would make a difference. And this is what matters. So the question should not be, "Does sugar cause ADHD?" Rather, you should be asking, "Is my child, in his uniqueness, affected by sugar?"

Sugar is the greatest socially accepted addiction in the Western world – it is accessible and affordable, and is the cheapest preservative available to the food industry.  Almost all foods in the market contain sugar, and most people consume sugary treats without being aware of sugar's negative consequences on their health.  The average American – not the ones with a sweet tooth – consumes his or her own body weight in sugar every year!  Throughout this article, the term "refined sugar" will include refined cane sugar and refined carbohydrates such as food with white flour, cereal, noodles, and rice.  Refined carbohydrates are one chemical step away from cane sugar, and have nearly the same effect as cane sugar once eaten. 

Before we go into the effects of refined sugar, let us go through a quick discussion of how sugar is processed by the body. Glucose, the simplest form of sugar, is the brain's primary source of fuel. This means that a constant supply of glucose must be available to the brain to keep it functioning well.  Glucose can be found in fruits and green leafy vegetables, but most children today prefer eating refined sugar from cakes, sweets, cereals, white bread, pasta, and pizza.  Refined sugar from these foods enters the bloodstream quickly, and is processed more rapidly than natural sugars. So when high amounts of refined sugar are packed into a small child's system, he or she experiences a burst of energy and starts acting out.  Because refined sugar is processed very quickly, it also gets used up very quickly, resulting in a loss of energy and lethargy, or what you might know as a "sugar crash."

Refined sugar has another effect. You've probably heard the term "empty calories" to describe sugar and other junk foods.  These foods are called "empty" because they provide no nutritional benefit beyond calories. Besides providing only calories, refined sugar requires a lot of nutrients to process in the body, thus depleting the child's nutritional base.  This means that if a child with ADHD is already deficient in certain nutrients, a diet of refined sugars will worsen the nutrition deficiency and the child's condition.

There are many scientific works that explore how sugar affects general nutrition and health.  Although more research needs to be done with regard to the relationship of sugar and ADHD, several researchers have confirmed the link between the two. A recent study by Langseth and Dowd shows that a control group of children who ingested refined sugar showed a significant drop in a continuous performance task designed to measure inattention.  They also had faster reaction times than the other group, which corresponds to impulsivity. It appears that ingesting sugar has accentuated these symptoms.  Another study, by Prinz and his associates, concluded that destructive behavior and hyperactivity are positively correlated to the amount of sugar ingested.

Monitoring a child's diet is an often-neglected solution in managing ADHD. Putting your child on a low-carbohydrate, sugar-free diet takes consistency and attention, and will take more time than giving your child a pill to swallow. There are also parents who have unhealthy eating habits and may not be willing to change their own diets for the sake of their children.  But you can also look at it this way: although removing sugar from family meals might be troublesome at the beginning, you'll soon get accustomed to avoiding refined sugar and other unhealthy foods. A diet change is also a safer and more effective approach to ADHD than prescription medication.  Knowing what you know now, consider taking active measures to change your child's diet and eating habits as the key to overcoming ADHD.