This is the second in a three-part series exploring hyperactivity in kids. You can read part 1 here.

Is your child too hard to handle some days? Does he display aggressive behaviour and impulsiveness? Is she easily distracted and unable to focus? There are many possible culprits when it comes to hyperactivity in kids – and it’s not always sugar! Assuming you’ve ruled out ADHD or Autism, we’re breaking down some of the reasons your child could be hyperactive. 

Food Allergies

Food allergies are on the rise, and that means more and more kids will have to deal with a restricted diet, depending on severity.  Dealing with reactions and learning to live with vigilance can put anyone in a bad mood. Just ask my teenager.

Hyperactivity is a common symptom of not only food allergies, but food sensitivities and intolerances as well.  Other symptoms of food intolerances and sensitivities are daily sudden mood swings, learning difficulties and aggressive outbursts.  Sound familiar?

Sudden mood swings, especially those that occur when there are no apparent reasons, are the ones to look out for as they might be due to something that’s been eaten.  The #1 food allergy and food intolerance/sensitivity is cow’s milk.

A food allergy is an adverse reaction to food, and the immune system is involved.  You need lab tests to confirm the allergy. The reaction is immediate, such as hives, swelling, breathing difficulties and itchiness in the throat, on the tongue, on the lips.

A food sensitivity/intolerance is also an adverse reaction to food, but the immune system is not involved.  It can still produce reactions that are very similar to food allergies. These are not true food allergies.   A sensitivity could be caused by an enzyme deficiency, aversion, or chemical reactions. These are delayed reactions and can cause mucosal damage.  

According to Dr. Elson M. Haas, author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine, regarding food reactions, “hyperactivity is usually viewed as a positive stimulatory reaction of the food addiction phase of allergy, as a response to repeated intake of foods or chemicals.”  

Remember that time when your child wanted cookies ten minutes before dinner was served, and you said no? The hyper response that followed is the reaction of the addiction the child has for that particular snack… a snack that was probably repeatedly consumed every day.

Food Additives / Dyes

Food additives and dyes are possibly linked to hyperactivity in children.  Some of the big ones identified are FD&C Red No. 40 and FD&C Yellow No. 5. These artificial dyes have also been reported to induce allergies and thyroid problems (Red No. 40) and have the potential to induce behavioural problems, specifically in children, and potentially cause asthma as well (Yellow No. 5).  Children react to artificial colours, as shown in this study.  

Companies market these products to kids specifically.  Some are taking heed of the studies and trying to change their ingredients.  Kellogg’s Fruit Loops, a very popular children’s cereal, used to have Red No. 40, Blue No. 2, Yellow No. 6 and Blue No. 1 – all of which have been reported to induce allergies or potentially cause asthma and hyperactivity.  They’ve recently tried to make their cereal more natural, and it’s evident in the colour of the cereal now. It used to be much brighter, almost neon (as in the photo below), but now it looks more natural because they’ve replaced the red with anthocyanin to make their purple/red/blue colour, annatto for their orange, and turmeric for yellow.  This is a great effort by a company who wants to show that they care about who they market their products to.  On the other hand, you have another popular cereal, Lucky Charms from General Mills. In their ingredients, they list Yellow No. 5 and 6, Red No. 40, and Blue No. 1 plusother colour added.”   

The amount of artificial colouring in our foods today has increased dramatically over the years.  Children in the U.S. in 2012 consumed 68 mg per day of artificial food dyes compared to 1950 when they consumed only 12 mg per day.  I’m pretty sure that Canada has the same statistics, and it’s not a trend that we should be following.


The most famous of the “villains” is sugar.  Sugar, itself, is not the worst food known to mankind.  In fact, a 2010 article published in Yale Scientific reported that the link between sugar and hyperactivity are not clear at all!  However, they did admit that eating sugary foods can cause blood sugar spikes as well as increased adrenaline. When these two are spiked, it can make kids even more active, and decrease their attention span for a short time.  

Our brain feeds on sugar, or glucose.  It is its main food source. Sugar gives us energy – and the good feels.  Sugar that naturally occurs in food is perfectly fine! And delicious! Sugar’s main function is to provide us with immediate energy.  It also acts as stored fuel – the excess glucose that is not needed for energy is stored as glycogen. During periods of fasting, the body will break down the stored glycogen into glucose units for energy.  Very useful while we sleep, workout or between meals, as this prevents dangerous blood sugar drops.

The issue with sugar is the same issue with most foods today.  People decide to mess with it – sugar is either artificially created, or its chemical structure is changed, or we use exorbitant amounts of it.  All kinds of sugar are hidden in anything that you didn’t make in your own kitchen. Our bodies can handle a certain amount of abuse when it comes to food – our liver and kidneys do the grunt work of detoxifying and eliminating it.  But the unnatural amount of sugar in foods today is making our body work overtime on digesting, balancing, detoxifying and eliminating, that the rest of the body suffers from inattention, resulting in fatigue and other issues.

We all feel good on sugar, and the brain tends to function a bit better at a higher blood sugar level.  The problem is the amount of added sugar we consume today is too much, all the time. Blood sugar is forced up by some of our favourite foods, like tea, cereal, coffee, chocolate and refined sugar.  We feel good temporarily, and then the liver and pancreas immediately set to work to lower sugar to safer levels. Blood sugar drops, and this results in more sugar cravings. Emotional excitement also raises our blood sugar, then we get the blood sugar drop, and emotional commotions ensue.  

