When it comes to ADHD treatment, medication takes center stage. Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall have been such controversial attention-grabbers that sometimes it seems the medications are more well-known than ADHD. This hype is why many people don’t realize that natural treatment options exist.
Through happenstance I found out I could use natural treatment for my 7-year-old son instead of medication. To pay the blessing forward, I’m sharing what I’ve learned so other parents may benefit.
So, for starters, let me make sense of natural treatment in the simplest of terms: ANY method of managing ADHD that doesn’t involve medication is natural ADHD treatment. Most methods create an ideal environment for brain function (ex: diet and supplements), and others get ahead of the symptoms to make life easier (ex: organization). Some people only want or need to use a few strategies, while others max out on all of them. The trick is using whichever and however many natural options it takes to tip the scales toward better brain function and efficient day-to-day living.
Before you begin managing ADHD symptoms naturally, it’s important to understand what causes them. No one knows what causes a person to develop ADHD, but studies reveal that people with the condition have a deficit in dopamine receptor function. With a reduced ability to receive the dopamine neurotransmitter, the brain is unable to function properly, which causes inattention, forgetfulness, hyperactivity, and an inability to focus. The reduced dopamine receptor function is what makes ADHD A VERY REAL CONDITION. Please let that dispel the misconception that ADHD is simply what happens when kids get stupid on sugar. That type of talk discredits the disorder and makes life harder for those struggling with it. ADHD is the underlying condition of reduced dopamine receptor function, and symptoms will get better or worse depending on the environment you create for your brain.
Most medication works by boosting dopamine levels, therefore raising the chances that they will connect with receptors. Natural treatments can raise dopamine levels, but they also do more. That’s why natural methods are often recommended by doctors to supplement or enhance medication.
Depending on your situation, you could attempt skipping medication entirely. However, I would recommend getting the green light from a doctor first, since ADHD cases vary and may be compounded with other issues (ex’s: learning disorders, depression).
A brief outline of the most notable natural treatment methods is below. For those with a moment to read about why these methods are useful, more detailed explanations follow.
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NATURAL TREATMENT METHODS OUTLINE
A. REDUCE IRRITANTS
1. FIND AND AVOID YOUR FOOD SENSITIVITIES / INTOLERANCES
2. AVOID ADDITIVES AND PRESERVATIVES
a. Artificial colors: Red 3, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Green 3 and more
b. Artificial flavors: Vanillin, etc.
c. Artificial sweeteners: aspartame and sucrolose
d. Preservatives: BHA, BHT and TBHQ
g. Sodium benzoate
3. PESTICIDES / GMO’s
B. INCREASE INTAKE OF BENEFICIAL MACRO- AND MICRONUTRIENTS
1. TAKE A DAILY MULTIVITAMIN
2. TAKE SUPPLEMENTS
a. A, E and D vitamins, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, essential fatty acids and L-carnatine
b. Fish Oil
2. CONSUME PROTEIN WITH EVERY MEAL AND SNACK
3. CONSUME HEALTHY FATS
C. GET THE RIGHT BALANCE
1. AIM FOR YOUR DAILY CALORIC INTAKE
2. EAT A BALANCED DIET
3. REDUCE SUGARS
II. NON-DIET STRATEGIES
A. GET PLENTY OF SLEEP
B. GET 20 MINUTES OF LIGHT EXERCISE 4 TIMES PER WEEK (OR MORE IF YOU LIKE)
C. GET ORGANIZED AND SET A ROUTINE
D. USE FIDGETS
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NATURAL STRATEGIES IN DETAIL
Diet might seem like the most important part of natural ADHD treatment because there is a lot you need to know in order to implement it. Other parts of natural ADHD treatment can be just as important, but diet is the most life-changing.
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FOOD SENSITIVITIES / INTOLERANCES
Did you know you can have inflammation in your brain? It has no pain receptors so you can’t tell when it’s going on. Persistent swelling and inflammation causes reduced cellular function, which makes it hard for the brain to work properly. In an ADHD brain, this triggers symptoms. If you remove the inflammation, you reduce the symptoms.
Inflammation can be caused by food sensitivities and intolerances. Unlike a true allergy which affects the immune system, food sensitivities are less noticeable. A person with allergies has obvious reactions to certain foods – symptoms like their throat closing up or puffiness of the skin. Meanwhile, a person with a food sensitivity could be unaware that their body is negatively affected by certain foods because they don’t get the obvious tip-offs. They could consume foods for their entire lives that unknowingly set off an inflammatory response.
