It might sound completely ludicrous, but attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be due to a problem in the gut. This theory is a radical departure from Western medicine’s view of ADHD as caused by a neurotransmitter deficiency. However, mounting evidence supports the relationship between ADHD and gastrointestinal problems. When you learn how the gastrointestinal system and the nervous system are strongly interrelated, you will understand why this theory makes sense.
The human gastrointestinal system is far more than just a long tube where substances enter as food and leave as waste. The gastrointestinal system is the only system in the body with its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system. Not only does the enteric system have as many neurons as the spinal cord; it also produces more serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness) than the actual nervous system. This is why scientists use the term “second brain” to refer to the enteric nervous system.
The gastrointestinal system hosts a rich ecosystem of gut flora – hundreds of species of healthy bacteria that are responsible for many of the gut’s nutrient-absorption functions. Gut flora aids digestion, synthesizes vitamins, assists in absorbing nutrients, and functions as a natural filter so that toxins, carcinogens, and other harmful bacteria are prevented from entering the body. Of course, there are also bad bacteria like yeast present in the gastrointestinal tract, but they only make up 20% of the gut’s ecosystem. The other 80% is composed of healthy bacteria like bifidobacteria and lactobacillus. As long as the 80-20 ratio of healthy bacteria to bad bacteria is maintained, the gastrointestinal system and enteric nervous system are considered to be healthy.
What can disrupt the healthy balance of gut flora and cause an imbalanced gut, or dysbiosis? Food intolerances, a high-sugar diet, antibiotics, and stress are the leading causes of an imbalanced gut. Among children, dysbiosis is usually due to intolerance to gluten and casein, proteins that form harmful peptides when improperly digested. It is not surprising that industrialized countries have the highest cases of ADHD – sugar-laden treats, high-dairy foods, and processed foods are practically diet mainstays. The higher standard of living also allows families easy access to antibiotics.
When dysbiosis sets in and harmful bacteria overcrowd the good bacteria, there is an excess of toxins and inflammatory compounds in the gut, irritating the intestine lining and preventing it from performing its filtration function. Instead of keeping toxins out and absorbing nutrients, the lining does the complete opposite, and toxins leak into the bloodstream. Hence the term “leaky gut syndrome.” The toxins in the blood eventually make their way to the brain, where they disrupt the brain wave activation patterns and the production of neurotransmitters.
Besides dysbiosis, another gastrointestinal problem plagues many ADHD children. A Canadian specialist in functional medicine, Dr. Michael Lyons, discovered that 65% of children with ADHD also host intestinal parasites that feed on the nutrients and minerals found in the gut. Intestinal parasites typically come from contaminated food or water, or from when children forget to wash their hands after playing with soil or fecal matter.
Since gastrointestinal problems are prevalent among children with ADHD, a holistic treatment plan should always include testing for gastrointestinal function and gut flora. Unlike prescribed medications, which only get rid of the symptoms, this treatment is designed to eliminate the root of the disorder so that the child can overcome ADHD without harmful side-effects and receive only long-term benefits.