This review of natural remedies for ADHD addresses proven supplements, lifestyle activities, healing techniques, and diet to help you or your child.
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a multifaceted condition with numerous potential underlying causes.
The medical community is very skeptical of natural remedies for ADHD.
But the standard medications don’t work for everyone, rarely bring more than partial relief, and often have unpleasant side effects.
Also, there are many natural remedies purported to help ADHD, but many do not work as claimed.
So, finding an effective treatment for ADHD can be complicated.
Why Doctors Are Skeptical of Natural ADHD Remedies
The primary medical treatment for ADHD is a prescription stimulant like Ritalin, Adderall, or Vyvanse.
Few people would agree, medical professionals included, that the use of prescription stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin is an ideal solution, especially when given to children.
" More than half of parents of children with ADHD report trying complementary and alternative medicine remedies, including nutritional supplements, special diets, and art therapy to help their child’s attention problems.
These drugs are thought to work by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that help regulate the ability to focus, plan, organize, and control emotional reactions.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other antidepressants are also occasionally used with varying degrees of success.
Medications typically do little to help symptoms of disorganization, forgetfulness, and procrastination — the very issues that cause the most problems for people with ADHD.
This is where the secondary medical treatment for ADHD, behavioral therapy, is used.
Therapy can teach patients how to get and stay organized, manage stress, control impulsive behaviors, and improve communication skills for better relationships.
But therapy is expensive and time-consuming.
Since these standard medical treatments for ADHD have major drawbacks, many patients seek out natural remedies.
ADHD Studies Funded by Drug Companies
One reason doctors remain skeptical of alternative remedies is that there are relatively few scientific studies that support their use.
This is because ADHD research is almost always funded by drug companies.
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A good example is this major study — European Consensus Statement on Diagnosis and Treatment of Adult ADHD — which has 27 joint authors.
More than half of these authors disclosed “competing interests,” i.e., they received funding from major pharmaceutical companies.
Natural Supplements for ADHD
ADHD patients, however, do not share the medical establishment’s skepticism to the same degree.
More than half of parents of children with ADHD report trying complementary and alternative medicine remedies, including nutritional supplements, special diets, and art therapy to help their child’s attention problems.
As many as 80% of patients who use herbal preparations and other natural remedies regard these therapies as primary treatments for their ADHD.
If you struggle with ADHD, the right supplements can bring relief fairly easily and fast, especially when used as adjuncts to other natural ADHD treatments.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Your brain is 70% fat and omega-3 essential fatty acids comprise a major structural component of the brain.
Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory powerhouses that can help reduce the brain inflammation that contributes to ADHD, anxiety, depression, and even serious degenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Children and adolescents with ADHD have blood levels of omega-3s that are lower than normal, suggesting that supplementation could be helpful.
The most popular form of omega-3 supplements is fish oil.
Fish oil has been shown to improve the attention and behavior of those with ADHD without the side effects of ADHD medications.
A systematic review of 52 studies found that fish oil supplementation and elimination diets are the most promising dietary interventions for ADHD.
One study found that students given omega-3 supplements performed better in reading and spelling, were better behaved, and showed a reduction in overall ADHD symptoms.
Another study, which gave children large doses of omega-3s (up to 16 grams per day), found that supplements resulted in significant improvements in inattention, hyperactivity, and defiant behavior, with virtually no side effects.
When treating ADHD with omega-3 supplements, patience is required since it can take up to 6 months to realize the full benefits.
Phosphatidylserine is an integral part of every brain cell membrane.
This phospholipid acts as brain cells’ gatekeeper, regulating the flow of nutrients and waste in and out of the brain.
Phosphatidylserine supplementation can be a safe and effective natural alternative for treating ADHD.
One study found that 60% of the children who took phosphatidylserine, along with small amounts of omega-3s, showed improvement in ADHD symptoms.
Note that, like omega-3 supplements, phosphatidylserine supplementation is not a fast fix.
It can take up to three months to experience its full effects.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid needed to synthesize serotonin, the neurotransmitter most associated with positive mood.
Both low levels of tryptophan and serotonin imbalances have been linked to ADHD.
Children with ADHD generally have below-normal blood levels of tryptophan.
Citicoline is a naturally occurring compound found in every cell of the body, but it’s particularly important for the brain.
Cognizin® is the brand name of a patented, highly bioavailable form of citicoline that has been clinically tested in humans.