I highly recommend “The Kid-Friendly ADHD & Autism Cookbook” by Pamela J. Compart, M.D., and Daana Laake, R.D.H., M.S., L.D.N. The first portion of the book does a thorough job explaining the effect of food intolerances and which foods are the most typical offenders. The recipes strive to avoid as many of them as possible: gluten, casein, soy, egg, corn, and nuts.
Of course, you will need to determine which foods you or your child are sensitive to. I’ve seen a few ADHD articles that suggest the use of elimination diets. The concept is to avoid a certain food for a week or so to see if your symptoms improve. I’m going to go out on a limb here and claim that it would be virtually impossible to isolate all of a person’s sensitivities using this method since my nutritionist told me it’s typical to find a high amount of sensitivities in people with ADHD. You might be able to knock out a few biggies like gluten and casein, but you could get discouraged if the inflammation hangs around until all the offenders are gone.
In a million years I would have never guessed to go on a mustard or green bean elimination diet, but that’s the type of stuff that was found on my son’s panel (among 30+ other sensitivities). My advice as a parent: go for the blood test at the nutritionist’s office. It’s worth it. Ours was about $300 and we were able to cover it with our HSA plan. For more information on how to get this blood test, please visit my page, How to Find Your Food Sensitivities.
Avoiding food sensitivities has been a heavy-hitter in our son’s natural treatment plan. After several weeks we noticed a significant reduction in hyperactivity.
Another highly recommended book on the topic of diet and brain health (which explains the inflammation I highlighted above): “Grain Brain” by David Perlmutter, M.D.
ARTIFICIAL COLORS AND PRESERVATIVES
According to the Feingold Association of the United States, a large body of evidence suggests that certain food additives can exacerbate ADHD symptoms. Those additives include: dyes such as Red 3, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Green 3 (and more), artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners (aspartame and sucrolose), the preservatives BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene) and TBHQ (tert-Butylhydroquinone). These additives generally cause symptoms by attacking the nervous system, which puts an already disadvantaged brain even further behind. Most people are able to consume these additives without noticing a difference, but people with ADHD can be noticeably affected, even though the ingredients come in such small increments.
In our household we have been staying away from anything with those ingredients. The Feingold Diet also calls out salicylates, but I didn’t include them in the outline because they aren’t even on the radar at our house. You can read more about it on the Feingold site if you feel it might help, but our experience is that we’ve had success without worrying about them.
We have also been avoiding MSG (monosodium glutamate), nitrites (found in most cured meat) and sodium benzoate based on recommendations from Daniel G. Amen, M.D., author of “Making a Good Brain Great, The Amen Clinic Program for Achieving and Sustaining Optimal Mental Performance” (another suggested read).
PESTICIDES / GMO’s
Studies suggest that children with more pesticides in their urine have a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with ADHD. Pesticides like organophosphates work by attacking the brains of insects, but they do the same sort of thing in human brains. We humans are a lot larger, so we don’t die from ingesting the pesticides like insects do, but the small amount can still have a negative impact on brain function.
Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are good to avoid since they are engineered to withstand heavy pesticide use. It’s not clear if the organisms themselves are always bad to eat, but it is likely to be covered in ADHD-exacerbating pesticides.
It’s also worth mentioning that avoiding pesticides is essentially “going full-blown organic,” which is certainly the ideal, and a legitimate means of reducing ADHD symptoms, but unfortunately it’s also a lofty goal for some budgets. Organic products can be 4-6 times more expensive than non-organic products. Imagine taking your grocery bill and multiplying it 4-6 times. I’m not trying to discredit the organic community, but it is utterly discouraging for many parents with young children to be told this is a vital part of naturally managing ADHD because it’s financially unrealistic. Based on our experience with my son, we were able to manage his ADHD symptoms without going “full-blown.” Admittedly, because of our son’s food sensitivities, if you look in our cupboards it appears that we’re half way there. There are a lot of gluten/dairy/soy-free products that you can only find in the organic section. From parent to parent, my advice is to go as organic as you can without letting budget discourage natural treatment.
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INCREASE INTAKE OF BENEFICIAL MACRO- AND MICRONUTRIENTS
Since people with ADHD typically have vitamin deficiencies, the concept here is to take a multivitamin to fill in nutrition gaps. We were doing this before our son was diagnosed, but I took it the next step by making sure there was no artificial anything in the ingredients.
There’s a lot of research available on how different supplements can positively affect ADHD. I found some helpful information summarizing which nutrients are most helpful in natural treatment and why. Suspiciously, the site looks to be built around the sale of daily supplements, but the information checks out with other reputable sources I’ve seen. Vitamins covered are: A, E and D, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, essential fatty acids and L-carnatine.
