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How Does Nutrition Affect Children with ADHD, ASD, Anxiety, and other learning differences?

Neurodiverse teen smiles with a bowl of healthy food, sitting on her bed.

What you eat matters.

For kids (and adults) with learning differences, ADHD, ASD, anxiety, and other challenges, it often matters even more.

In order for our bodies to make healthy neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, immune cells, etc., it must have the necessary ingredients. Just as you can’t make bread without some type of flour, your body can’t consistently make healthy neurotransmitters (or hormones, etc.) from a diet which consists primarily of highly refined or processed foods.

How Does Nutrition Affect Learning?

The connection between the gut and brain is a two-way street. When you feel sick to your stomach, how good are your levels of concentration and focus? What about your cognitive function? Conversely, at the thought of doing our taxes, how many of us get sick to our stomachs? There is a physiological connection between the gut and the brain, and signals are sent in both directions.

In studies, researchers have swapped gut microbiomes of anxious mice and calm mice. Fascinatingly, the anxious mice become calm, once they’ve been inoculated with the gut bacteria from calm mice. The reverse is true as well.

Can Dietary Changes Increase Mood and Reduce Impulsivity?

In 2008, the SMILES trial was the first randomized controlled trial (the “gold standard” in research) to assess the effectiveness of a specific diet on depression in humans. All the participants had moderate to severe depression, and in just 12 weeks on a modified Mediterranean diet, the diet group showed a significant improvement in their depression symptoms, with one-third of the group categorized to be in remission!

How is it possible that simple dietary changes could have such a profound effect on the brain and mental health? The answer lies, literally, in the gut microbiome.

Between 80-90% of serotonin (a “feel good” hormone associated with happiness) is made in the gut by our bacteria. Our gut bacteria also play a role in creating dopamine (affects impulsivity), GABA (low levels of GABA have been linked to ADHD, anxiety, and mood disorders), melatonin (helps us fall asleep), acetylcholine (critical for a healthy functioning brain), and many others.

The single most powerful predictor of a healthy gut microbiome is a diversity of minimally processed plants in your diet (e.g. vegetables, fruits, herbs, grains, nuts, and seeds).

Fresh vegetables, eggplant, yellow and red peppers, and tomatoes

So What Can You Do? To get started, choose just one of these.

  • Start small. Add one more vegetable to one of your meals (or snacks) each day.

  • Eat the rainbow. If you’re already eating a fair amount of vegetables, aim to eat at least five per day and make them all different colors.

  • Become aware. How do you (or your child) feel and act after eating certain foods? How do you feel while eating certain foods?

  • Tune into your stress level. Stress plays a major role in the makeup of a healthy microbiome.

Visit Krista's website to learn more.



Jacka, F. N., O'Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., Dash, S., Mihalopoulos, C., Chatterton, M. L., Brazionis, L., Dean, O. M., Hodge, A. M., & Berk, M. (2017). A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the 'SMILES' trial). BMC medicine, 15(1), 23.

Svoboda E. (2020). Could the gut microbiome be linked to autism?. Nature, 577(7792), S14–S15.

Valles-Colomer, M., Falony, G., Darzi, Y., Tigchelaar, E. F., Wang, J., Tito, R. Y., Schiweck, C., Kurilshikov, A., Joossens, M., Wijmenga, C., Claes, S., Van Oudenhove, L., Zhernakova, A., Vieira-Silva, S., & Raes, J. (2019). The neuroactive potential of the human gut microbiota in quality of life and depression. Nature microbiology, 4(4), 623–632.

Leclercq, S., Forsythe, P., & Bienenstock, J. (2016). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Does the Gut Microbiome Hold the Key?. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 61(4), 204–213.

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