If you are a parent of a child with ADHD have you ever observed an escalation in your child’s ADHD symptoms when they are down with the flu, haven’t slept well, or are ravenous? If you are an adult with ADHD have you noticed that when you aren’t physically well, your ADHD symptoms seem to skyrocket? All of a sudden you are emotional, forgetting things, and can’t seem to get on top of anything. It’s undeniable: there is a relationship between physical health and ADHD. Physical ailments, fatigue, inadequate nutrition, and stress can aggravate an already-sensitive ADHD system.
ADHD: A Highly Sensitive Nervous System
Children and adults with ADHD often exhibit heightened sensitivity. They’re acutely aware of their surroundings, easily emotionally stirred, and quickly overwhelmed. Their executive functions demand immense energy to navigate daily tasks. When their physical system is disrupted or supported optimally, there’s a direct and noticeable surge in ADHD symptoms.
Fatigue, physical pain, brain fog, irritability, and lack of sleep are common perpetrators of physical health impacting ADHD symptoms. While injuries and illnesses are sometimes unavoidable, there are certain areas we can manage and support.
Note: When dealing with an illness or injury it is during the initial and recovery stages that ADHD symptoms may peak, reinforcing the need for understanding and patience. It is normal for both children and adults to give their bodies the rest they need in the most symptomatic phases of an illness or injury. It is when we expect children or ourselves to return to full executive functioning power when our body is still under stress that we run into trouble.
The Big Three: Sleep, Movement, and Nutrition
In my ADHD coaching practice, when a client is really struggling, I always circle back to focus on these three pillars as our primary plan for a few weeks. Both ADHD symptoms and these three elements influence each other in a dynamic dance. The tricky piece is that each one of these areas can be negatively impacted by ADHD symptoms. The good news is that with a supportive plan in place, each one of these three can have huge positive impacts.
Estimates indicate that 25% to 50% of individuals with ADHD wrestle with sleep issues. Challenges range from insomnia to complications arising from medications. The connection between sleep disturbances and ADHD severity is well-documented, and even individuals without ADHD can exhibit symptoms if their sleep is compromised.
As shared in Cortese et al (2006), Sleep disturbances are significantly more prevalent in children with ADHD than in children without ADHD, and there is a positive correlation between sleep disturbances and ADHD symptom severity.
To help you to support sleep, check out my post on creating an ADHD friendly sleep environment here.
Sleep Strategies to Try
1. Create a sensory friendly sleep environment with white noise, blackout blinds, and bedding with natural fibers.
2. Go outside and get natural light into your bare (no sunglasses) eyeballs at dusk and dawn for 2 weeks to reset your circadian rhythm.
3. No screens for at least an hour before bedtime.
4. Follow a consistent bedtime routine.
5. Engage in a wind-down activity for at least 30 minutes before attempting to sleep.
6. If you are reading or listening before bed keep it light and familiar, never scary, intense, and suspenseful.
7. Keep regular sleep/wake times even on the weekend (within 60 minutes).
8. Keep your bed for sleep, keep work and school work away.
9. Research sleep visualizations if you need support shutting your thinking brain off.
10. Keep a notepad beside your bed to park any thoughts that keep you up and thinking.
Ironically, while movement alleviates ADHD symptoms, the hurdle often lies in initiating it. Impulsivity, coordination challenges, and difficulties with planning can hinder an individual with ADHD to actually exercise. Yet, as experts note, exercise has transformative effects on the brain and can markedly enhance mood, focus, and emotional regulation.
“One of the most fascinating and beneficial effects of exercise is that it prepares the brain to expand, learn, and change better than any other human activity. It improves mood, reduces anxiety, regulates emotions, and maintains focus.”
– Dr. Edward Hallowell and Dr. John Ratey
Movement Strategies to Try
Here are some movement ideas that have worked well for children, teens, and adults that I have worked with.
1. For adults, approach finding a fitness program with curiosity. Try free trials at local gyms and on apps and online platforms. It is normal for an ADHDer to have very specific preferences. Don’t force something that you don’t enjoy, it won’t sustain.
2. For children, add movement tools to the house and use them for breaks in homework or chores. Eg. Trampolines, resistance bands, and swings.
3. For children experimenting with structured sports and activities. Consider activities with friends, small class sizes, and lots of repetition. Martial arts is awesome.
4. For everyone, Start slowly with shorter, less frequent sessions and then build up to avoid sensory discomfort.
5. For everyone, gamify with a fitness tracker such as a fitbit or applewatch.
6. For families, Engage in family activities together such as hikes, bike rides, walks, or trips to fitness facilities.
7. For teens and adults, purchasing a three-pack of personal training sessions so they know what to do when they hit the gym.
8. For adults, try shorter options more frequently, anecdotally I have seen much higher success rates in 20-30 minute workouts 5-6 times a week over longer works 2-3 times a week.
