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ADHD Symptoms: What Makes Them Worse?

Inactivity Is Not Your Friend

Physical inactivity is bad for your brain and may increase symptoms of ADHD.

If your memory is not as sharp as you would hope it to be, ADHD may be the culprit. If you are physically inactive, this may harm your brain. There is some evidence that aerobic exercise may improve cognitive and behavioral function. Most experts recommend that adults get at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week (at least 5 days). This level of physical activity may help you learn, combat inattention, and boost your ability to make decisions. Are you new to exercise? Start by walking for a few minutes every day and gradually increase your activity levels until you are active for at least 30 minutes per day. Check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program for the first time. If you have a diagnosis of a heart condition or other another condition, your doctor may have specific exercise guidelines for you.

Curb the Eating Out Habit

Restaurant food is high in unhealthy fats, calories, sugar, and salt.

Many people eat out for the sake of convenience, but it is not a good habit for anyone, especially for those who have ADHD. Most people who eat a Western type diet have an imbalance in omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Both types of fats are necessary, but too many omega-6 fats may promote inflammation. Having the proper balance of fats improves the fluidity of nerve cell membranes and facilitates communication between neurons. Omega-6 fats are found in canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, and other vegetable fats. Omega-6 fats are abundant in restaurant food. Cook healthy meals at home instead to limit your intake of unhealthy omega-6 fatty acids and load up on anti-inflammatory fruits and veggies instead. If your doctor has diagnosed you or your child with ADHD, stick to a healthy eating plan to minimize hyperactive behavior and other symptoms.

Too Much Junk Food

Artificial coloring may increase ADHD symptoms in some people with the condition.

Science has yet to prove definitively which foods may make symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder worse, but some evidence suggests that artificial food coloring may aggravate ADHD symptoms in some children. Researchers are not sure how artificial food coloring may provoke symptoms, but some other children and those with adult ADHD notice a difference after consuming foods with these additives. Junk foods containing artificial food coloring are also loaded with sugar and excess calories, so they are not good for anyone. If you or your child has ADHD, eliminate junk food from your diet and take note to see if your symptoms improve. Monitor for hyperactive behavior, impulsivity, interrupting, restlessness, inattention, and fidgeting after the consumption of junk food. You may notice your child squirm more or blurt out and interrupt others when speaking. If hyperactivity or other symptoms increase after your child consumes these foods, eliminate them.

Do Not Skip Breakfast

Improve your morning focus by eating breakfast.

Studies suggest that skipping meals, especially breakfast, is associated with an increase in mental health problems. Eating breakfast can help you stay focused for longer as you start your day. ADHD medications may interfere with your appetite, but it is important to eat something in the morning. Try a protein shake, fruit with nut butter, or cup of yogurt sprinkled with granola. Hard-boiled eggs are portable and deliver a healthy dose of protein, too. Stick to regular meal times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Results of studies suggest people who eat meals according to a regular schedule enjoy better mental health compared to those who have irregular eating patterns. Breakfast will help your child do schoolwork more effectively and attentively.

Clutter May Aggravate Symptoms

Adult ADHD patients and adolescents may be overwhelmed by clutter.

Some studies suggest that clutter is associated with increased creativity, but it may increase symptoms of ADHD in those who have the diagnosis. Keep your home and office tidy. Declutter and minimize paper piles, books, and mounds of laundry. All of these may remind you of your to do list and things you need to get done. Visual reminders like these may overwhelm you and remind you of long-term projects you have been avoiding. If you feel disorganized, eliminate clutter to free your mind. You will be more productive and worry less. Getting rid of clutter frees you up to do other activities.

Guard against Hoarding

Hoarding is a common tendency in those who suffer from ADHD.

Many people who have ADHD may also have hoarding tendencies. If you accumulate objects and find it difficult to let them go, adopt a simple rule when shopping. Follow the "one in, one out" adage. If you bring a new pair of shoes home, give an old pair away. You can do the same with clothing items, books, household items, kitchen items, and many other things. If you have not used or worn an item in the prior 1 to 2 years, you likely never will, so it is time to donate it or give it to a friend.