While reading “Grain Brain”, I learned that our bodies can get into an inflammation/oxidative stress cycle. Oxidative stress is caused by free radicals, which are released in the body through factors like environment, activity and diet. Whatever the cause of free radicals, they wreak havoc in the brain by damaging tissues and causing inflammation. To fight the problem you need antioxidants.
Antioxidants have been popular lately. You see the word plastered in starbursts across packages at the grocery store. But even if these antioxidants hadn’t already oxidized on the store shelf, they wouldn’t do an efficient job fighting free radicals in your body. Even antioxidant-filled supplement pills don’t do a substantial job – according to Dr. Perlmutter, your body produces more free radicals than you could ever possibly dream to fight with supplements. A less futile approach is to boost the body’s natural ability to create antioxidants. This is done by ingesting EPA and DHA, which are both found in fish oil.
Yes, there is fish oil for kids. It comes in strawberry flavor. There are also “fish oil swirls,” which taste delicious, by the way. I specifically called out fish oil because, based on my observation, I believe this supplement plays a large role in our son’s treatment.
To provide an example of what supplement use can look like, my son takes Vitamin D and magnesium supplements in addition to fish oil and a multivitamin each night. The nutritionist wouldn’t recommend the Vitamin D supplement until she saw that our son was deficient in his blood test results, so I’m not going to suggest that you run to the store and get some. The magnesium comes in powder form and mainly enhances digestive health. The nutritionist told me to give it to my son in the evening so it can absorb into his body while he sleeps. I make him a smoothie every night with the powder in it.
Both the screener and nutritionist recommended a diet high in this macronutrient. Protein helps build up dopamine and keeps blood sugars at steady levels, creating a more stable environment for the ADHD brain. How-to and benefits of eating a diet with balanced amounts of protein can be found in my protein blog.
In stark contrast to what we’re used to hearing, new research stresses the importance of adding healthy fats to our diets. Most Americans are programmed to stay away from them since we’ve been told that eating fat makes you fat. Based on David Perlmutter’s book “Grain Brain”, sugars are the enemy, not fat. He does a very thorough job of explaining this in his book. Once again I highly recommend it.
I’ve already highlighted how fish oil helps the brain, but there are other advantages to fats. The highly-demonized cholesterol is necessary for brain function. Our bodies create their own cholesterol, but adding some with diet means better brain function. If you are hesitant to add cholesterol to you or your child’s diet, check out my protein blog for information that will ease your worries. Also, like protein, fats help prevent blood sugar spikes and promotes a stabilized brain environment.
Reach for fats that are high in Omega 3, low in Omega 6 and stay the heck away from trans fats. We’ve been using a lot of extra virgin olive oil and expeller pressed coconut oil. Becuase our son is sensitive to casein, we also use earth balance butter replacer, and our nutritionist recommended the use of ghee.
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GET THE RIGHT BALANCE
AIM FOR YOUR DAILY CALORIC INTAKE
This sounds like better advice for people who are trying to lose weight, but it applies to brain health as well. Consuming too many calories leads to an increase in free radical production, which feeds the oxidative stress/inflammation cycle. As I’ve suggested in my protein and sugar blogs, use the following resources to find daily caloric intake:
For kids: WebMD’s Estimated Required Calorie Chart
For adults: Mayo Clinic’s Calorie Calculator
EAT A BALANCED DIET
When you balance the major food groups for an ADHD diet you use the same recommendations everyone else. But unlike everyone else, you have to be more vigilant about sticking to them because symptoms are more likely to appear when you let your diet slide.
I begrudgingly recommend MyPlate for the most easy-to-understand info on the latest diet standards (I’m suspicious of government organizations). It includes resources on food groups and the supertracker, which gives a more individualized picture of how diets vary based on gender, age and activity level.
I’ve mentioned blood sugar spikes here and there. Reducing sugar reduces sugar spikes. I’ve seen articles that highlight the fact that SUGAR DOES NOT CAUSE ADHD. Someone deserves a blue ribbon at the science fair for that one. NO, sugar does not cause people to develop ADHD. But some people mistakenly think that ADHD doesn’t exist because it looks like a sugar high to them.
Sugar CAN exacerbate symptoms by causing sharp sugar spikes, which gives the body way too much energy all at once, then slams it back down in the subsequent blood sugar crash. The result is hyperactivity followed by a sluggish brain. Yes, that happens to just about anyone who consumes too much sugar. But it is especially hard to function during the highs and lows if you have ADHD.
