Sugar and ADHD

One urban myth that has been successfully ruled out is that sugar doesn’t cause ADHD.

sugar and addHowever, sugar does effect how your brain functions.  Since ADHD is neurological in nature, it’s interesting how to see how sugar affects our brain.

When you eat carbohydrates your body turns them into glucose (a type of sugar) and your organs (including your brain) and muscles use it for energy. Since, the neurons in the brain can’t store glucose they need a steady supply of it.  Spikes in the glucose supply to the brain are bad news as they result in hyperactivity and sugar crashes.

As with fats there is good and there is bad sugar.

The bad sugar is the refined sugar in cookies, candy and soda.  When you consume refined sugar, the affect is immediate your brain gets flooded with glucose and serotonin is released.  Serotonin makes you feel happy.  Because of large increase in blood sugar the pancreas produces large amounts of insulin, to absorb the sugar.  This is when you feel the ‘crash’.  You feel tired (more so than before you ate the sugar) and cannot focus.

When you eat too much sugar over time you can have problems with processing information, memory, depression and anxiety.  All of which many ADHD adults are prone to have problems with.

Good sugar comes from of fruit and complex carbohydrates.  Because fruit also has fiber its sugar is released at a steady speed while being digested.  Complex carbohydrates are also broken down into sugar. They take longer to progress and give energy for many hours.

For some reason we think of sugar as being harmless; yet there is nothing harmless about the ailments it causes.

As well the obvious ones such as Diabetes and obesity and tooth decay there are also things that ADHD adults are already susceptible to, such as:

I have to admit I am a former sugar addict!  I would eat little pieces of chocolate all day.  It was a great way for me to have energy without the hassle of meal planning.  However, I noticed my brain was really foggy and thinking took lots of effort.  One month ago I stopped eating processed sugar.  No more chocolate, no more deserts.  The first few days were hard because I had to break the habit and the times I would normally enjoy a chunk of chocolate, I needed to remind myself I didn’t eat chocolate anymore.

After the first few days my energy became low and I felt very sad. A quick Google search told me this was normal sugar withdrawal symptoms.  Now those have passed I feel amazing, both mentally and physically very strong.

When you eat a healthy diet that gives your body the chance to have a stable blood sugar throughout the day you will have increased mental focus and attention, and balanced moods.

How to get the sugar out of your diet:

1) Start with the obvious culprits. Chocolate, cakes, sugar in your coffee etc.  Later on in your sugar elimination process you can cut out the hidden stuff.

2) Go Brown
Change all the white products in your cupboards to brown, for example bread, pasta, rice.

3) Eat regularly
Never go too long without food. This keeps your blood sugar in your brain stable.

4) Withdrawals
If you notice some withdrawal symptoms like me, try to stick it out. They aren’t pleasant, but the grass is greener on the other side! (also constant a doctor if you are worried)

5) Notice the benefits.
In fact, don’t just notice them, enjoy them!!

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  1. Julia says:

    What about honey? A little in tea sometimes, used as a sore throat aid, in oatmeal (rather than sugar)? I try to get local or raw honey whenever possible, so I think that means it’s unprocessed… does anyone know if it’s just as bad or a tad better?

  2. Dave says:

    I’m a 27 year old and have recently self-discovered that I have adult ADD. I’m muscular and I enjoy running and lifting weights and of course I love sugar. I found out that all these activities were my way of self-medicating my ADD without even knowing it. I eat healthy foods like Salmon and vegetables but every day at work and after work I get HUGE cravings for sugar such as cookies.

    My job is very fast-paced and exhausting and during lunch I tried skipping sugary snacks. This causes me to have no energy for work, no focus, just this numb head feeling. It sucks. When I’m at home, if I don’t eat carbs or sugar, I feel sad and unfocused. I can’t do anything, I feel like I can’t get excited about anything or feel happy without eating sugar. Like, I can’t even relax and watch a movie because I want to eat to enjoy the movie.

    Sugar also really helps my ADD. Every time I tried not eating sugar at work, my coworkers kept asking if everything was ok because I worked slowly and didn’t talk. However, reading articles like this one gives me hope to try. The most important thing is to be reminded daily. I need constant motivation and reminders, otherwise I’ll allow myself to eat sugar again.

    • Hi Dave
      It sounds like sugar is a way you are self medicating at the moment. Our body is very clever and getting us to consume things so that we can perform our best. Right now for you that is sugar. Before quitting sugar try adding some things to your diet..that way you won’t be white knuckling it. Be sure to have protein for breakfast, and that you are getting enough calories from other food other than sugar. Often we crave sugar when we are hungry as it offers fast energy
      Also start to treat your ADHD in other ways. Then when you start to reduce your sugar intake, it will feel pretty easy.

  3. Jacqueline Sinfield says:

    Hi Sue
    Sorry to hear about your health problems. The best diet for you would be the Paleo diet. It provides many health benefits and eliminates tons of ailments. If you like to read there is a fabulous book called ‘Primal Body, Primal Mind’by Nora T Gedgaudas.
    Let me know if you have any questions

  4. Sue Angell says:

    Hi! Interesting, but – what can you do if you cannot stomach “brown” products?

    For years, I thought I had IBS. Or was lactose intolerant. Finally, I naturopath diagnosed me as “corn sensitive.” I don’t eat any corn, corn meal, cornstarch, corn flour, HFCS, or corn syrup. So I do eat better than a lot of people, because I go for organic products – or less-processed products.

    The downside is that this diagnosis is not perfect. My stomach still “hurts” a lot of the time and I exhibit IBS symptoms. To combat this, I stick to a semi-IBS diet, which advocates “white” foods. White breads, white rice, etc. I peel skins off my apples and pears. I am mindful of the type of fiber I eat. I know that I have a limit to the amount of lettuce I can tolerate. I know that some foods (beans and broccoli) cause reactions much more extreme than most people experience.

    I have ruled out Celiac disease as well as gluten sensitivity – I’ve been tested for both.

    I’ve adjusted my diet so many times, based on so many diagnosis. I am almost at a loss – what can a person eat?

    To make matters worse, I am distance runner…an ultra runner. I am coping with dehydration brought on by Vyvanse, as well as what appears to be an abnormally fast rate of electrolyte shedding. I cope by taking salt pills and eating little bits very often – and when worse comes to worse, I walk. I am already so limited in my food choices that I wonder how modifying my diet further would impact my body.

    Sometimes I find these articles helpful. Other times they frustrate me. It is very difficult to follow one-size-fits-all advice, when your body has other ideas!

  5. Hi. I agree with David. Wonder if you’d like my cookbook – “Chocolate without sugar”- never printed due to lack of public demand. It relies mostly on maple syrup. Unfortunately chocolate is also a psychoactive substance.

    • I cannot have chocolate no matter how dark it is, cakes and heavy fat laden foods like chips make me ill. One time I ate a colleague’s french fry and felt so sick on my usual commuting ferry ride home that I had to hang my head over the railing. As a competitve swimmer since childhood, I was forcefed chocolate and honey which used to make me sick to my stomach at meets. I have learned to not eat these things and I had adhd from childhood. Fortunately we always had gardens to eat from and were forbidden to eat junk food. I find fruit and plain low fat Icelandic yoghurt or kefir keeps my system in top shape.

  6. David Dror says:

    Wonderful article!
    Isn’t it a shame that speaking the truth about sugar is such a taboo in our society?

    • Jacqueline Sinfield says:

      Hi David
      Glad you liked the article 🙂

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