Sugar, Dopamine, and ADHD

Does sugar cause ADHD? Does sugar make ADHD worse? What is the deal with sugar? These are three common questions that I get as an ADHD coach. The answer to these questions like most questions about ADHD and behaviour is not simple. First of all, sugar won’t CAUSE someone to develop ADHD. The root of what is going on is based around a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Dopamine is the chemical released by our brains that causes feelings of pleasure and happiness. The brain uses dopamine as a reward system to reinforce behaviours that it has deemed as positive. Causing a surge of dopamine becomes a huge internal motivator. Research has shown that people with ADHD tend to have lower levels of dopamine and there is a significant body research that looks at why that is, including the process of dopamine transportation. ADHD medications often involve increasing dopamine levels. 

Sugar, when it is consumed, causes a huge surge of dopamine to flood the brain. This is in part due to the evolutionary need to eat calories to survive. This dopamine rush can easily become addictive and as a result, sugar becomes addictive. If you have ADHD and are already starting with lower dopamine levels, then the craving for a dopamine hit is even stronger. Now at first you might think, well that is great, one way to increase dopamine. The problem lies in the fact that a sugar induced dopamine rush is short lived and tolerance builds up fast leading to increasing sugar cravings. Additionally, sugar has all kinds of negative health consequences such as increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and an impacted immune system. Behaviourally, this desire for a dopamine hit, results in negative behaviours when you are craving it and over escalated behaviours once it is consumed. Behaviours similar to any other addiction.

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If you are trying to reduce sugar in your family. I recommend starting slow, keeping your kids in the loop, and don’t go cold turkey. You don’t want to take a desire to curb sugar induced behaviours to lead to seeking and hiding sugar consumption. Like everything diet related, finding a balance is key. Here are a few tips for reducing sugar in your household.

1) Start by replacing refined sugars with natural sugars. Natural sugars such as coconut sugar, honey, and maple syrup are easier for our bodies to process and have a slower digestion rate. This means the blood sugar and dopamine levels increase at a slower rate. Therefore, the ADHD dopamine sugar cycle isn’t as extreme and tied to addiction and negative behaviours. 

 2) Partake in sugar after a full meal. When our bodies are full, the increase in blood sugar isn’t as rapid, meaning a less extreme rise and a less extreme crash. 

 3) Save sugar for the treats. Reduce sugar in your drinks and your cooking. This looks like skipping the juice and pop or watering it down. Try using a soda stream to make sparkling water if plain water isn’t your favourite. When cooking, look at the labels of the sauces and processed ingredients you use regularly. Reducing sugar in these areas, makes it less guilt inducing to indulge here and there.

4) Plan ahead for low sugar holidays. Check out my instagram for details on keeping Easter low sugar. Being well stocked with special low sugar treats, make these special days festive and fun, without feeling like you are missing out. 

Let me know if I can help further with resources or support if this is an area your family struggles with.

Strengths Based ADHD and Behaviour Coaching

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