As far as knowing how much sugar to consume, that’s a two part answer:
1. Avoid added sugars as much as possible (more information on these in my sugar blog)
2. Aim for 45-65% of daily caloric intake from carbohydrates (not the added sugars)
Labels are listed in grams, and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, so take your daily caloric intake and divide it by 4 to get your 45-65% in grams.
Keep in mind that simple and complex carbohydrates affect blood sugars, so it’s best to consume them with protein and fat to keep blood sugars stable. The guideline above was begrudgingly based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine.
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As I mentioned while promoting healthy fats, cholesterol can be acquired through diet. It is also manufactured by the body as you sleep. Cholesterol aids in healthy brain function by allowing cell-to-cell communication – brain cells CAN’T COMMUNICATE WITHOUT CHOLESTEROL. If the body doesn’t have ample time to rebuild, brain function goes down. In an environment where receptors are already working at a disadvantage, sleep is crucial.
More sleep also means a smaller likelihood of overeating, which means less free radicals.
The National Sleep Foundation provides a handy infographic on how much sleep people need based on their age.
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Physical activity jump starts the brain by releasing endorphins, which makes the brain sharper and more focused. Light exercise like walking is all it takes. A minimum of 20 minutes of exercise 4 times a week will do the trick, but you can certainly do more! Let’s also not forget the super obvious use of exercise as a method to shake one’s sillies out.
An obvious benefit of exercise is keeping yourself physically fit. A lesser-known benefit is people who exercise regularly are less likely to exhibit “learned helplessness.” Confidence gained from physical activity (especially sports) helps people with ADHD combat the negative feedback that often accompanies their disorder. Imagine that you are frequently told you are a “screw up” because you have a hard time staying on task. Learned helplessness tells a person they really ARE a screw up. Someone who hasn’t learned helplessness is more likely to keep a positive attitude despite negative comments. Signing your kid up for a sport they’re interested in is a great way to get them active, prevent learned helplessness and increase focus.
It’s easy to implement an exercise schedule as an adult. We can hop on a machine while we watch a show or lace up and run outdoors all through town. It’s a little more tricky when you’re trying to figure out an exercise plan for your kid, though – especially during the winter months. I didn’t want to only rely solely on gym class at school for my son’s weekly physical activity. I also wanted him to jump start his brain before school. So I purchased an Xbox and Kinect on Craigslist for a steal of a deal. Our son uses it for at least 20 minutes in the morning before school and it includes only games that get him up and moving.
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Sitting still can use up all of an ADHD child’s focusing power. If they succeed at sitting still in a lecture/classroom setting, chances are they didn’t hear the lesson. This is where fidgets come in handy. These are any small object that can be mindlessly manipulated without distracting others. Even though the child is only moving their hands, they don’t have to focus on sitting still. And since they’re not moving much, they aren’t disrupting class. A little bit of fidgeting goes a long way. Stress/squeeze toys, textured objects like Velcro and goofy pencil toppers are just a few examples of fidgets. Type in “fidgets” in the amazon.com search and you’ll get a lot of great ideas.
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Perhaps this part of natural treatment seems obvious. It’s hard to imagine for some, but there ARE adults out there who are not organized and raising children…even children with ADHD. That was our household before diagnosis. Having no organization certainly makes each family member more resilient at handling life’s curveballs, but in an ADHD household, it makes everyday tasks impossible to manage. The stress caused by failed attempts at completing simple tasks, such as getting ready for school or preparing for bed, creates an atmosphere of disappointment and chaos, which leads to stress (for the parents) and low self-esteem (for the child).
After diagnosis, my husband and I had to change ourselves before we could manage our son’s symptoms. In order to keep our son organized, we first had to organize ourselves and stick to a routine.
One way to implement routines and organization is by using colorful, fun looking step-by-step lists with pictures. Kids with ADHD need large goals to be broken down into smaller goals. Smaller pieces are easier to envision and tackle.
Some routines that can be broken down into lists include bedtime, packing lunch, getting ready for school and cleaning the bedroom. If your child is involved in sports or another engagement, you could create a list showing what to prepare. An event calendar in a common area can help the ADHD family member SEE the goals for the month and envision how to plan ahead.
Organization is commonly recommended by doctors even when medication is being used – it just makes life easier!
For free resources to make your child a checklist/routine, please visit my posts:
- DIY Dry Erase Daily Routine Checklists for Kids with FREE Illustration Downloads (for scrapbookers)
- DIY Dry-Erase Daily Routine Checklists for Kids with FREE Printable PowerPoint Template (desktop publishing)
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That concludes my outline and explanation of natural treatment. Please talk to your doctor and see which methods will work best for you!
ADHD Natural Mamma
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