Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a psychiatric disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. And like most mental disorders, the number of cases has skyrocketed in recent years.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 11 percent of American children ages 4 to 17 have an attention disorder. The number of diagnoses has increased 42 percent during an 8-year period. ADHD is usually associated with children, but it’s believed that 1 out of 25 adults has ADHD too.
The conventional medical treatment for ADHD is usually a prescription stimulant such as Adderall, Vyvanse, Concerta, or Ritalin. Prescribing a stimulant seems counterintuitive, but the theory is that they work by increasing the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine to help brain cells better communicate with each other. These drugs are fairly successful at reducing hyperactivity, fidgeting, and inability to finish tasks and work for 70-80 percent of those who take them.
The Downside Of ADHD Medications
While ADHD drugs can be helpful, they are not innocuous — they are amphetamines. Common side effects include insomnia, nausea, loss of appetite, dry mouth, headaches, mood change, and tics. Less common but more serious reported side effects include hallucinations, paranoia, mania, and cardiovascular complications, including stroke. One of the worst side effects is that these drugs are addictive. According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is very real potential for abuse.
When these drugs are given to children, the side effects are even more frightening. ADHD expert Dr. James Lake reports in the Psychiatric Times that, “Long-term amphetamine use in childhood is associated with delays in normal development.” One study found that long-term outcomes for children on these drugs was not as good as expected. ADHD drugs negatively affected academic performance and, especially in girls, increased the risk of depression. The study’s authors concluded, “Our results suggest that observers of the large increases in the use of medication for ADHD in Canada, the U.S., and other countries are right to be concerned.”
Dr. Keith Conner, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Duke University, spent 50 years leading the fight to legitimize attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Now he is appalled by his profession’s pill pushing. He calls the rising rates of ADHD diagnosis “a national disaster of dangerous proportions” and believes that “this is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.”
Natural Alternatives To ADHD Medications
While the medical establishment is extremely skeptical of alternative ADHD treatments, patients are very open to trying them, especially where children are concerned. More than half of parents of children with ADHD report using alternative remedies such as nutritional supplements and special diets for their child’s attention problems. Up to 80 percent of ADHD patients who use natural remedies regard them as the primary treatment for their symptoms. Here are some of the most promising natural alternatives to ADHD medications.
Ginkgo And Ginseng
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) are two of the most popular traditional herbal remedies on the planet. Ginkgo promotes blood circulation to the brain and is commonly taken for memory improvement. But this property may also make it useful for treating ADHD. One study found that it reduced typical symptoms of ADHD such as hyperactivity, inattention, and, in children, immaturity. Another study compared ginkgo to Ritalin and concluded that both reduced ADHD symptoms. While Ritalin did a better job at reducing symptoms the trade-off was more side effects — headache, insomnia, and loss of appetite.
Ginseng is a revered general health tonic. Its scientific name literally means “panacea.” Ginseng shows potential as a complementary therapy for ADHD, but when ginseng is taken with ginkgo, there is a synergistic effect. Together, they are better for improving symptoms of ADHD than either alone. Note that ginseng should not be taken with ADHD medications since it can increase these drugs’ stimulant effects and side effects.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a naturally occurring phospholipid found in high concentrations in the brain. The main dietary source is fish — one of the reasons fish is considered “brain food.” It helps protect the brain from age-related mental decline and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When administered to children ages 6 through 14, PS supplementation significantly improved ADHD symptoms and short-term auditory memory with no side effects.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC or ALCAR) is an amino acid needed for energy metabolism. This well-studied natural supplement has been shown to improve alertness, focus, and mental clarity. ALC increases the synthesis of acetylcholine, a major neurotransmitter responsible for learning and memory. Findings from one study suggest that acetyl-l-carnitine significantly reduces the severity of ADHD symptoms. When choosing a supplement, don’t confuse acetyl-l-carnitine with l-carnitine. ALC is more expensive than l-carnitine, but it is the more bioavailable form as it readily crosses from the bloodstream into the brain.
Bacopa monnieri is a traditional Ayurvedic herb that’s been used for thousands of years as a brain tonic and memory enhancer. It works in part by balancing the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin to enhance brain cell communication. Studies show it can improve attention, memory, and ability to learn in people of all ages — seniors, children, and everyone in between.
Pycnogenol is a patented, standardized extract from the French maritime pine tree (Pinus pinaster). It’s highly regarded for its ability to increase blood flow, and its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show it improves attention in children with ADHD. It’s believed to work by balancing the brain chemicals dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline as well as increasing antioxidant levels. Interestingly, a study on otherwise healthy adults found that when pycnogenol and ADHD drugs were tested against each other, neither group performed as well as the control group which received a placebo. (A reminder to never underestimate the power of your mind to heal — it may be the best healing tool of all.)
Relaxing Herbs And Essential Oils
According to the University of Maryland Alternative and Complementary Medicine Guide, few scientific studies have investigated whether traditional herbal remedies improve symptoms of ADHD. But some herbal remedies have a long history of safe use for their calming effects, which can be beneficial for people with ADHD. These include relaxing herbs like Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
Essential oils are plant-based remedies that generally are not taken internally but rather inhaled or applied to the skin. Of all the essential oils, one that excels at alleviating ADHD symptoms is vetiver. This traditional healing oil is known in India as the “oil of tranquility.” One study followed a group of children over a period of two years while they used different essential oils therapeutically. Surprisingly, lavender, the leading relaxing essential oil, had no effect on ADHD symptoms while vetiver offered significant improvement. The study’s author, Dr. Terry Friedmann, concluded based on her findings that, “I would not hesitate to recommend the use of the essential oil vetiver in the treatment of children diagnosed as having ADHD.”
Multivitamin And Mineral Supplements
While taking a good multivitamin lacks the pizzazz of taking an ancient herbal remedy or the latest brain booster, there’s a lot to be said for addressing your basic nutritional needs.
A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that a multitivitamin and mineral formula was significantly better than a placebo in reducing ADHD symptoms and in improving mood in adults who were also depressed. The supplement contained vitamins, minerals, three amino acids, and three antioxidants. Study participants reported improvements in attention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. These changes were also noted by observers — typically a friend, partner, or parent. Healthcare providers found the participants to exhibit improvements at work, in their relationships, and overall psychological functioning. Note that while the study was done on a brand name product, EMPowerplus, no funding was provided by the manufacturer. This study was on adults only, but there are plans to run a similar trial on children with ADHD.
Certain minerals are important for ADHD. According to Dr. Sandy Newmark, founder of the Center for Pediatric Integrative Medicine and author of ADHD Without Drugs, zinc, iron, and magnesium all play an important role in controlling ADHD symptoms.
Fish Oil Supplement
Another core nutritional need for the brain are omega-3 essential fatty acids. These healthy fats, often missing from the modern diet, provide essential building blocks for brain cells. The main dietary sources of omega-3 fats are cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, herring, and mackerel. Children with ADHD have below average levels of omega-3s.
The most common omega-3 supplement is fish oil. There’s evidence that ADHD might be an inflammatory condition and fish oil can reduce inflammation. Numerous studies conclude that fish oil can significantly improve ADHD symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, restlessness, and impulsiveness, and increase the ability to complete tasks.
A Word About ADHD In Children
Note that some of the studies cited here were done on children while others were done on adults. You should not assume that a natural remedy proven safe in adults is equally safe for children. If you are using this information to help a child with ADHD, do not administer natural remedies until you know they are proven safe for kids. And do not mix them with prescription drugs without first talking to your child’s doctor.