Brisbane Mind & Body Clinic

ADHD and the Gut-Brain Axis: Unravelling the Connection

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a multifaceted condition traditionally associated with the brain’s functioning and getting tasks done. 

But hey, I’m not blaming you if you’re only just hearing about the connection between ADHD and the gut, as it’s a relatively new area of research. This fascinating connection between ADHD and the gastrointestinal system is helping to shed light on the gut-brain axis’s role in mental health. Understanding this link could pave the way for new strategies in managing ADHD symptoms through dietary and gut health interventions.

What is the Gut-Brain Axis?

The gut-brain axis refers to the bidirectional communication network between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. This connection involves intricate pathways, including neural, hormonal, and immunological signals. The vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the abdomen, plays a significant role in this communication. Moreover, gut microbiota—the trillions of microorganisms residing in our intestines—are crucial in maintaining this link.

The Gut Microbiota and ADHD

Alterations in gut microbiome composition may be associated with ADHD. People with ADHD (adults or children) often exhibit a different microbial profile compared to those without ADHD. This imbalance, known as dysbiosis, can affect neurotransmitter production, immune system regulation, and overall brain function.

One notable neurotransmitter influenced by gut bacteria is dopamine, which is crucial for attention and behaviour regulation. Although dopamine is influenced by many factors, dysbiosis can lead to decreased dopamine production, potentially exacerbating ADHD symptoms. In a healthy gut microbiome, the bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are vital for brain health and function.

Inflammation and the Immune Response

Chronic inflammation is another key player in the gut-brain axis and ADHD. Dysbiosis can trigger an immune response, leading to the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. These cytokines can cross the blood-brain barrier, causing neuroinflammation, which is inflammation in the brain. In people with ADHD, heightened neuroinflammation can make symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity more challenging to manage.

When the gut lining is consistently inflamed, small areas can become compromised, leaking material from the intestine into the bloodstream. When this happens outside of normal functioning, the immune system begins to see otherwise normal foodstuffs as harmful substances, and mounts an immune response to it. We call this “leaky gut,” and this situation can make an immune system overworked and hypervigilant, leading to worsening of gut and brain health in a bit of a never-ending cycle. This can be a common situation in people with ADHD, often complaining of food intolerances and digestive discomfort. 

Nutritional Interventions

Now, there are many supplemental or herbal options to improve the health of the gut, but really, the foundation of health must come down to food eventually. Given the gut-brain axis’s role in ADHD, dietary intervention can be an effective strategy for managing symptoms. 

Here are some dietary approaches that may benefit individuals with ADHD:


  • Probiotics and Prebiotics: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help restore gut microbiota balance. Prebiotics are dietary fibres that feed these beneficial bacteria. Consuming foods rich in probiotics (like yoghurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables) and prebiotics (such as garlic, onions, and bananas) can support gut health.


  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and support brain function. Supplementing with omega-3s has shown promise in reducing ADHD symptoms.


  • Elimination Diets: Some individuals with ADHD may be sensitive to certain foods or additives, such as artificial colours and preservatives. Elimination diets involve removing potential trigger foods and gradually reintroducing them to identify any adverse effects on behaviour. Warning – don’t do this without a trained health practitioner to guide you, so you don’t end up unwell due to deficiencies. 


  • Balanced Diet: A diet rich in whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, provides essential nutrients that support both gut and brain health.

The Role of Stress

Stress is a significant factor that can impact both ADHD symptoms and gut health. Like poor food choices and alcohol, stress can also alter gut microbiome composition, increase leaky gut, and promote inflammation. 

Looking at it from the other way, we also know that gut dysbiosis can affect the brain and the effectiveness of your stress response. Incorporating stress management techniques, such as mindfulness, meditation, and regular exercise, can benefit both gut health and ADHD symptom management. If you are able to do so, reaching out to a trained mental health professional could be an important step.

Practical Tips for Supporting Gut Health in ADHD

  • Incorporate a Variety of Fibre-Rich Foods: Fibre supports gut health by feeding beneficial bacteria. Include a diverse range of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in your diet
  • Stay Hydrated: Adequate hydration supports overall health, including digestive function. Aim to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Limit Processed Foods: Processed foods often contain additives and preservatives that can negatively impact gut health. Aim for whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible.
  • Practice Mindful Eating: Paying attention to your eating habits, such as eating slowly and chewing thoroughly, can improve digestion and nutrient absorption.

The gut-brain axis offers an exciting perspective on ADHD, highlighting the importance of gut health in managing this condition. By understanding the connection between the gut and the brain, people with ADHD can explore new avenues for symptom management through dietary and lifestyle modifications. 

To learn more about gut health, feel free to watch this short video, Mind Your Microbiome.

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