The powerful stimulant methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin, is the standard treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a behavioral disorder that affects some 5 percent of children worldwide. But it comes with questionable long-term benefits and a long list of side-effects, including insomnia, anorexia, irritability and supressed height.1 It's no wonder that many parents seek alternative solutions.
The good news is that there are several natural methods proving to ease ADHD symptoms—which include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity—especially nutritional approaches. But bear in mind that you may have to do some detective work, and it could take several months to notice any results.
Here's our guide to what works.
Follow an elimination diet
The Feingold diet, which involves eliminating all synthetic colors, flavors and sweeteners, certain preservatives and salicylates (see page 42), has proved effective for ADHD in some studies.2 According to the Hyperactive Children's Support Group in the UK, this diet is a great starting point for any child with behavioral problems to find out if what they eat and drink is contributing to symptoms. Full details of the diet can be found at www.hacsg.org.uk and www.feingold.org.
If this doesn't help, you could try cutting other potential problem foods from the diet, such as milk, eggs, wheat, nuts, fish and soy.3 Ideally, work with an experienced practitioner who can help with an individualized diet plan.
Get checked for nutritional deficiencies
A lack of certain minerals and other essential nutrients—including zinc, iron, magnesium and essential fatty acids—have been linked to ADHD,4 so it's a good idea to get tested for any deficiencies and address these with supplements if needed. An experienced health practitioner can help organize appropriate tests and recommend an individualized supplement plan to follow, based on the results. Check out our guide to the supplements that have worked in clinical trials, below.
Opt for omega-3s
One of the most promising therapies for ADHD is omega-3s—a group of essential fatty acids critical for brain development and function that seem to be in short supply in children with the condition. In one study, omega-3 supplements were just as effective as Ritalin for improving ADHD symptoms.5 And in a review of 16 omega-3 trials, 13 of them reported benefits on ADHD symptoms, including hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention, visual learning and working memory.6
Zinzino (www.zinzino.com) is one company offering not just high-quality omega-3 supplements but also a home testing kit to work out existing fatty acid levels and, based on the results, the right products and dosages to optimize health.
Suggested dosage: generally, supplements containing a 9:3:1 ratio of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHD) and gamma linolenic acid (GLA) have been effective.
Consider other supplements
Besides omega-3s, the following supplements have been shown to help with symptoms of ADHD. We've given the dosages used in the studies, but it's best to get personalized advice from a qualified practitioner.
Iron. In children whose levels are low, supplementing with iron can be just as effective as stimulant drugs.7
Suggested dosage: 80 mg/day
Zinc. Taking zinc on top of regular ADHD medication can improve symptoms compared to taking medication alone.8
Suggested dosage: 15 mg/day
L-Carnitine. This amino acid significantly reduced attention problems and aggressive behavior in boys with ADHD.9
Suggested dosage: 100 mg per 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of body weight/day, up to a maximum of 4 g/day
Magnesium. Supplements have proved helpful for ADHD in children deficient in magnesium.10
Suggested dosage: 200 mg/day
Detox your home
Exposure to lead and other toxic pollutants commonly found in the home, such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), raises the risk of ADHD,11 so be mindful of where these substances might be lurking and what you can do about them. Lead can be found in old paint, drinking water, cosmetics, soil, vintage furniture and household dust, while BPA and phthalates are commonly used to make plastics and can find their way into food. See our "Healthy Home" guides in the March, April and June 2019 issues for detailed information on how to reduce exposure to these harmful contaminants.
Sort out sleeping problems
Mounting research suggests that sleep problems, such as snoring and sleep apnea—when breathing is reduced or even stops for brief periods during sleep—could be a cause of ADHD. In one study, 28 percent of children with abnormal breathing during sleep also had ADHD, and one year after surgery to relieve their sleep problems, half of the children no longer met the criteria for ADHD.12 The take home? Investigating and addressing any sleep problems could well have a big impact on ADHD.
Also known as EEG biofeedback, neurofeedback measures the electrical activity of the brain, and "feeds back" that information to the individual so they can learn to control it. Several studies show the therapy to be effective for ADHD, especially for inattention and impulsivity,13 and even on par with stimulant medications.14
To find a neurofeedback provider near you, visit the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research website, www.isnr.org
Yoga can have positive effects on both children with ADHD and their parents, research shows. Sahaja yoga meditation as a family therapy led to improvements in children's ADHD behavior, self-esteem and relationship quality, while parents reported feeling happier, less stressed and more able to manage their child's behavior.15 This form of yoga also appears to increase gray matter in the brain associated with sustained attention, self-control and compassion.16