Drugs for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been under fire. In June, the Food and Drug Administration said it was examining a potential link between Ritalin and cancer, based on a small study that found damage to the chromosomes of 12 children who had taken the drug for three months. The agency also announced plans to add new warnings about psychiatric side effects to the label of Concerta, due to reports of hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, and aggression. In February, Canada discontinued sales of Adderall XR (extended release) after it was linked to 20 cases of sudden cardiac death in adults and kids worldwide; the drug remains on the US market.
These developments have reinforced my belief that you should experiment with natural approaches to ADHD before turning to stimulant drugs like those above, which can also suppress appetite and interfere with children’s growth and development. I’d also suggest getting a second opinion if your child is diagnosed with ADHD, since the disorder can be confused with other problems, including depression, learning disabilities, and vision or hearing problems. Plus, consider the “fit” between your child and his or her school: A high-energy youngster may thrive in a hands-on learning environment, while a “spacey” child may need a lot of structure.
Here are 10 natural approaches that can help with ADHD. Most studies discussed below involved children, but adults with ADHD may also benefit. Some ideas come from Sandy Newmark, MD, who has a pediatric integrative medicine practice in Tucson, Arizona.
1. Cranial osteopathy.
This healing method, in which gentle hands-on pressure is applied to the head and elsewhere, aims to free up restrictions in the movement of cranial bones and allow the nervous system to function smoothly. I think it may be especially helpful for children with ADHD who have experienced birth trauma or head trauma. To find a practitioner, send an SASE (60 cents postage) to The Cranial Academy, 8202 Clearvista Parkway #9-D, Indianapolis IN 46256.
2. Dietary changes.
Studies are mixed, but Dr. Newmark says he has no doubt that many kids with ADHD have more behavior problems after eating certain foods or ingredients. He recommends limiting refined carbohydrates (products made with flour, sugar, or high fructose corn syrup) to keep blood sugar levels more stable, eliminating artificial food colors and preservatives, testing for food sensitivities, and avoiding caffeine.
3. EEG biofeedback.
Many people with ADHD have brain-wave patterns high in “dreamy” theta waves and low in “alert” beta waves. EEG biofeedback uses high-tech equipment to help ADHD patients retrain their brain waves to follow a more focused pattern. Several studies have reported encouraging results, although EEG biofeedback can also be time-consuming and expensive: A full course of treatment may entail 40 sessions, and this approach is often not covered by health insurance. To find a practitioner, visit bcia.org.
4. Green outdoor spaces.
Simply enjoying nature can have a calming effect. A study of some 400 children and adolescents with ADHD found that after-school and weekend activities done in green outdoor settings—like parks, backyards, and tree-lined streets—were associated with fewer ADHD symptoms compared to activities done inside or in outdoor places without much greenery, like parking lots.
A couple of studies in which children with ADHD were given individually chosen homeopathic remedies found improvements in parent ratings of behavior, although other researchers have criticized the design of these trials. I’ve also known people with ADHD who have benefited from this healing system. To find a homeopath, visit homeopathycenter.org.
6. Martial arts.
In my opinion, karate, tae kwon do, and other martial arts can be extremely valuable to people with ADHD. These activities offer an outlet for excess energy, promote self-discipline, and increase concentration. Tai chi, a “soft” martial art, has been found to reduce anxiety and hyperactivity in adolescents with ADHD.
Massage therapy is wonderfully relaxing, yet it has also been found to change brain-wave patterns in the direction of increased alertness. Small studies appear promising: In one trial, 30 children and adolescents with ADHD who got a 20-minute massage twice a week for one month rated themselves as happier following the sessions, and their schoolteachers reported improved classroom behavior (Adolescence, Winter 2003).
8. Omega-3 supplements.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important components of the membranes that cover brain cells, and people with ADHD seem to have lower blood levels of these healthy fats. While more research is needed, I would encourage anyone with ADHD to take supplemental omega-3s. For kids, Dr. Newmark suggests using one of the children’s formulas from Nordic Naturals (to order, visit nordicnaturals.com) and following package directions. For adults, I recommend taking a fish-oil product at a daily dose of at least 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA combined.
Besides neutralizing stress, regular practice of yoga can also improve concentration. In a small study, boys diagnosed with ADHD and stabilized with medication who attended 20 weekly yoga classes reduced their ADHD symptoms and showed improvement in attention and behavior. Those who also practiced at home showed greater improvement (Journal of Attention Disorders,May 2004).
Last year, two studies found that supplementing with zinc may improve behavior problems in children with ADHD. This mineral is important in the metabolism of fatty acids like omega-3s. Dr. Newmark encourages kids with ADHD to take a children’s multivitamin that includes 15 mg of zinc (100 percent of the Daily Value for kids ages 4 and older). Teens and adults can take an additional 15 mg per day.