Chat with us, powered by LiveChat

Is ADHD the New Salem Witch Hunt?

Is ADHD the new Salem Witch Hunt 1

I’ve felt sorry for the young girls caught up in the Salem Witch Hunt since I was about their age.

Sometime in middle school when I myself was a pre-adolescent (back before the word “tween” was coined), I had to write a report of some sort on the Salem Witch Trials. I don’t remember all the specifics of course, but I do recall that I personally decided the most likely theory for the girls’ disturbing behavior had to do with a reaction to fungus in their bread.

They could have been influenced by real demons, I suppose, casualties of the spiritual warfare the devil is trying to convince us all we’re not part of, but it made a lot of sense to me at the time that there was a physical explanation for it all. I was too naïve and wholesome to believe that it could have been intentional malice, I’m sure.

In the end, in 2015, it doesn’t really matter if the docs in 1692 were wrong. That not only was there no terminal psychological disorder affecting the young ladies, but that there may have been an environmental toxin causing a real physiological response is clearly a moot point.

It’s still kind of sad, though, if it’s true that simply removing something from their environment and allowing their bodies to heal may have prevented 150 people from being wrongfully accused and twenty of them killed.

What does all this have to do with ADHD?

The Gut-Brain Connection

There’s a series of children’s books beginning with Martha Speaks, where Martha the dog eats alphabet soup, and “instead of going to her stomach, the letters went right to her brain.”

The illustration on that page is a pretty apt caricature of the gut-brain connection: that what we eat really and truly does go “right to our brain,” just not in the overly direct route of Martha’s noodle ABCs.

Not only is our gut responsible for obtaining the nutrients our hungry mammalian brains need to function, so the brain relies on gut function in an obvious, “the body is all connected” sort of way, but there are also even more poignant gut-brain relationships.

Ever get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous?

That’s actual neural tissue in your gut talking.

And it goes both ways – more research is coming out all the time demonstrating the effect of what we eat directly on our brain function.

Related: The Healthy Mind Cookbook Review

Sometimes it’s obvious that eating something goes right to our head – sugar and hyper children are an oft pointed at example.

No one ever says, “He ate too much sugar and now his big toe hurts.”


It’s the gut either affecting itself (a tummyache) or the brain (behavior) based on what we eat.

People feel “brain fog” after eating a big carby meal. Other foods can stimulate the brain (morning coffee, anyone?).

The question is, then, whether the foods we eat can affect our brains in the long-term or only the immediate.

Bad Bread: Cause of ADHD and the Salem Witch Trials?

Wheat rolls

A 2011 study discovered a probable link between gluten, Celiac disease, and ADHD.

ADHD symptoms were present in almost 15 times more people with Celiac than the general population, and when properly diagnosed and a gluten-free diet commenced, many patients saw a stark reduction in their ADHD symptoms and increase in their mental clarity and focus.

Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain, posits a relationship between grains, gluten in particular, and Alzheimer’s Disease as well. He pins dietary choices on the risk for ADHD as well:

There are 6.5 million children in America carrying a diagnosis of ADHD. Two-thirds of them are receiving mind-altering medications, the long-term consequences of which we do not understand. Yet we fully understand that dietary choices have a huge role to play in how the brain works. Specifically in terms of risk for ADHD. (source)

The anecdotes pile up faster than IEPs in modern schools…

Cara’s daughter saw vast improvements in her autism symptoms on the GAPS diet, a regimen intended to heal and seal a leaky gut which then in turn impacts the brain via the gut-brain connection

Many find relief of hyperactivity via the Feingold diet, which cuts artificial food dyes and some other chemicals.

And Pat’s son is one of many who react strongly in their behavior to dairy, and possibly gluten.

I just keep thinking:

If pulling some things from a kid’s diet is curing their hyperactivity completely, and adding that food back in causes them to lose control…

…how far off is it to hypothesize that something the girls in 17th century Massachusetts ate caused them to go crazy?

If their rye bread was laced with a nasty fungus that acted almost like LSD in their brains, perhaps our bread is creating some false accusations as well.

Finger-Pointing and Pill Popping

When a child of the 21st century misbehaves, some people are quick to point at modern hands-off parenting and rail against “lack of discipline.”

On the other end of the spectrum are those who blame the brain, searching for the next medicinal answer to the child’s inability to focus.

Quick diagnoses and quick fixes are the norms, as were quick judgments and quick trials in Salem.

