ADHD Alternative Approaches
Julianne Lovejoy-Downs, R.D. | March 2004

This article discusses ADHD and how it is treated from a naturopathic, homeopathic, and holistic perspective. Although no single factor has been proven to cause ADHD, natural health practitioners believe that the disorder is influenced by environmental factors including food allergies and intolerances, nutrient deficiencies, overexposure to food additives and dietary sugar.

Each child or adult diagnosed with ADHD presents a unique combination of contributing factors, leading conventional and natural practitioners to tailor treatment with a variety of methods. Some may choose to try an integrated approach to this health challenge, employing whatever complementary practices seem appropriate. Complementary medicine alone may not overcome ADHD but a program that includes an analysis of the child's diet, dietary supplements, counseling, and educational planning may help.

Dietary Considerations
Nutritional deficiencies, sugar consumption, food allergies, and food additives consistently top the list of suspected causes of ADHD. Marcia Zimmerman, C.N., M.Ed., believes that a dietary analysis should be the first line of defense in dealing with the disorder (1). "Many parents of ADHD children don't realize there are options to medications. The first step should be altering a child's diet which can make a marked difference in how he or she behaves. Food can be psychoactive... especially for children, whose brains demand almost 50 percent of their total caloric intake. In other words, what you feed your child can affect his or her behavior."

Essential fatty acid metabolism affects ADHD. Our bodies require but cannot produce two fatty acids: linoleic acid (LA, an omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid). These acids help mediate inflammation and immune responses and regulate body secretions, hormone production, and nerve transmission. They supply the building blocks for cell membranes. The brain and retina need fatty acids to function properly. Some studies have shown benefit when supplying docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish oil and evening primrose oil together as a supplement.

You can always try to improve the quality of fats your child eats by reducing the intake of fried and processed foods made with saturated fats and hydrogenated oils, while boosting intake of high quality omega 6 and omega 3.

Trace minerals such as zinc and magnesium, in particular, can be deficient in children with ADHD. Red meats and some seafood (crab, shrimp) are the best dietary sources of zinc. Foods rich in magnesium include nuts, cereal grains, chocolate, peas and green leafy vegetables.

Most research shows no correlation between sugar and the typical hyperactive or impulsive behaviors associated with attention disorders. However, recent research produced some insight that ADHD kids showed more hyperactive behavior than children without ADHD. The researchers theorized that hyperactivity might arise from eating sugar in the absence of a well-balanced meal. Another study found that children with ADHD don't have the usual hormonal response to a high sugar meal. Usually, the pancreas releases insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, which drives sugar into the cells. Then, the adrenal glands stabilize blood sugar. ADHD children did not stabilize blood sugar levels efficiently. Their blood sugar dropped, which reduced their brain activity but increased physical activity.

Refined sugars may have a negative effect on children diagnosed with ADHD. If you think sugar worsens your child's behavior, reduce the amount in their diet. Avoid high-fructose corn system and juices that mask as healthy beverages. Try to balance carbohydrate foods with protein sources (eggs, cheese, nuts, meats) to help support a more stable blood sugar level.

Nutritional supplements that may help include a children's multivitamin-multimineral, adequate Vitamin E, additional B complex (liquid forms are available), good sources of protein, and a probiotic. Poor intestinal health and absorption has been linked with ADHD. Probiotics such as acidophilus and bifidus increase the levels of good bacteria to help nutrient absorption.

Identifying food allergies may be helpful as allergies can cause behavior and attention problems. The most common food reactions seem to be from cow's milk, cheese, sugar, wheat, corn, peanuts, chocolate, and citrus fruit. Interestingly, children often crave foods to which they are sensitive. One way to begin identifying potential food allergens is by eliminating one or two of the foods that your child eats frequently. Take note of any changes in behavior or mood and continue eliminating additional until you have identified the all the foods that result in negative behaviors.