Herbal Remedies for ADHD
- Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
- ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
- kava (Piper methysticum)
- passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- pycnogenol® (Pinus pinaster)
- valerian (Valerian officinalis)
The Mount Sinai Health Library recommends a few additional herbs for ADHD:
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
- lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Essential Oil Remedies for ADHD
Essential oils are concentrates of aromatic compounds found in plants.
They generally are not taken internally, but instead are inhaled or applied topically.
The essential oils of vetiver and cedarwood have been found to reduce ADHD symptoms by altering brainwave patterns.
Lavender, one of the most versatile essential oils, has not been shown to help ADHD directly, but it can help improve relaxation and sleep.
Rosemary essential oil can help focus and memory and allow mental tasks to be performed faster and more accurately.
Other essential oils that may be useful for ADHD include bergamot, eucalyptus, frankincense, lemon, and ylang ylang.
Controversial Natural Remedies for ADHD
The following remedies are considered controversial, but are still worth investigating.
Homeopathic Remedies for ADHD
Homeopathic remedies are very dilute solutions of various substances that are thought to work by stimulating the body’s own healing power.
They are popular, particularly for children, because they are natural, relatively inexpensive, easy to take, and have virtually no side effects.
But there are those who claim that they are useless or that they work “only” as a placebo.
However, the placebo effect should not be underestimated.
In fact, it is now recognized as a key to unlocking the brain’s “inner pharmacy.”
There aren’t many studies on homeopathic remedies, but one showed a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms in children.
A challenge in using homeopathic remedies is knowing which of the myriad remedies to try since taking the wrong ones usually has no effect.
This comprehensive review of homeopathic remedies for ADHD compiled by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD, can help narrow down which might work for you.
Caffeine and ADHD
A lot of people with ADHD drink coffee, energy drinks, and caffeinated sodas as a way to improve focus and concentration.
Paradoxically, even though caffeine is a stimulant, many people with ADHD become less hyperactive and impulsive after ingesting caffeine.
As you might expect, the medical community frowns on the idea of patients self-medicating with caffeine, especially children.
Ironically, parents who certainly wouldn’t give their child a cup of coffee, will hand them a can of caffeine-laden soda instead.
It’s never advisable for anyone to get caffeine from soda or energy drinks which contain large amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners.
But if you can find the right balance of caffeine from a healthy source like coffee, tea, or yerba mate, it’s relatively low on the scale of vices.
If you find the caffeine in coffee to be overstimulating, green tea is a good alternative since its caffeine is balanced by the calming compound l-theanine.
Nicotine and ADHD
Even more controversial is the use of nicotine for ADHD.
People with ADHD often self-medicate with nicotine to improve focus, memory, and concentration.
Investigative journalist Dan Hurley extensively studied the effects of nicotine on the brain while researching his book Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power.
He learned that nicotine — apart from smoking — is a surprisingly safe and effective brain enhancer that can be beneficial for those with ADHD.
It goes without saying that you should never treat children with nicotine and that adults should discuss the use of a nicotine delivery system with their doctor.
But there’s surprising evidence that the strategic use of nicotine can sometimes provide a relatively safe and effective alternative to ADHD prescription drugs.
Activities That Help ADHD Naturally
Not every drug-free ADHD remedy is something you take — some are things you do instead.
John Ratey, MD, renowned psychiatrist and bestselling author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has extensively studied the effects of physical exercise on the brain.
He found that exercise tempers ADHD symptoms by increasing levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which work to regulate the attention system.
Exercise also promotes the growth of new neurotransmitter receptors, which helps neurotransmitters work better.
Meditation shows significant promise in treating adult ADHD.
Two-third of adults who meditate report a significant decline in inattention and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms, and an increase in self-organization, stress tolerance, and regulation of emotions.
Tapping, also known as Emotional Freedom Technique, is a form of do-it-yourself acupressure that acts as a general purpose personal development tool.
It can be used to treat many conditions, including ADHD.
Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that’s been widely studied in regards to ADHD.
In a review of studies, researchers concluded that neurofeedback effectively reduces the ADHD symptoms of inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.
Another review of large-scale clinical trials found that neurofeedback helps ADHD by modulating both over and under-arousal, and works as well as typical ADHD medications.
Other Drug-Free Therapies
Food: A Core Natural Remedy for ADHD
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ― Hippocrates
It’s unlikely you’ll overcome ADHD if you continue to eat foods that could be an underlying cause of your condition.
The wrong foods or food additives will sabotage your other efforts to overcome ADHD.
Unfortunately, the medical community has been largely resistant to recommending special diets for ADHD, even though there’s a growing body of evidence that they can help.
