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ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Alternative Treatments for ADHD

Margaret Austin, Ph.D., Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Laura Burgdorf, Ph.D.

The previous discussion focused on the more established methods for treating ADHD. However, over time and with the greater awareness of ADHD, other methods have been tried. Most of these techniques have little or no research support and the medical community is often skeptical of these approaches. Yet, many families say that these methods do make a difference.

Nutrition/Diet

healthy foodsNutrition appears to play a more significant role in disease than Western medicine has yet identified. Eating a healthy, nutritious diet (e.g., decreasing junk food while increasing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats) can clearly benefit all children.

As mentioned previously, nutritionists and alternative healers insist that following the Feingold diet can lead to a significant reduction of ADHD symptoms. However, the medical profession dismisses the Feingold diet as being misguided and overstated with regard to treating ADHD. Nevertheless, many parents of children with ADHD who have tried this program say that it was helpful, and continue to live by the restrictions.

A trial on this program, using natural and nutritional food, will usually create little harm. Children taking stimulant medication, however, should be monitored closely for significant weight loss. Consulting a physician before making dramatic changes to a child's diet is recommended.

Dietary Supplements

One homeopathic (natural medicine) treatment for ADHD is called "Attend". This is a nutritional supplement that contains amino acids, fatty acids, phospholipid complexes and "homeopathic medicines". The relevant website is full of interesting information and references to ADHD articles, but there are few (if any) scientific studies supporting the efficacy of Attend. One study is mentioned, however, it is difficult to evaluate it given the limited information available. The FDA does not seem to be actively evaluating Attend. As a result, this supplement cannot be highly recommended at this time.

In the 1980s, vitamin B6 was promoted as a helpful remedy for children with learning difficulties including inattentiveness. Since that time, there have been several studies showing some symptom improvement for children with ADHD . However, the studies are small, and the results are not dramatic enough to move this treatment into the mainstream arena. Despite this lack of research, alternative practitioners emphasize its benefits and suggest that since there are few associated side effects with this treatment, it is worth a try.

Iron levels tend to be low in individuals with ADHD. Some research suggests that iron supplements can help reduce the symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention; however, these studies were small. More research is needed before this becomes a recommended treatment, especially since there is a risk of developing problems with too much iron, such as nausea, vomiting, low blood sugar, dehydration, and fever. High iron overdoses have sometimes caused death, so caution is warranted. Consult with a physician if you decide to supplement with iron.

Magnesium may also positively impact ADHD symptoms. Given the benefit of magnesium to the body and the low levels of side effects (initial diarrhea), an experimental trial of magnesium might be initiated. However, magnesium may interfere with other medications, such as potassium and calcium, so do not add this mineral to a child's diet without consulting with a physician.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids (oils), which include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found primarily in fish (such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) and some plants. Although they are required for proper body functioning, the levels needed are higher than can easily be achieved through diet alone. These oils are used as supplemental treatments for an array of conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.

EPA and DHA also play a role in brain development and function. Although preliminary research shows that children with ADHD have low levels of EPA and DHA, the results of using these supplements to treat children with ADHD have been mixed. However, given the clear need for these oils and the low likelihood of getting sufficient amounts through diet, many alternative practitioners recommend routinely supplementing these nutrients, particularly with ADHD children. Whether or not this treatment actually positively affects individuals with ADHD remains to be seen.

For some people with ADHD, mild stimulants such as caffeine and theobromine (a bitter chemical from the cocoa plant and present in chocolate) have similar effects to the more powerful drugs commonly used in treating the disorder. There is some data suggesting that caffeine can improve the function of children suffering from ADHD. Some limitations of using caffeine are that the reaction may be mild and the response is a bit unpredictable given that dosage levels may vary across products and across time (e.g, it's hard to regulate exactly how much caffeine is in one brewed cup of coffee). Some parents have resorted to using over the counter stimulants that indicate the caffeine levels, while others are concerned about the relatively higher dosages present in these drugs.

Herbal supplements such as ginkgo biloba have also been used to treat the symptoms of ADHD. One study cited positive results with a combination of Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) used to treat children with ADHD. Ginkgo has been used to improve memory, as well as to decrease anxiety, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, and other symptoms of dementia in older adults. Ginseng tends to have a stimulant effect and is thought to work similarly to caffeine and stimulant medication in ADHD individuals. Noticeable improvement in attention and distractibility occurred in children and adolescents with ADHD after 4 weeks of using a supplemental Ginkgo/Ginseng combination. More research is needed to confirm these promising results before Ginkgo and Ginseng become common treatments for ADHD.

 

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