This clinic claims that American children are overdiagnosed with ADHD because diagnostic tools can be so subjective and superficial, and too many doctors completely ignore the influence of the environment on the child, especially their diets.

Again, if a simple change in the child’s environment could heal them, why not try it?

All sorts of toxins in our world, food and beyond, can hurt our brains – humans are even losing IQ points because of environmental toxins, and I read a case study once about a girl who truly acted off her rocker, doing some of the same things as the “cursed” girls in the Salem Witch Trials, and it was finally discovered that she had extreme chemical sensitivities and things like her neighbor’s fabric softener billowing out of the dryer exhaust and the “new car smell” were setting her neurons on fire, metaphorically.

When I read this article about Justina Pelletier and her mysterious mitochondrial disease that doctors and CPS deemed as psychological and her parents’ fault, especially the part about how it got worse when her parents visited, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of perfume her mother wore, and if the whole awful case was caused by environmental allergies. Wouldn’t that be awful?

I’m not saying that today’s doctors are maliciously “witch-hunting” for the next ADHD victim. I’m not saying that they don’t have the best interests of the child in mind – the docs in 1692 were probably trying to take the best care of the community based on the knowledge they had at the time, too.

But I do think we’re missing the boat in a lot of ways. ADHD is overdiagnosed, overmedicated, and if it could nearly always be “treated” by simple removal of toxins from a child’s environment and providing the proper healing diet, or maybe even simply getting enough quality sleep, well…

Maybe a diagnosis of ADHD isn’t quite such a damning sentence as being called out as a witch in the 1600s.

But it seems to have become a sentence nonetheless.

Image from GraphicStock. Used with permission.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.
Category: Deep Thoughts

13 thoughts on “Is ADHD the New Salem Witch Hunt?”

  1. I hav adult ADD, looks ng back I have had it my whole life. I also have hypokalemic periodic paralysis. Here is a link to a form of ADD most have never heard of. I urge you to read this article, you may learn something. As for the person you mentioned that had problems with perfume and what ever else, I can slip into full body paralysis if I smell the wrong thing or if I get to hot or too cold, I can’t go out with friends anymore. I went to a small like cal casino and all the like ghts and sounds track triggered my onset symptoms.. These thing’s happen b/c my potassium bottoms out, my warning signs are that I act completely drunk and loopy some may say crazy. I think add is more of a symptom to an underlying problem.

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      I could be wrong, but I was a teacher and can picture an in-service where someone put ADHD on the end – this link confirms that some believe it should be there, but you’re right, it’s not officially:


  2. ADHD and Asperger’s runs in mine and my husband’s families. There are those relatives on both sides who had trouble with discipline, trouble with school, who seemed “dumb”, who seem to always be on the go, etc. and who were never diagnosed with anything. My husband’s family is still in Colombia, a third world country, which doesn’t necessarily have the same issues with toxic overload of chemicals as we Americans do . My point being that there is definitely a hereditary component. However, those in the third world eat lots of carbs because they can’t afford meat, the water is contaminated, and knowledge about brain issues is less well known. Diet and supplements can help reduce symptoms for some, chelation can help others, others need a chemical free environment, and all need acceptance for their differences. Everyone learns in different ways, matures at different rates, and not everyone is a people person. We need these creative people.

  3. This is a tangent, but…
    No one ever says, “He ate too much sugar and now his big toe hurts.”

    Are you really not aware of anyone whose chronic pain and inflammation has been relieved by dietary changes? I know several: one who had apparently developed a nightshade allergy (no more tomatoes, peppers, eggplant=no more aching), one who sees increased inflammation and pain sensitivity after excessive sugar or any trans fat, one who needs a diet high in fish and plant oils to avoid pain so crippling it had him housebound. Although I’m not seeing anything that specific myself, I’ve noticed that the arthritis in my feet (literally, the base of my big toes, just like your example!) is worse when I’m eating more like a conventional American diet than when I eat better fats and less sugar. I’ve seen a little research on this subject but nothing very conclusive yet.

    Anyway, the idea that at least some cases of ADHD are caused by diet makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t think you even mentioned artificial coloring–when I was a kid in the 1970s-80s, almost every classroom had at least one kid who wasn’t supposed to have food coloring because it triggered “hyperactivity”, but the idea actually seems less popular now. As a Girl Scout leader, I knew one girl whose behavior changed very dramatically when she quit eating refined sugar. It may not be the same triggers for everyone, but trying dietary changes before drugs is a good idea.

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Well, I’m put in my place! Ha! So true, the gut does affect the rest of the body…I was focused on “gut-brain” and not thinking my analogy through perfectly.

