At first glance, diabetes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) seem like two completely unrelated health conditions. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder characterized by abnormal blood sugar levels, whereas ADHD is a psychological problem signified by chronic inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Yet the connection between these two conditions is closer than you think. According to Dr. Georgianna Donadio, the program director of Boston’s National Institute of Whole Health, high levels of blood sugar can contribute to the symptoms of ADHD.
Two types of diabetes
Diabetes is characterized by abnormal levels of insulin, the hormone that is responsible for using the glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. Diabetes falls under two categories. Type I diabetes, or insulin-dependent diabetes, occurs when the pancreas is unable to produce insulin, causing abnormally high levels of glucose in the bloodstream. This type of diabetes is relatively uncommon and affects only 10% of diabetes patients, usually children. Type II diabetes, or insulin-resistant diabetes, is when the body cannot utilize the insulin produced by the pancreas. The pancreas continues to produce more insulin to try to bring down the glucose levels in the blood, but the body fails to normalize the glucose levels. Type II diabetes is more common in adults aged 40 and over, and is strongly correlated to poor eating habits and obesity.
ADHD and diabetes
ADHD is usually caused by a deficiency in two neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and dopamine. Norepinephrine controls hyperactivity and works with adrenaline to give the body an energy boost during moments of stress. Dopamine, on the other hand, controls behavior and mood. A study by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center discovered that levels of insulin can influence the brain’s production and regulation of dopamine. Since glucose is also needed by the brain to function properly, abnormal levels of blood glucose can also aggravate the symptoms of ADHD by affecting the brain’s neurological and cognitive function. When hypoglycemia or low blood sugar occurs, concentrating on tasks becomes almost impossible and the person tends to feel cranky due to the lack of energy.
Although diabetes does not cause ADHD per se, diabetic symptoms can make it more difficult for a person to manage ADHD. Fortunately, both conditions can be managed by avoiding simple carbohydrates and refined sugars, and eating more vegetables, fruits, and high-protein foods. Exercise regularly to burn off the excess sugar and try to maintain a healthy weight. Track your blood sugar levels every day, particularly when you notice a mood change or a change in your energy levels. If these become a persistent problem, talk to your doctor. The data you kept on your blood sugar levels can help your doctor adjust your treatment plan or recommend a diet plan, if needed.