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Minimizing Your Symptoms of ADD: Which Comes First ... Exercise, Diet or Sleep?
Laurie Dupar, PMHNP, RN, PCC, CPCC

Which is more important to help manage your symptoms of ADD…exercise, diet or sleep?

Ideally, we are fueling our bodies with nutritious food, moving our bodies with regular exercise and getting the consistent sleep we need to feel rested, alert and focused to decrease our symptoms of ADD.

But reality is…we are missing at least one, if not all of these essential management strategies.

If you could focus on one key strategy to make the biggest difference in experiencing relief of your symptoms of ADD, which would it be?

Trying to address or change all three of these at the same time is a plan fraught with more potential for failure than success. So where to start? Up until recently, when trying to place one as a priority over the others, I am not sure I could choose. Each has its benefits and important role in managing your symptoms of ADD, but there is one that seems to be coming out a clear winner.

So if you are wondering “Where to start?” to minimize your symptoms of ADD and get the most bang for your effort, I am going to officially go on the record (and perhaps out on a limb) and say that getting enough, consistent sleep is the priority. Here’s why:

Sleep is more important than food. That is, if the science I read is accurate. It’s true that a well-balanced diet rich in protein will benefit our overall energy and provide the longest lasting fuel source for our busy bodies and brains with ADHD. However, a person can go without food for many days and survive. Within a day of having a bad night’s sleep, we start to experience drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, less patience, decreased accuracy on tests, impaired judgment, memory challenges and a lessening in the functioning of our immune system, to name just a few. Go without sleep for ten days, and you are likely to die. I am convinced that if sleep weren’t essential to our overall well-being we would have evolved out of it ages ago.

It’s hard to eat healthy when we are sleep deprived. When we are tired, our intention or determination to eat healthy is shaky at best. Simply put we don’t have the energy to shop, plan and prepare nutritious foods. Add to this the impulsive symptoms of ADD around food choices and our best intentions for healthy eating never make it through the kitchen door.  In fact we may even gain weight and feel hungrier as our tired mind seeks out easy to get sugary and carb-filled food because they are metabolized the fastest and will satisfy our exhausted brain.

Sleep is when our physical body regenerates and our hormonal and immune systems are restored. Without sleep, our body cannot mend itself. Wounds will not heal, muscles worn by exercise cannot repair, key neurotransmitters essential to our well-being and optimal brain functioning cannot be replenished. In fact, ADHD medications are not as effective when poor sleep is involved because the unrested brain has not had a chance to restore its neurochemical balance. Our ability to fight infections and ward off illnesses is significantly decreased. Ever try to head out to the gym with a head cold?? There is also evidence that sleep deprivation will negatively affect our digestion and increase our stress hormones.

Lack of sleep dumbs you down. Sleep plays a critical role in thinking, learning and memory. Consistent, adequate sleep is key to being able to perform at our best academically or, for that matter, any task that requires memory and accuracy. Bluntly, lack of sleep interferes with attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently. Without sleep our memories can’t be consolidated and you can’t remember what you learned or experienced during the day. Just imagine trying to do well on a test or that report to your boss when your mind wasn’t able to fully absorb the information from the day before and your thinking is fuzzy.

You are less likely to feel like exercising when you are tired. Admittedly, sleep and exercise are intricately entwined. Research has shown that when we exercise we sleep better. However, when we don’t sleep we are not able to utilize or produce serotonin for our brain. Without enough of this neurotransmitter, we may experience depression, anxiety or both. Neither of these common co-existing conditions with ADD are very motivating when it is required to put one foot in front of the other and head out the door for a brisk walk.

If you are not sleeping well, here are a few key ways to maximize your pillow time:

  • Turn off screen electronics at least one hour before you plan to go to bed.
  • Develop a bed time routine that helps your body and mind prepare to shut down for the day. This might include bathing, changing into pajamas or reading.
  • Create the most ideal sleep conditions for yourself. Cool rooms and warm blankets are more conducive to sleep. Keep the room dark and consider adding white noise in the background if your mind tends to not want to shut off. Pay attention to physical distractions that might interfere with sleep such as uncomfortable mattresses, scratchy sheets or tight fitting sleep wear.
  • Get up at the same time (or within an hour of that time) every day…including weekends and holidays. Although we would love it to be true, we can’t make up for lost sleep and “sleeping in” on weekends deregulates other areas of our lives that plays havoc with such things as when to eat, exercise, takeing ADHD medications, etc.

Copyright 2014. Laurie DuPar. All rights reserved.

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