      The Feingold diet omits all colors and some other food additives.
      🙂 Katie

      1. Kathy Hutton

        My daughter had sever ADHD. We stopped going places with her because of it. Tried all the drugs and didn’t like what they were doing to her. Stopped them all and put her on the Feingold diet. She learned what she could eat and not eat. She grew up to be able to handle herself very well. She still has the distraction thing but she knows when she zones out now, and what she can eat. She is 28, single, artistic and beautiful.

        1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

          Lovely, Katy, thank you for sharing! That’s a great success story!! 🙂 Katie

  4. I know that in the case of my kiddo, his mood and behavioural issues showed definite improvement with changes to diet and with dietary supplements. That isn’t to say that the changes eliminated his learning disabilities or made him act like a neurotypical kid, but they certainly helped.

    Gluten and dairy definitely bother him, and another big one is corn. He was a ‘hyper’ baby right from the start. Rolling over within days, crawling within months, slimbing before he could walk, never sleeping, etc. He wasn’t eating bread or drinking dairy those first few weeks, so it couldn’t be exacerbated by his food, right? Actually, take a look at the ingredients on the nearest can of baby formula (he was adopted and formula fed). Corn, corn, and more corn. In every single kind of formula that we tried. and we did try quite a number of them, looking for one that he would digest better. He had terrible reflux, diarrhea, bleeding diaper rashes. Baby formula did not include DHA back then either, which was something that we ended up having to supplement from the time he was 5 until he was 15. It made a huge difference to his mood control and behaviour.

    And yes, he also had a reaction to his MMR shot, with meningoencephalitis and seizure-like episodes for a number of years afterward. Not good for developing brains.

    Things are not perfect now. But the extreme hyperactivity and mood dysregulation are a thing of the past. When we updated his psychoeducational profile last year, the psychologist had never seen a child with such a huge improvement in his Conners (ADHD) test from when he had it tested initially seven years previous. Educational areas where he has previously scored under the first percentile were now low-average. In fact, all of his scores were at least average. Can that all be attributed to changes in his diet? Certainly not. Some of it is simply the growth and maturation of his brain (kids with ADHD have delayed growth/maturation, particularly in the white matter). A lot of it is the specialized teaching and therapy. But a significant improvement could be seen from one day to the next with changes to his diet and appropriate supplements.

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      That is quite the story! God bless you for digging into diet and helping your son make such awesome changes! If the doc hadn’t seen such improvement before, it couldn’t only be maturation, you know? Way to go! (and that corn, corn corn formula is another can of worms to open, isn’t it?)
      🙂 Katie

  5. I know this is a controversial topic and appreciate your thoughts. I personally am tired of hearing the gluten free button pushes so often. I’m not sure if gluten is the culprit, or if it is the over processing of products in general and the chemicals associated with wheat production. I also feel strongly that adhd and related issues are closely linked with sleep disruption. Our society is going at such a fast pace that I fear too many babies aren’t getting the sleep they need, which carries over into toddler and early childhood years. Their little brains are on constantly and they don’t have the rest needed so they go on overload with hyperactivity issues resulting

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      In my sleep research that thought occurred to me, too, as I read about the ramifications of sleep deprivation and how much kids need. (That’s the line I did link to sleep in this post, too.) I think there are other things we eat that exacerbate ADHD other than gluten and dairy, too – artificial colors are a huge one, see the Feingold diet. A complex issue to be sure! 🙂 Katie

  6. We have clear ADD in our family the more I learn and read I think I have it too. I have wondered what was wrong with me for years. My youngest son has serious behavior problems in conjunction with it. I work in a school and see some of our more challenging kids on and off meds.

    Personally we have tried a lot of diet options and until I observed my son who was on strict Feingold diet distracted by every movement in class and overwhelmed we tried meds.

    I continue looking at other dietary options because it is my hope someday he will be off.

    I sometimes get riled up because people post things about using meds and how used to spanking kids just worked. Again I will go back in family history to the now funny stories in our family that I doubt were funny for their moms at the time. They have it too it just didn’t have a name.

    I think of one particular student who chews his shirt up literally when off meds on the weeks mom decides he doesn’t need it. Then him trying to catch up the weeks he is. I don’t know why she makes that choice if it is monetary, social pressure or worse. It is a real problem and I wish we could support each other more in the journey instead of pretending there is a one size fits all approach. Lots of options to explore. Thanks for sharing Katie.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.