In what has become a global reckoning, rising numbers of women are finally getting their ADHD diagnoses after years of being overlooked. Let’s dive into the reasons for this widespread medical neglect, plus we’ll be sharing a few of our top foods to reduce the severity of symptoms.
Generations of women with ADHD have been left to suffer in silence with neither a diagnosis nor access to medical treatment. While the symptoms often manifest in childhood and can affect every aspect of a girl’s life – from schooling to health, home life and after-school activities – these girls are left to fall behind. The result? Decades later, countless women are struggling with maintaining their health, navigating social lives, falling behind at work and managing the development of comorbidities like anxiety and depression. For many of these women who eventually go on to get a diagnosis, it won’t have been their family, teachers or doctors in childhood who pointed them in the right direction, it'll likely come about after they begin undertaking their own research to get to the bottom of their distressing symptoms. Others may never get their diagnosis. Let’s get into the reason for this mass neglect affecting girls the world over, plus what actually characterises this condition.
ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – has long been thought of as a male disorder, with a startling diagnoses gap between girls and boys, and men and women. This is because of a few misunderstandings which have left girls without treatment, struggling to cope with their condition – often blaming themselves for their debilitating symptoms. One such misunderstanding stems from the different presentations of ADHD – while many medical professionals having had tunnel vision for those with primarily hyperactive symptoms, they’ve missed the very many people with inattentive symptoms – and for a massive number of girls, this is how their ADHD presents. It’s worth noting there are also some boys who will present mostly inattentive symptoms, which is why this global ADHD reckoning has shaken so many outdated belief systems.
Affecting 1 in 20 Aussies, ADHD is widespread around the country, despite some dangerous misunderstandings around it. Contrary to popular belief, this condition doesn’t only affect children – more than 3 quarters of kids diagnosed with ADHD will continue to experience symptoms as adults. It’s categorised by the following groups of symptoms, and can include mostly one group or a combination of them:
- Inattentive: This includes have difficulty focusing on things and seeing tasks through to their end point, along with avoiding tasks that require prolonged attention. Forgetfulness and difficulty managing time are also common symptoms.
- Hyperactive and impulsive: Hyperactivity is more common in kids and usually involves restlessness, fidgeting and disrupting others. Impulsive symptoms can include interrupting and talking over others, along with taking others’ things without permission.
Why women and girls are underdiagnosed
The US Centre for Disease Control found that while boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls, it’s not because boys are more susceptible, but because girls are so consistently underdiagnosed. One such reason for this centres around the differing ADHD presentations – while boys more often present with hyperactive and impulsive symptoms like fidgeting, restlessness and displays of mood swings, girls will frequently have more inattentive symptoms like struggles with concentration and time management.
But it’s not just about the differences in ADHD symptoms; it also has to do with gender bias in the medical industry – and society as a whole. Some presentations of inattentive ADHD, like shyness, are often seen as a result of the child’s personality, rather than a condition. It’s especially concerning when gendered expectations mask the frustrating symptoms of the conditions, with many presuming certain quieter behaviours are ideal – leaving many girls and women to go unnoticed, slipping between the cracks. Others, like distraction, lack of focus and impulsivity, tend to be frowned upon but, yet again, get treated as a kind of personality trait.
The result? Between 50 and 75% of undiagnosed ADHD cases among women and girls around the globe. One study found that while medical evaluations suggest the ratio of ADHD of boys to girls is nine to one, community research found that number to be between one to one and three to one. The conclusion? Girls with ADHD are being diagnosed and referred to specialists at concerningly lower rates than their male peers. But the tide is slowly changing, as research shows that in recent years we’ve seen women’s prescriptions for ADHD medication more than double, a sign that diagnoses are on the up.
The role of diet in ADHD
While your food choices won’t “cure” ADHD, there is some promising research which suggests certain foods can help reduce the symptoms and make it easier for people to focus, enjoy mental clarity and combat the dreaded brain fog. One of the first ports of call is to ditch the sugary, highly-processed foods that dominate so many of our diets. We’re talking about the sugary cereals, the muesli bars, the flavoured yoghurts, commercial cakes, refined oils, deep-fried foods and, of course, the confectionery. You’ve probably noticed a worsening of symptoms when you’ve had a particularly large dose of sugar – and it’s not your imagination. This addictive substance can wreak havoc on brain function, gut health and our hormones, with some studies finding it can trigger hyperactive symptoms, even in those who present with mostly inattentive symptoms. The study focused on a group of kids, finding they became more agitated after eating a sugary meal.
But here’s where it gets worse – studies show that neurodivergent people – including those with ADHD – might be more susceptible to sugar cravings and gut issues, with some researchers suggesting that neurodivergent people have a less diverse gut microbiome. And consider this – where do our cravings stem from? You might be surprised to learn that these cravings don’t come from our own wants, but from those of our gut microbes. That’s right, our gut microbes are calling the shots here – whether it’s a craving for chocolate, fried food or chips, that all on your microbiome.
But it’s not just about what not to eat, here are a few brain-boosting foods with proven benefits for those with ADHD.
Iron: This nutrient may be more well-known for its role in transporting oxygen through our red blood cells – meaning it keep the fatigue at bay – but there are a few surprising benefits you might not have known about. It’s all to do with its vital role in helping us produce dopamine – the feel-good hormone – with suggestion that some symptoms of ADHD might be down to a deficiency in this essential hormone. With one study showing 84% of kids with ADHD had low iron stores, it’s worth loading up on a few iron-rich foods:
- Eggs and meat
- Leafy green veggies
- Seeds and nuts
Healthy fats: These are your go-to nutrients for brain and gut function – without these fats, our hormones end up running haywire, which only serves to exacerbate the symptoms of ADHD like difficulty concentrating and brain fog. A study found that adding daily omega 3s to participants’ diet led to a 50% reduction in their cognitive symptoms – so it’s worth adding some healthy fats – including those omegas! – to your diet. Here’s the shortlist:
- Salmon and mackerel
- Olive oil
- Flaxseeds, chia and hemp seeds
Zinc: This nutrient is vital for regulating our neurotransmitters – including dopamine, the dysregulation of which has been connected to ADHD by researchers. Without supporting healthily regulated neurotransmitters, the symptoms can become notably more difficult to manage. Here’s where to get your dose of zinc:
- Flax seeds and hemp seeds
- Nuts like cashews, peanuts
- Legumes like soy beans, adzuki beans
- Shiitake mushrooms.
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