Considering that the foods you eat are the building blocks for your brain and the neurotransmitters that control your thoughts and behaviors, examining your diet makes good sense.
There are three ways your diet can impact ADHD:
- You are eating foods that aggravate your symptoms.
- You are consuming additives that trigger ADHD.
- You are missing nutrients your brain needs to function well.
Let’s look at what a diet for ADHD should look like, the worst dietary offenders to be avoided, and a simple solution for nutritional deficits.
What to Eat: The ADHD Diet Made Simple
Diet advice tends to be unnecessarily complicated.
I’m going to make it simple.
If you want to eat to promote brain health, here’s the best (and shortest) piece of dietary advice:
Eat. Real. Food.
Though this advice is simple, it’s not necessarily easy.
Your brain needs real foods for their macronutrients — complex carbohydrates (for energy), proteins (to create brain chemicals), and healthy fats (to build healthy brain cells).
It also needs micronutrients — vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients — to create new brain cells and protect and repair existing ones.
You’ll find these macro and micronutrients in vegetables, fruits, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, herbs and spices, and brain-healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil.
Eating unprocessed food as much as possible will go a long way to eliminating the worst ADHD dietary suspects such as sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, and other food additives.
ADHD Elimination Diet
Food allergies and sensitivities can play a significant role in ADHD.
If you switch to eating whole, unprocessed foods with no reduction in symptoms, you may still be eating foods that cause a negative reaction.
One study that placed children on a strict elimination diet discovered that 64% of them had food sensitivities that triggered their ADHD symptoms.
To discover if you have symptom triggers, you can start by eliminating any food that you suspect is a problem for a few weeks to see if you notice any improvement.
If you don’t know where to begin, look toward the foods you crave or eat frequently to make yourself feel better.
Ironically, these are often the foods you are allergic to.
Or you can start by eliminating the “big 8” food allergens:
- tree nuts
If you need more guidance, download University of Wisconsin’s elimination diet patient handout which contains a step-by-step plan.
This process will take some time, but it will be worth it to uncover an underlying cause of your ADHD.
Note that this do-it-yourself elimination diet is meant for adults with ADHD.
Before attempting to put a child on an elimination diet, discuss it with your pediatrician.
Food Allergies, Intolerances, and Sensitivities: What’s the Difference?
When reading about diet and ADHD, you will come across the phrases food allergies, food intolerances, and food sensitivities.
These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same thing.
True food allergies are due to an overreaction of the immune system.
Food intolerances occur when the enzymes needed to digest a food are lacking (e.g., lactose intolerance).
Food sensitivities are unpleasant reactions to foods, such as acid reflux, nausea, or abdominal cramps.
Substances in Foods That Can Trigger ADHD
Eating unprocessed foods can help eliminate the worst dietary triggers of ADHD.
We’ve discussed what an ADHD diet should be in general, but the devil is often in the details.
Let’s take a closer look at some substances in foods that can be hidden causes of ADHD.
Sugar and ADHD
Sugar is so refined that it’s more a chemical than a food and has no nutritive value.
So, for every empty sugar calorie consumed, the brain is denied nutrients it needs.
While it’s unusual, it’s possible to have an intolerance reaction to sugar if you lack the enzymes to break it down.
Alternative health professionals often accuse sugar of causing ADHD, but mainstream medicine staunchly contends that sugar is not a problem.
Many moms of ADHD kids would strongly disagree.
Considering the health challenge that sugar presents for brain health and overall health, sugar’s innocence seems unlikely.
Refined sugar puts blood sugar levels on a roller coaster ride.
When the brain’s glucose level dips, it leads to mood swings, irritability, tiredness, mental confusion, and impaired judgment.
Excessive glucose affects attention span, short-term memory, and mood stability.
A diet that’s high in sugar and saturated fat reduces the brain’s ability to learn and generate new brain cells.
Sugar increases brain inflammation, a known contributor to ADHD.
Gluten and ADHD
It’s been known for decades that the gluten found in wheat and other grains can cause a long list of neurological problems, including dementia, headaches, seizures, tremors, depression, memory loss, and epilepsy, in those who are gluten-sensitive.
How did an essential ingredient of bread, the “staff of life,” get to be so bad for so many of us?
There’s been a corresponding increase in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, a protein found mainly in wheat and other grains.
While the most obvious signs of celiac disease are digestive, there are over 250 known symptoms of celiac disease, including neurological and psychiatric symptoms.
A gluten-free diet often brings significant relief of ADHD symptoms to those with celiac disease.
But can it help those not diagnosed with this disorder?
The answer is “maybe.”
According to the National Center for Celiac Awareness, 83% of people with celiac disease are undiagnosed.
So, it’s possible to have celiac disease and not know it.
Also, it’s not necessary to have full-blown celiac disease to experience the negative effects of wheat.
Gluten sensitivity is more common than celiac disease.
Sensitivity means that the body reacts negatively to gluten by a mechanism that is not mediated by the immune system.
The easiest way to determine if gluten is a problem for you is with a simple elimination diet.
Eliminate wheat and other gluten-containing grains (i.e., barley, oats, rye) for one month.
At the end of the month, resume eating the amount of wheat you used to eat and pay close attention to what happens with your symptoms.
And don’t let the gluten-free aisle at the grocery store distract you from your core mission — to eat real food.
Gluten-free cookies, cereals, and processed snack foods are not health foods and should not be a regular part of your diet.
ADHD and Food Additives
The US Food and Drug Administration allows 3,000 food additives to be used in the American food supply.
No one knows what these chemicals are doing to our brains.
Benjamin Feingold, MD, a pediatrician and allergist, wrote the game-changing book, Why Your Child Is Hyperactive, in 1974.
He was the first doctor to publicly speculate that chemicals in our diet were causing ADHD.
Feingold popularized the first ADHD diet to avoid artificial food additives and salicylates, naturally occurring compounds found in many foods, especially temperate zone fruits like apples and grapes.
Though initially resistant to embrace Feingold’s theory, the American Academy of Pediatrics now agrees that eliminating preservatives and food colorings from the diet is a reasonable option for children with ADHD.
While you can still find Feingold’s book online, the information is dated.
For an up-to-date book on the Feingold Diet, we recommend All Natural Mom’s Guide to the Feingold Diet instead.
ADHD and Artificial Sweeteners
Don’t be fooled into thinking that diet soda is a better choice than sugared soda.
Artificial sweeteners are bad news for the brain and aren’t making anyone thinner.
They can cause brain fog, migraines, dizziness, anxiety, and depression.
Ironically, they confuse the brain into craving more sweet foods and drinks.
Over 10,000 complaints of adverse aspartame reactions have been reported to the FDA, including increasing attention deficit symptoms.
Addressing Nutritional Deficiencies
There are many common nutritional deficiencies that have been linked to ADHD.
Even if you eat a healthy diet, the modern lifestyle is full of “brain drains” that increase nutritional needs — stress, air pollution, over-the-counter remedies, drugs (both prescription and recreational), chemicals in our food and water, and more.
And while our nutritional needs have increased, our foods have become less nutritious.
Fruits and vegetables are grown in depleted soils and have been bred for easier storage and shipping and better taste and yield, rather than nutritional content.
Taking a high-quality multivitamin is one of the simplest natural remedies for ADHD.
Hyperactivity, impulsiveness, inattention, and depressive symptoms can all be improved simply by taking a multivitamin-mineral supplement.
In one clinical study, nearly half of the children who were given a micronutrient supplement experienced a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms.
Zinc deficiency is a well known factor in central nervous system and mental health disorders.
A low zinc level is linked to ADHD and a long list of other mental disorders, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
Zinc deficiency is surprisingly common; an estimated 2 billion people are deficient worldwide.
While zinc alone has not delivered significant benefits in children with ADHD, zinc supplementation can reduce the need for prescription ADHD drugs.
You may not have to take a handful of supplements to address all of these deficiencies.
The Harvard School of Public Health advises all adults to take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps and avoid many chronic diseases.
We think that’s a smart idea for everyone, but especially for those with ADHD.
Natural Remedies for ADHD: Take the Next Step
There are four main strategies for reducing ADHD symptoms naturally:
- Take proven-to-work supplements. Start with omega-3 essential fatty acids and a high-quality multivitamin. Experiment with herbal remedies and other supplements to see which work best for you.
- Engage in a healthy lifestyle that includes physical exercise, stress management, and time outdoors.
- Use proven healing techniques like neurofeedback, tapping, yoga, or art or music therapy.
- Eat a diet of unprocessed food and avoid sugar, food additives, and artificial sweeteners. Consider doing an elimination diet to weed out food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities.
Most of these changes have only upsides and can provide many significant physical and mental health benefits.
But if you take any ADHD medications, we recommend that you talk to your doctor before making any major changes.
Some supplements can interact with medications and some therapies can lessen your need for medication.
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