The recommended amount of sugar for children to consume is 3-6 teaspoons a day, depending on age, which equates to about 12-25 g.  Today, kids consume 19 teaspoons a day!  Sugar is one of the most addictive substances known, more than cocaine!  Too much sugar intake affects the teeth, contributes to obesity, and may be an important factor in immune problems (recurrent infections).  The secondary effects of excess sugar is behavioural problems in children, notably hyperactivity or difficulty concentrating. Other problems associated with high sugar intake is nutritional deficiencies, mood swings, anxiety and depression.  While overall consumption of sugar among adults has actually decreased in the last 15 years, not so with children.

The biggest source of sugar aimed at children is sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).  SSBs are mostly fruit drinks, as well as some flavoured waters. Consumption is highest among children and adolescents.  Studies have shown that these have a negative impact on their health, such as increased risk of obesity, dental caries, increasing insulin-resistance and caffeine-related effects.  It’s the caffeine-related effects that contribute to hyperactivity – at low doses, heart rate decreases to compensate for the rising blood pressure, and blood sugar goes up.

Here are the top sugary drinks that kids consume (now, keep in mind, 12-25 g of sugar a DAY is recommended):

  • Flavoured Waters – ie. Vitamin Water – each 20 oz. bottle has 29-31 grams of sugar
  • Soft Drinks – one 12 oz. can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar
  • Fruit Drinks – one 16 oz. bottle of Sunny D Orange Juice has 27 grams of sugar
  • Sweetened Iced Teas – one 16 oz. bottle of Peach Snapple has 39 grams of sugar, while Mango Madness Snapple has a whopping 44 grams of sugar!
  • Chocolate Milk – 28 grams of sugar
  • Sports Drinks – the 32 oz. Cool Blue Gatorade has 52.5 grams of sugar

The scary thing is, kids drink these multiple times a day.  There have been a few times in my own experience where Gatorade or ginger ale saved us from fainting episodes or nausea, but I like to treat these as “medicine.”  Unfortunately, many children drink these on any given day in place of water, and ultimately, while the kids suffer from this, so do the parents.

EFA Deficiency

Another possible cause of hyperactivity in children is the lack of essential fatty acids (EFA)  in their body. Essential fatty acids are crucial for biological processes, and linoleic acid (Omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (Omega-3) are the only two that are considered essential to life.  We cannot make these in our bodies, so we need to get them from our diet.

The Hyperactive Children’s Support Group, based in Britain, released a medical hypothesis based on available literature and their own observations of the children in their group and suggested that these children were EFA deficient.  They postulated that the reasons for their deficiency might be that they require higher levels of EFA which they are not getting from their diet, they cannot absorb EFAs normally from the gut, or they can’t metabolize linoleic acid (Omega-6 fatty acid) normally.  Boys tend to be more hyperactive than girls, and males require more EFA than females, generally. They discovered that their children had abnormal thirst, and thirst is one of the main indications of EFA deficiency. The lack of vitamin “F”, as EFAs are sometimes called, can lead to scaliness, dryness, or eczema of the skin, and it’s pretty common knowledge at this point, that if your skin is dry, you’re dehydrated and thirsty.  Deficiency of zinc was also common with the kids, and zinc is needed to convert EFAs to prostaglandins. Linoleic acid is also involved in prostaglandin production, which is important for brain function.

In our modern diet, Omega-6 containing foods are easier to get than Omega-3 because it’s so abundant, and so we consume more Omega-6 than Omega-3, causing an imbalance between the two.  This imbalance may also contribute to hyperactivity, as well as obesity, depression, dyslexia and a tendency towards violence. Omega-6 foods are numerous in our diets, such as seeds and nuts, but so are refined vegetable oils, like soy oil.  Soy oil is used for everything – fast foods, processed foods, snack foods, cookies and sweets.

Omega-3 fats are not as abundant, and we have to make a concerted effort to include these in our diets. The fat of cold water fish is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines.  Other wonderful sources of omega-3 fatty acids are sea vegetables/algae, grass-fed meat, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and egg yolks (make sure it’s runny or soft-boiled; if you make hard-boiled eggs or scrambled, you destroy the omega-3).

Supplementation is recommended to increase intake of EFAs.  Studies have shown that children on a 4-month treatment of an EFA blend supplement that included Vitamin E, shows a decrease in oppositional defiant behaviour and hyperactivity.  

Wondering if your child has an EFA deficiency? A doctor can do a blood test to determine essential fat status.

In Part 3, we discuss in greater detail how stress affects hyperactivity, and Rebecca shares some insights and helpful next steps for dealing with it. (Note: All references are listed in the footer of Part 3.)

Disclaimer: None of this information is a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any of these conditions, make sure you’re being monitored regularly by a licensed healthcare professional.

Rebecca Ramdeholl is a great wife, a weird Mom to two interesting girls, and a mediocre domestic goddess.  She loves steampunk, science fiction, and fantasy, learning how to do things off-grid, and communing with Nature.  She’s a Certified Holistic Nutritional Consultant and loves to teach others through writing about how to polish and shine their innards and add extra years and quality to their lives.  She directs most of her focus on guiding women 35+ in properly managing their stress, depression, and anxiety, and kicking life in the balls by getting a little bit stronger.  She works full-time on her blog and is the author of The Little Book of Ass-Kickers: 5 Ways to Get Your Health Back on Track Naturally, which you can download for free by subscribing to her website, Earthy Fix.