Much of this blog is focused around my personal experiences with strategies, apps, and tools. This is because I find legitimate scientific research on ADHD difficult to find and even more difficult to read. It is also because I know the value of normalizing experiences. When we read about someone else going through the same struggles we ourselves are dealing with, the thought “It’s not just me.” can be an incredibly comforting and helpful one.
This post is no different. You will not find any statistics here, other than my sample size of one.
For the sake of brevity, you can skip ahead to TL;DR: Tinnitus sucks.
Over the past four to five months I’ve been struggling to cope with a surge in the tinnitus I’ve experienced most of my life. Tinnitus is technically a symptom rather than a distinct condition, but this fact does little to comfort sufferers who are constantly hearing a whine, buzz, whoosh, or drone. I didn’t even have a name for it until a few years ago. I just assumed that silence sounds like a high-pitched whine. And because I had to block my ears in a very quiet room in order to hear that sound, this didn’t interfere with my life at all. Then, suddenly and without warning, it got so much louder. So loud that unless I was in a moderately noisy environment or was listening to music with headphones, I could hear the sound constantly.
There was no escape, except other noise. Google “tinnitus and” almost anything and there is likely information about how that activity, food, drug, or environment causes or makes tinnitus worse. During the day I could function almost as normal, except that I was growing increasingly exhausted because no matter how loud music was beside my bed, the minute I lay on my side, the pillow caused me to hear that unbearable sound in that ear. My doctor ordered a hearing test that came back perfect. And still the sound was there, causing my anxiety to spiral out of control, and me to retreat and isolate myself from almost anything non-essential, for fear it would make my problem worse.
After a few weeks, I began to learn how to sleep on my back. This made sleep possible, but the anxiety remained. Then I started to do frantic and desperate research. I found a lot of talk about altering diet to ease symptoms. So I tried that. Blood pressure is a common cause of increased tinnitus so I tried cutting salt. Now I was not only as tightly wound as a spring, but I couldn’t even eat salt. It didn’t help anyway because my blood pressure was actually perfect.
TL;DR: Tinnitus sucks.
Then I noticed that when I indulged in a lot of sugar the tinnitus seemed to grow louder. Finally, something concrete. So I cut back on sugar, and then back some more, which reduced the volume to just this side of bearable. My sleep improved, and I began to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Then there were times when I hadn’t eaten sugar at all, but the tinnitus still spiked. I paid more attention and discovered that anything that caused my blood sugar to spike sharply also caused a spike in my tinnitus. Well, I thought, I’d be willing to give up anything to get rid of this, time for drastic measures. So over the next couple weeks I did research on insulin resistance and foods that cause blood sugar to spike.
I have now eliminated the following from my diet: cane sugar, syrup of any kind, grains (including wheat, rye, spelt, and rice), potatoes, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). I eat the following things: fruit, vegetables (and only small portions of anything with a high starch content such as squash or sweet potatoes), meat, dairy, legumes (beans), and seeds. Lucky for me wild rice and quinoa are seeds, but they are also high in starch so I only eat small amounts. The MSG I cut because it caused a spike and I’ve read a few accounts of MSG poisoning causing tinnitus in the absence of any other cause.
I would not say I am following the paleo, ketogenic, or Atkins diets. Some versions of paleo do not have dairy or legumes, ketogenic does not include apples, and Atkins restricts legumes as well. What I’m doing is literally the Colleen Rutledge diet. However, Google searches for ketogenic and paleo recipes have been super helpful.
As I started this, I noticed a change in my behaviour. I began getting distracted less, my motivation increased, and I had more energy. I still have ADHD because that is how I was born and as far as I know no one can change the structure of their brain, but a ton of the symptoms I have been working so hard to reduce became 40-50% easier to manage.
Now, I’m not going to sit here, smug, behind my computer and tell you that everyone should eat the way I’ve described, that it’s easy, or even that I’m completely sticking to it. Telling people what to do is one of the worst ways to get them to change. (Making information available for people to seek out on their own is different.) Especially for ADHD, because so many of us instinctively respond to orders with defiance!
And this way of eating is not easy. Trying to find a meal in any given restaurant without grains or cane sugar is incredibly hard, especially for me as I still struggle to digest raw veggies, so salads are out (and in any case many premade salad dressings have a lot of sugar).
Then there are the exceptions to my rules. Chocolate is one of the big ones. Ketchup was hard enough to give up, but chocolate...?! So I buy 70% and above cocoa content chocolate, and eat very small amounts of it.
Honey also has a quite high glycemic index (which means how much it will spike blood sugar) so technically it should be out. However, there is an important principle at play when it comes to me and eating that I also suspect is a generally safe one to assume for most people: if I restrict enough things, and feel deprived enough, I will eventually throw up my hands and go back to all my old habits. So I use honey to sweeten my black bean brownies (that I eat 1-2 inch cube servings of), smoothies, and a very small amount in herbal tea, occasionally. Local, unpasteurized honey is also a prebiotic and can strengthen resistance to seasonal allergies.
The other thing about this way of eating is that it definitely comes with a slightly higher price tag than eating canned soup and instant ramen. I am in a very fortunate position to be able to justify the expense. This is partially because of support from my wonderful parents and partially because I became non-functional under the previous way I was eating. No amount of food savings will benefit me if I am unable to earn an income to support myself.
One last thing: the reduction in ADHD symptoms only began when I had totally eliminated refined cane sugar from my diet. Reducing it, even by 95%, had no appreciable impact.
So there you have it, a way of eating that helped this one ADHD person.