Are You Taking the Right Meds?

Many people who have ADHD have other mental health disorders.

Approximately 50% of adults who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also suffer from an anxiety disorder. ADHD with anxiety can be particularly debilitating and interfere with your ability to function. If you have both disorders, some medications your doctor prescribes to treat ADHD symptoms can make anxiety symptoms worse. Adults with ADHD are also more likely to suffer from other mental disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, or another comorbid mental disorder. Medications used to treat depression may also make symptoms of ADHD worse. Substance abuse problems are also more common in those who have ADHD. Evidence suggests that ADHD treatment works better when substance abuse problems have been addressed.

Talk to your doctor about all of your symptoms. He or she may diagnose you with a comorbid condition in addition to ADHD. Symptoms like being forgetful, being inattentive, and low self-esteem may be features of both ADHD or another mental health condition like anxiety or depression. Your doctor can review your medical history and make sure you have not been misdiagnosed with any condition. A doctor uses criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to diagnose ADHD and other mental health conditions.

Do Not Skimp on Sleep

Sleep problems and ADHD often go hand in hand.

People who have ADHD often suffer from sleep problems. There are a variety of reasons for this. Stimulant medications used to treat ADHD symptoms may make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse also all occur more frequently in people who have ADHD, and all of these conditions can affect sleep. Lack of sleep can increase inattentiveness and other symptoms of ADHD. Sleep deprivation can make it more difficult to carry out daily activities. Sleep problems are treatable. Have a conversation with your physician if you are excessively sleepy during the day or if you have a hard time sleeping at night. It may be that ADHD medication side effects are contributing to sleep problems. The doctor may recommend that you have a sleep study to diagnose or rule out sleep disorders. Getting adequate sleep will help you avoid making careless mistakes. It is especially concerning if your sleep problems have persisted for a long period of time.

Do Not Quit Therapy

Keep up with therapy to keep attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in check.

Results of studies suggest a combination of medication and therapy works best to manage ADHD symptoms. You may feel like quitting therapy once ADHD symptoms are managed, but this may not be the best choice. Therapy requires a bit of investment in both time and money but a combination approach with both therapy and medication really does work best to keep ADHD under control. Quitting therapy may increase symptoms of ADHD. Studies show that childhood and adolescent ADHD often continues into adulthood, so it is important to stick to the treatment plan your doctor has designed for you. ADHD may cause different symptoms during different developmental stages. Hyperactivity and impulsivity are more common in children and may decrease in adulthood. Adult ADHD patients may be less likely to be hyperactive-impulsive but they still feel restless inside.

Minimize Screen Time

Too much screen time makes ADHD symptoms worse.

People who have ADHD are at increased risk for internet addiction. Studies have shown that up to 25% of people who have ADHD suffer from internet addiction. Increased screen time can make ADHD symptoms worse in some people. It is not entirely known how the two disorders are connected and which problem comes first. Avoid screen time for several hours prior to bedtime. Nighttime exposure to screens increases the risk of sleep problems for everyone, so set your devices aside and do not use the computer beginning in the late afternoon and early evening. You will sleep better and you may help minimize ADHD symptoms.

Keep Yourself Caffeinated

Caffeinated beverages may improve symptoms of ADHD.

Many ADHD medications contain stimulants to combat the condition. Similarly, caffeine in coffee or tea may help, too. Caffeine may make you less inattentive and it may improve hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms. If you stop drinking coffee or tea, you may notice that your attention deficit disorder symptoms get worse. Caffeine helps most people focus and improves brain function and alertness. It also improves working memory. The difference is that caffeine may make people without ADHD jittery while it helps relieve hyperactive-impulsive and other symptoms in those with attention deficit disorder. Check with your doctor to see if caffeine consumption is safe for you. If so, indulge in caffeinated coffee or tea and reap the benefits!

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD on 9/26/2018

ADHD Symptoms: What Makes Them Worse?

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