9. For teens and adults, find a friend who can provide body doubling and accountability on your fitness journey.
10. For adults, commit to a series of classes and put them in your calendar as opposed to buying a drop-in class you can talk yourself out of.
ADHD symptoms can complicate consistent and balanced nutrition. From impulsiveness to sensory sensitivities and the impact of medications, maintaining a nutritious diet can be a challenging endeavour. Nutrition intricately interacts with ADHD through various avenues, including blood sugar levels, macronutrient intake, and overall diet quality.
See my post on nutrition and ADHD for more details here.
Nutrition Strategies to Try
1. Balance your macros (protein, carbohydrates, and fats). Check out my fitness pal to try tracking for a couple of weeks to see if you are balancing yours. Note: I don’t recommend long term tracking for mental health reasons, but I do recommend getting a visual sense of what balanced macros looks and feels like.
2. Even if you struggle with balance, make sure you are getting protein in. The amino acid Tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine. Your brain needs protein to get the amino acids that we need for healthy brain function.
3. Eat as many whole foods as possible to avoid added preservatives, additives, and refined sugar. These things don’t cause ADHD, but we know that they aren’t great for our bodies and a healthy body is always going to have less ADHD symptoms.
4. Try supplementing the following micronutrients, they are well researched in ADHD. Essential Fatty Acids, probiotics, zinc, vitmain D, and only if needed iron.
5. Explore your food sensitivities and trigger foods. There is no one magical diet for ADHD, because every body is different, but an inflamed body is a stressed body and a stressed body struggles with increased ADHD symptoms. Elimination diets are great ways to try removing foods and noticing if any positive benefits can be found.
6. Simplify the meal planning process to support executive functioning. Try using online grocery deliveries to remove a step. Try picking 10 meals that you love to rotate through. Create a lunchtime formula, eg. a bowl made up of protein, rice, veg, and sauce (you can pre-prep the protein in the freezer and keep other ingredients easy and accessible).
7. Remember that the goal is not perfection, I recommend a good/better/best approach to food. Yes there is a magical whole foods, balanced, organic best option out there, but also eating consistently and getting enough protein in is good enough when food is hard.
A Final Note on Stress: A Silent Contributor to Chronic Physical Health Challenges.
“In the “Journal of Attention Disorders”, researchers note that ADHD symptoms are associated with stress.”
“Chronic stress makes symptoms worse, and even causes chemical and architectural changes to the brain, affecting its ability to function.”
“In “Nature Neuroscience”, researchers note that stress affects the prefrontal cortex, the same location of the brain affected by ADHD.”
Research consistently links ADHD symptoms with stress. Chronic stress not only exacerbates ADHD symptoms but also alters the brain’s chemical balance and structure. The toll of stress on physical health is pervasive, affecting every bodily system. As such, a stress management plan is imperative for anyone with ADHD.
My top recommendations for daily stress management are:
1. Create calm at home with routines and rhythms that allow for downtime. See my post for families here.
3. Tapping with the Emotional Freedom Technique (this works well for children as young as 5 through adulthood). Check out The Tapping Solution here.
To support you or your child’s ADHD with targeted strategies and to reduce the overwhelm that contributes to chronic stress, I recommend working with an ADHD coach, or ADHD trained counsellor, OT, or psychologist.
The interplay between physical health and ADHD is multifaceted. Adequate attention to sleep, movement, and nutrition can make a significant difference in managing ADHD symptoms. Amidst this, recognizing the role of stress and creating space for stress-relieving activities is vital. As we support ourselves and our children with ADHD, understanding and addressing these intersections can pave the way for a more balanced and fulfilling life.
ADHD and sleep problems: How are they related?. Sleep Foundation. (2023, September 22).
Arnold, L.E. (2017). Alternative treatments for adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 931(1), 310-341.
Cortese, S., Konofal, E., Yateman, N., Mouren, M. C., & Lecendreux, M. (2006). Sleep and alertness in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A systematic review of the literature. Sleep, 29(4), 504-511.
Hallowell, E. M., & Ratey, J. J. (2021). ADHD 2.0. Random House Publishing Group.
Managing stress when you have ADHD. CHADD. (2019, October 18).
Pelsser, L. M., Frankena, K., Toorman, J., & Pereira, R. R. (2017). 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, 12(1), e0169277.
Announcing my new e-Book:
Supporting ADHD at School
This e-Book is an Introduction to ADHD at School.
We will build understanding of the 3 core areas of impact: Executive Functioning, Motivation, and Overwhelm, followed by targeted strategies to support each area.
I have included my favourite, tried and true, tested by the 100s of families that I have worked with strategies to request on learning plans and IEPS.
There is a step by step break down of how to work with your child’s teacher to set up a plan for your child to take movement breaks.
You will also learn the basics of escalation planning if your child struggles with either external (meltdowns) or internal (anxiety and panic attacks) escalations.
You can learn more here: