For the approximately 11 percent of children and 4 percent of adults in the United States who have been diagnosed with ADHD, medication and behavioral therapy have been the long-standing and proven treatments of choice.
However, an increasing number are trying complementary and alternative therapies instead of (or in addition to) these traditional treatments.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6.1 percent of children ages 4 to 17 are taking medication for ADHD. This number reflects an increase of 4.8 percent from just four years earlier.
In 2007, the CDC’s National Health Statistics Reports revealed that 2.5 percent of children younger than 18 used alternative medicine to treat ADHD.
What’s more, according to the 2009/10 National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs, just three years later, 6.5 percent of children were using a dietary supplement as an alternative treatment for ADHD.
More studies of the effectiveness of these alternative therapies are fueling an upswing in their use.
Many people are wary of using stimulant medications because of their potential side effects. These side effects include reduced appetite, trouble sleeping, increased blood pressure, and complications for patients who have heart conditions.
Why Exercise and a Good Diet Are so Important
Poor nutrition can cause symptoms similar to those of ADHD. These include poor concentration, sleep problems, and mood swings. So common sense dictates that good nutrition may help improve some ADHD symptoms.
The most commonly recommended dietary changes for ADHD include:
- increasing protein intake
- decreasing artificial coloring and food additives in your diet
- eating organic produce when possible
- drinking lots of water
- eating high-fiber foods
“Exercise, healthy eating, and getting a good night’s sleep have long been used as a way to maintain good health, regardless of whether a person has ADHD or not,” Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, Ph.D., an ADHD expert and author, told Healthline. “Now there is more research available on how these healthy habits can positively impact people with ADHD. So people may be more willing to practice healthier habits.”
As for choosing supplements, Sarkis noted that “omegas have been showing effectiveness in studies.” She added that before making dietary changes, it’s important to discuss them with a medical professional.
Exercise can actually replace stimulant medication for some people. But for most people with ADHD, exercise is a great way to complement existing ADHD treatments. As little as 20 minutes a day of sustained aerobic exercise sparks the attention center of the brain. It also improves focus and academic achievement.
Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps says that his ADHD symptoms improved when he began swimming for several hours a day as a child.
Can Neurofeedback Improve ADHD Symptoms?
Mitzi MacBain, an adult who has ADHD, said that when she was diagnosed, medication relieved about 60 to 70 percent of her symptoms. “I was really pleased,” she said.
But as the medication she was taking wore off each evening, MacBain became depressed. “It was like Cinderella at the ball. She had a great time until midnight. Then her beautiful dress became tattered rags. That was how I started to feel at 10:00 every night with medication,” she said.
So MacBain began exploring alternative treatments. She found neurofeedback, which uses readings of brain activity on an EEG to directly train brain function. The technique helps patients gain brain efficiency and increase self-regulation.
“Neurofeedback offered a deeper relief of symptoms and lasting effects,” said MacBain. She participated in weekly sessions for the first three months, followed by bimonthly sessions. In the past two years, she has had 24 sessions total.
MacBain, who doesn’t take any medication, said she feels that her ADHD is now being treated all day.
A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is an award-winning blogger and author of the Amazon best-seller, "Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD." Her second book, "What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD," will be available January 2015.