Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD or ADHD) is believed to affect three to seven percent of school-age children. An estimated four million of these children are prescribed Ritalin (a stimulant medication), you can even find television commercials advertising these stimulant treatments for the disorder.
Recently, a new non-stimulant medication received FDA approval for the treatment of ADD/ADHD. In the media hype surrounding this condition, very little has been mentioned about alternative treatments for the cluster of symptoms known as ADD/ADHD.
The symptoms of ADD/ADHD include: difficulty concentrating, difficulty following instructions, fidgeting, forgetfulness and restlessness, to name a few. Children and adults who suffer from these symptoms often have a very difficult time succeeding in today’s world. In most schools we require children to sit at their desks for extended periods of time.
Children who suffer from the symptoms of hyperactivity will fidget and distract classmates, sometimes resulting in a trip to the principal’s office for misbehavior. Children suffering from the inattentive symptoms are lost daydreaming or cannot follow the instructions because they may have missed an important step. This can lead to the child falling behind in coursework.
Children with ADD/ADHD also may have learning disabilities, which exacerbate problems in the learning situation. Other children with ADD/ADHD are very intelligent and bored with the concepts being taught in the classroom. Children with ADD/ADHD may have a difficult time fitting into society; adults suffer the same problems in the work environment.
Currently, the treatments available from conventional medical doctors include medication or counseling, but the fact is most parents are offered only medication to treat the symptoms in the child. Many parents are reluctant to put their child on medication, especially the stimulant medications.
Some parents, who have been searching libraries, the Internet and other places, have found their way to the ADD/ADHD treatment clinic at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health. This treatment clinic offers a natural approach to treating the symptoms of ADD/ADHD and is overseen by me. Many people are surprised to learn that numerous natural treatments are available for ADD/ADHD.
The unique aspect of the Bastyr ADD clinic is that each patient receives a treatment plan customized to the child’s own symptoms and needs that includes nutritional advice, lifestyle modifications and natural supplements. The clinic is open to all children who have symptoms of inattentiveness or hyperactivity, including those who have not been diagnosed and those already taking medication.
Nutritional advice for ADD/ADHD includes looking at the overall diet and assessing which nutrients and food groups are lacking. Many parents struggle with getting their kids to eat a healthy diet; consultation with an expert can be helpful for adding new items to the diet.
A nutritional supplement currently being researched in the field of ADD/ADHD is essential fatty acids. Interest in this particular area is due to the correlation of low levels of specific omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and ADD/ADHD. Studies have focused on giving fish oils or DHA for the symptoms, and the results show that simply giving a single omega-3 fatty acid is not beneficial.
The authors of one study suggested that future research on essential fatty acids in ADD/ADHD should include both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, since both are low in these children.
In addition to specific nutrient deficiencies, a balanced diet with adequate protein and smaller, more frequent meals can be beneficial for those children whose behavior worsens when they skip meals.
Oftentimes, the possibility of food sensitivities will be explored to determine if there is something your child is eating that is making him or her worse. There can be dramatic improvements in the behavior of children when a food they are sensitive to is removed from the diet.
Beware of self-prescribing a treatment for yourself or your child, even if it is “all natural.” As you look through your local store’s shelves, you will find numerous natural products claiming to greatly improve the symptoms associated with ADD/ADHD. Most of the ingredients in these products have limited research on them, especially in children. Much more needs to be done to evaluate the safety and efficacy of these products for children and adults with the symptoms of ADD/ADHD.
Certain natural products need to be carefully considered before they are used in children. In my opinion, products containing kava should only be used under the supervision of a physician due to the possibility of liver damage. I would also recommend physician supervision for the use of ephedra, ma huang and St. John’s wort due to the potential side effects and the interactions of these herbs with other medications.
These herbs may be indicated for a specific child, but an individual trained in herbs, drug interactions and side effects should be consulted on the matter.
In summary, there are a multitude of natural treatment options available for ADD/ADHD. Many of them have not been well studied, but they do show good promise for being effective. As always, think before you take or give your child a medication, even if it is “all natural.”
The Puget Sound region is home to some of the finest experts in the natural health sciences and I highly recommend seeking out a well-trained individual to assist you in determining the best natural treatments for you or your child.
Read more about Bastyr University research on natural therapies for ADD/ADHD.
Originally published in PCC Natural Markets newsletter, April 2003.
Dr. Wendy Weber is a Clinical Research Fellow and Research Assistant Professor at Bastyr University. For inquiries on her ADD/ADHD clinic at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health, call 206-834-4101. Dr. Weber also is conducting a clinical trial of St. John’s wort for treatment of childhood and adolescent mild depression. To learn more about this study, call 206-834-4137.