Minimizing Your Symptoms of ADD: Which Comes First…Exercise, Diet or Sleep?

ADHD Strategies    June 10, 2014

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.

Man sleeping in bedSo 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 or 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, take ADHD medications, etc.

How are you sleeping with ADHD? Let me know by responding to this post.

21 Responses to Minimizing Your Symptoms of ADD: Which Comes First…Exercise, Diet or Sleep?

  1. Naima Laraki     June 12, 2014    8:38 am    Reply

    Thanks Laurie.
    I have some trouble sleeping.

    • laurie     July 19, 2014    5:38 pm    Reply

      HI Naima! Thanks for your comment. What particularly happens with your sleeping that is troubling? Let me know! ~ Laurie Dupar

  2. Brian'     June 16, 2014    10:49 am    Reply

    Great article!
    The only thing I was disappointed about was that it ended! The information is tremendous!

    Diagnosed with ADD, depression and anxiety 6yrs ago.
    All three have been medication resistant.

    Have realized 7+hrs regularly helps feel less irritable.
    Even so, sleep is and has been sporadic.

    After years of frustration, ‘genetic testing’ showed what “should” work better.

    Stimulants increased anxiety when a specific focus was not present, ie not working.

    Have not found good balance.
    Insurance issues now limit treatment

    Interestingly, stopped drinking alcohol at almost the same time as diagnosis and treatment.

    Completely addicted to technology, tablets, etc
    Hyperfocus on gaming (xbox)
    Completely grew up alongside consumer technology – was 5 or 6 when “pong” came out.

    Always well-intended and committed, tried fixing processes at jobs where doing the process was necessary. Didn’t stay at jobs long. 🙁

    Add chronic back pain and gastrointestinal issues.

    Sadly, since “treatment” started, life has “fallen apart” on several levels, job, relationship, self-esteem.

    Faith and belief in God has changed significantly and possibly the only thing that has held me together.
    Thank God for that grace.

    • laurie     July 19, 2014    5:37 pm    Reply

      HI Brian! Thanks for your comments. Wow! You have a heap of things interfering with your sleep! I appreciate that you find the article useful and even more, that your faith stays strong. Keep in touch. ~Laurie Dupar

    • Andre Lefebvre     August 10, 2014    7:49 am    Reply

      Thank you Brian for sharing a bit of your journey. I’ve “held” over 70 different jobs in my life and even though I thought it was because I approached every job as a creative project (sponging in the experiences, environment and all, then recreating the place with my ideas of how it would improve if changes were made), I’m now having to realize that my ADHD has had a big part to play in my whole life.

      Working from home and freelancing is now the only way I can contribute something and supplement my income. Although it helps me avoid the crushing stress of a production environment (so many people, machines, noises and dynamics!) I am still facing the crushing stress caused by distractions of all kinds, poor memory and learning difficulties (creating websites and music using complex software and new approaches I haven’t conquered yet), the lack of understanding and the energy required to learn something technical that is obvious for most… I also don’t have the same slow-burning energy as before taking meds, where I could drink coffee and get going for hours, for something that would have taken someone else minutes…

      What you wrote here touched something for me: “Stimulants increased anxiety when a specific focus was not present, ie not working.” No matter what I need to do, creativity does require time and involvement to pursue an idea and bring it to life in a unique way. Many times I’ve set up what I though was the perfect scenario to start working, and even with a coffee, I’d be jumping from one thing to the next without ever putting a dent in the task at hand. The result being low self-esteem, shame, guilt, discouragement, self-loathing, confusion and putting in question my own ability to break through the wall. Coffee used to help me focus, give me some helpful tunnel vision, but not anymore, and it does create general anxiety when the energy can’t be harnessed for productivity.

      I seem to have naturally moved away from coffee since being diagnosed, and I’d like to see other changes happen at a deeper functional level!

      Sorry for the long post, I’m processing things as I write and discovering as I go. It helps to read other people’s accounts… 🙂

      Keep the faith!


  3. Stephanie M     June 21, 2014    2:13 pm    Reply

    My 11-year old ADHD son has a horrible time sleeping. We have made environmental changes (white noise, black out curtains, no media before bed, eliminating anything entertaining from the bedroom, etc.) and have tried medication. He is now usually able to fall asleep in a reasonable amount of time, but the early and repeated wakings have been a consistent problem for so many years, I am out of ideas.

