Production of the medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has skyrocketed in recent decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that ADHD diagnoses in children increased by about 41 percent between 2003 and 2011. It was estimated that 11 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 17 years old had been diagnosed with ADHD, as of 2011. That is 6.4 million children in total.
If you’re not comfortable with treating this disorder with drugs, there are other, more natural options.
ADHD drugs can help improve symptoms by enhancing and balancing neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals between neurons in your brain and body. There are several different types of medications used to treat ADHD, including:
- stimulants, such as an amphetamine or Adderall (which help you to focus and ignore distractions)
- nonstimulants, such as atomoxetine (Strattera) or bupropion (Wellbutrin), can be used if the side effects from stimulants are too much to handle or if other medical conditions prevent use of stimulants
While these drugs can improve concentration, they can also cause some serious potential side effects. Side effects include:
- sleep problems
- mood swings
- loss of appetite
- heart problems
- suicidal thoughts or actions
Not many studies have looked at the long-term effects of these medications. But some research has been done, and it raises red flags. An Australian study published in 2010 found no significant improvement in behavior and attention problems in children between the ages of 5 and 14 years old who took medications for their ADHD. Their self-perception and social functioning didn’t improve either.
Instead, the medicated group tended to have higher levels of diastolic blood pressure. They also had slightly lower self-esteem than the nonmedicated group and performed below age level. The authors of the study emphasized that the sample size and statistical differences were too small to draw conclusions.
Alternative treatments may help manage some symptoms associated with ADHD, including:
- difficulty paying attention
- organizational problems
- frequently interrupting
The Mayo Clinic notes that certain food colorings and preservatives may increase hyperactive behavior in some children. Avoid foods with these colorings and preservatives:
- sodium benzoate, which is commonly found in carbonated beverages, salad dressings, and fruit juice products
- FD&C Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow), which can be found in breadcrumbs, cereal, candy, icing, and soft drinks
- D&C Yellow No. 10 (quinoline yellow), which can be found in juices, sorbets, and smoked haddock
- FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine), which can be found in foods like pickles, cereal, granola bars, and yogurt
- FD&C Red No. 40 (allura red), which can be found in soft drinks, children’s medications, gelatin desserts, and ice cream
Diets that restrict possible allergens may help improve behavior in some children with ADHD.
It’s best to check with an allergy doctor if you suspect that your child has allergies. But you can experiment by avoiding these foods:
- chemical additives/preservatives such as BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), which are often used to keep the oil in a product from going bad and can be found in processed food items such as potato chips, chewing gum, dry cake mixes, cereal, butter, and instant mashed potatoes
- milk and eggs
- foods containing salicylates, including berries, chili powder, apples and cider, grapes, oranges, peaches, plums, prunes, and tomatoes (salicylates are chemicals occurring naturally in plants and are the major ingredient in many pain medications)
Electroencephalographic (EEG) biofeedback is a type of neurotherapy that measures brain waves. A 2011 study suggested that EEG training was a promising treatment for ADHD.
A child may play a special video game during a typical session. They’ll be given a task to concentrate on, such as “keep the plane flying.” The plane will start to dive or the screen will go dark if they’re distracted. The game teaches the child new focusing techniques over time. Eventually, the child will begin to identify and correct their symptoms.
Some small studies indicate that yoga may be helpful for people with ADHD. Research published in 2013 reported significant improvements in hyperactivity, anxiety, and social problems in boys with ADHD who practiced yoga regularly.
Some early studies suggest that tai chi also may help improve ADHD symptoms. Researchers found that teenagers with ADHD who practiced tai chi weren’t as anxious or hyperactive. They also daydreamed less and displayed fewer inappropriate emotions when they participated in tai chi classes twice a week for five weeks.
Spending time outside may benefit children with ADHD. There is strong evidence that spending even 20 minutes outside can benefit them by improving their concentration. Greenery and nature settings are the most beneficial.
A 2011 study, and several studies before it, supports the claim that regular exposure to outdoors and green space is a safe and natural treatment that can be used to help people with ADHD.
For children with more severe cases of ADHD, behavioral therapy can prove beneficial. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that behavioral therapy should be the first step in treating ADHD in young children.
Sometimes called behavioral modification, this approach works on resolving specific problematic behaviors and offers solutions to help prevent them. This can also involve setting up goals and rules for the child. Because behavioral therapy and medication are most effective when used together, it can be a powerful aid in helping your child.
Parental therapy can help provide parents with the tools they need to help their child with ADHD succeed. Equipping parents with techniques and strategies for how to work around behavioral problems can help both the parent and the child in the long term.
Treatment with supplements may help improve symptoms of ADHD. These supplements include:
- vitamin B-6
However, results have been mixed. Herbs like ginkgo, ginseng, and passionflower may also help calm hyperactivity.
Supplementing without a doctor’s oversight can be dangerous — particularly in children. Talk to your doctor if you’re interested in trying these alternative therapies. They can order a blood test to measure current levels of a nutrient in your child before they start taking supplements.