Avoiding food additives may benefit the ADHD child. One of the first researchers to identify the link between food additive sensitivities and ADHD was Benjamin Feingold, M.D. He indicated that perhaps 40-50 percent of ADHD children were sensitive to artificial food colors, flavors, and preservatives and to naturally occurring salicylates and phenolic compounds. Additives tend to be present in highly processed foods from cookies to ice cream to chewing gum. It is almost impossible to completely eliminate all food additives but preparing your own meals and avoiding processed and convenience foods while focusing on whole fresh foods is a good start.

Botanical Interventions
Two classifications for herbs may be helpful for ADHD children. The first, calming herbs, help settle jangled nerves. The second, adaptogens, helps the body cope with or adapt to stress.

Calming Herbs
Lemon Balm Offers sedative and antispasmodic properties. The German Commission E rates lemon balm as useful in "problems going to sleep that are nervous in origin". Recommended dose for infant is ΒΌ cup of tea three times a day. Young children up to 50 pounds can have up to five ounces, three times a day.

Hawthorn Has calming effect on nervous system. May eat fresh berries or take two teaspoons of dried berries to make sweet tea. Children of any age can sip hawthorn tea. Two cups of tea per day is a typical medicinal dose for a 50-pound child.

Oats Good old cooking oats are a calming remedy for children and adults. Try oatmeal without sugar for breakfast and begin adding a small amount of oat flour (blend or grind regular oats in a blender) to your baking recipes.

Oat straw and Oat seeds Harvested at the milky flower juice stage use for treatment of anxiety, tension, and overexcitement. A 50-pound child can drink several cups of tea a day.

(Passiflora incarnata)

Irritability with insomnia, fast talking/thinking, constant thought, jumbled speech.
Siberian Ginseng
(Eleutherococcus senticosus)

May help improve mental alertness and the ability to cope with both physical and emotional stress. Use this herb only with children over five years. Dosage is based on weight of child.
Schisandra Age-old tradition of safe use, regularly used to treat insomnia, calm the spirit, and relieve stress.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) Improves circulation to the brain. Helps with poor memory and concentration.

Holistic or Behavioral Interventions
These areas of behavior along with interventions have been proposed by Thomas Armstrong in the journal Educational Research for the treatment of ADHD (2).
  • Cognitive: Use focusing and attention training techniques (for example, meditation and visualization), self-talk skills, biofeedback training, organizational strategies, skills that include the ability to attribute success to personal effort, and higher-order problem solving.

  • Ecological: Limit television and video games, provide appropriate spaces for learning, use music and art to calm or stimulate, find the child's best times of alertness, provide a balanced breakfast, and remove allergens from the diet.

  • Physical: Emphasize a strong physical education program, martial arts training, use of physical touch and appropriate movement, outdoor activities, noncompetitive sports and games, and physical relaxation techniques.

  • Emotional: Use self-esteem building strategies; provide positive role models and positive images of the future; employ values clarification; offer individual counseling; and identify talents, strengths, and abilities.

  • Behavioral: Use personal contracting; immediate feedback; natural and logical consequences; and consistent rules, routines, and transitions. Involve the child in the selection of strategies.

  • Social: Stress effective communication and social skills, class meetings, family therapy, peer and cross-age tutoring in schools, and cooperative learning opportunities.

  • Educational: Use computers; hands-on learning; high-stimulation learning resources; expressive arts; creativity development; and multiple intelligences, whole language, and attention-grabbing activities. The multiple intelligence aspect of this intervention is particularly interesting because it specifically addresses the way your child learns, which may consist of a very different style than his or her peers in the educational setting. Acknowledging and understanding that difference may allow the school and the parents to adapt a teaching method which meets the child where they are, rather than expecting them to do all the conforming. It also allows the parents to provide additional experiences for the child that are conducive to growth and learning in a more "user friendly" way.
Regardless of the treatment mode you choose, research this area well, get the facts and consult the professional in that field who can help you get on the right track.

  1. Zimmerman, M. The A.D.D. Nutrition Solution : A Drug-Free 30 Day Plan. Henry Holt and Company. New York: New York. 1999.
  2. Armstrong, Thomas. A Holistic Approach To Attention Deficit Disorder. Educational Leadership, 1996. 53:34-37.
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