    It has become such a big problem, we have to lock everything up at night. The pantry is locked, electronics have parental locking codes, and books/toys are removed to my bedroom. We have been removing the light bulb from his room at night hoping the forced darkness will help him go back to sleep quickly. Nothing works and he is continuously over-tired.

    • Suzanne Crawford     June 26, 2014    12:43 am    Reply

      I met a woman who’s ADD daughter has similarly difficult time with sleep. She is seeing a new specialist, who is focussing on the ‘gutt’ / intestines. She has cut wheat, sugar, and dairy from the diet, and is on some probiflora supplements. The little girl is also on some new meds. Apparently certain times of awaking from night time sleep are indicative of low serotonin levels, which relate to what the gut is able to digest and assimilate. Perhaps some research into this avenue, might unearth some help for you and your son.

      • laurie     July 19, 2014    5:30 pm    Reply

        HI Suzanne! Thanks for your comments. Absolutely! We are just starting to appreciate how connected the mind and “gut” are. There are actually serotonin receptors in our stomach…some of the most common culprits of diet sensitivities are wheat and dairy. Great comment! Thank you! ~Laurie Dupar

    • laurie     July 19, 2014    5:35 pm    Reply

      HI Stephanie! Thank you for your comment. It sounds like your son is really having a hard time of it. And, that you have really tried some of the things that we would first try. It is not uncommon for me to hear that people have a hard time sleeping because they are “bored”. And then conversely, they can’t shut off their brain with all the thoughts. I wonder if your son has so many things on his mind and perhaps getting them out before he goes to bed might help. Some clients have said that “bed time” parent and child chats have helped give their kids a chance to unload the day…fall asleep and be able to go back to sleep without worry when they wake. Let me know how things are going, will you? ~Laurie Dupar

  4. Andre Lefebvre     August 10, 2014    8:03 am    Reply

    I’ve been trying to discipline my bed time for years, but lately have been able to cut my late nights from 3 to 5 am, to 1 to 2 am. I go to bed earlier, though, around 9 or 10, and watch movies, read, Facebook, etc.

    I find that writing how I feel (by hand in a journal) does seem to release the emotions attached to the ideas and thoughts, and it gives me some kind of relief from the emotional weight.

    Developing discipline for this is still at a mysterious distance for me, but I have hope. Since discovering I am affected with ADHD, it’s like waking up as a child in a 57 year old body. So much basic, foundational skills to develop and learn!

  5. Paula DuPuis     November 22, 2014    4:49 pm    Reply

    I try to be in bed around the same time but it just depends on how busy I am. I get up early every morning for work, so I am very busy throughout the day. Weekends, I do sleep in a little later, maybe by 2-3 hrs, and sometimes I am up by 8 or 9am. When I do sleep, I wake up due to noise or different sleeping position, or sometimes have headaches that keep me awake. Other times I tend to be tired at inappropriate times of the day when I either can’t or shouldn’t sleep.

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  15. MR Yiannis Georgiou     June 25, 2019    7:05 am    Reply

    I found out i had ADHD WHEN i was 52 years old im now 54 i been trying to find out what was wrong with me for 30 years only. now read a not about add and i am getting to creeps. WITH HOW MY MIND WORKS I SLEEP LATE EXERCISE HARD AND WAKE UP MED AFTERNOON I NOW KNOW HOW DISABLING THIS DISORDER IS, CAN PEOPLE TELL THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU LIKE WHEN YOU HAVE AUTISM i think not! but it,s what i do when i am out running that i stand out. clime because i feel clear headed like all the negative thinking gone but people think i am crazy with there smirks smiles i use to react to it now i dont which helps a lot i even did it to the police that did not live me alone for 23 years while out running i was rude to them now i say i have adhd and they say this is the best thing your doing for your condition i know that but why the Persecution i still get it everyday but look straight ahead and not see it. it’s nice to know that i have it other wise you never can control your anger the anger i felt was always coming from the outside in now i know it was my reaction to the negative feelings that keeps happening to me which i did not understand i do now i feel more calm i do take cbd oil i been on it for 2
    weeks helps you sleep and exercise better but don’t help the adhd. meditation help first in the morning stops the negative thoughts i just need to learn more about it. i am learning everyday it’s never easy but its a journey.

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