This review of natural remedies for ADHD addresses proven supplements, lifestyle activities, healing techniques, and diet to help you or your child.
Table of Contents
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a multifaceted condition with numerous potential underlying causes. (1)
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 have unpleasant side effects.
Also, there are many natural remedies purported to help ADHD, but many of them do not work as claimed.
So, finding an effective treatment for ADHD can be complicated.
Why Doctors Are Skeptical of Natural ADHD Remedies
The standard medical treatment for ADHD is to prescribe a stimulant like Ritalin, Adderall, or Vyvanse. (2)
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. (5)
This is where the second medical tool for ADHD — behavioral therapy — comes in.
Therapy can teach you 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 drugs and therapy are the current first line medical treatments for ADHD, it’s no wonder that many people seek out natural remedies.
ADHD Studies Funded by Drug Companies
One reason doctors are 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.
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.
ADHD patients do not share the medical establishment’s skepticism.
More than half of parents of children with ADHD report using complementary and alternative medicine remedies, including nutritional supplements, special diets, and art therapy to help their child’s attention problems. (6)
As many as 80% of patients who use herbal preparations and other natural products regard these therapies as the primary treatment for their ADHD. (7)
Natural Supplements for ADHD
Few people would agree, medical professionals included, that the use of prescription stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin is an ideal solution.
If you are struggling with ADHD, taking the right supplements can bring relief fairly easily and fast, especially when used as an adjunct 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 and can help eliminate the brain inflammation that contributes to ADHD, anxiety, depression, and even serious degenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. (8)
The most popular form of omega-3 supplements is fish oil.
A systematic review of 52 studies on children with ADHD found that fish oil supplementation and elimination diets are the most promising dietary interventions for ADHD. (13)
One study found that students given omega-3 supplements did better in reading and spelling, were better behaved, and showed a reduction in overall ADHD symptoms. (14)
Another study, which gave children large doses of omega-3s (up to 16 grams per day), found that supplements were well tolerated and resulted in significant improvements in inattention, hyperactivity, and defiant behavior. (15)
If you are treating ADHD with omega-3 supplements, you must be patient since it can take up to 6 months for the benefits to fully kick in. (16)
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Phosphatidylserine is an integral part of every brain cell membrane.
This phospholipid acts as your brain cells’ gatekeeper, regulating the flow of nutrients and waste in and out of your brain.
Phosphatidylserine supplementation can be a safe and effective natural alternative for treating ADHD.
Studies have found that phosphatidylserine supplements can provide a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms in children by enhancing attention, memory, cognition, concentration, and learning. (17, 18, 19)
One study found that 60% of the children who took phosphatidylserine, plus small amounts of omega-3s, showed improvement in ADHD symptoms. (20)
Note that phosphatidylserine is not a fast fix.
It can take up to three months for you to experience its full benefits.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid needed to synthesize serotonin, the neurotransmitter of positive mood.
Both low levels of tryptophan and serotonin imbalances have been linked to ADHD.
Children with ADHD have 50% lower than average blood levels of tryptophan. (21)
Citicoline is a naturally occurring compound found in every cell of the body, but it’s particularly important for your 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)
Additionally, the Mt. Sinai Health Library recommends these herbs for ADHD: (27)
- 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. (28)
Lavender, one of the most versatile essential oils, has not been shown to help ADHD directly, but it can help you relax and sleep. (29)
Rosemary can help you focus and remember and perform mental tasks 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, usually of plants, believed to work by stimulating your 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 many naysayers who claim they are useless or that they work “only” as a placebo. (30)
The placebo effect should not be underestimated!
In fact, it is now recognized as the key to unlocking the brain’s “inner pharmacy.” (31)
As you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of studies on homeopathic remedies, but one showed a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms in children. (32)
One big challenge of 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.
Caffeine and ADHD
A lot of people with ADHD drink coffee, energy drinks, and caffeinated sodas as a way to improve focus and concentration.
Interestingly, even though caffeine is a stimulant, many people with ADHD become less hyperactive and impulsive from caffeine. (33)
As you might expect, the medical community frowns on the idea of patients self-medicating with caffeine, especially children.
Ironically, parents who wouldn’t dream of giving their kids a cup of coffee, hand them a can of caffeine-laden soda instead!
It’s never advisable for anyone to get their caffeine from soda or energy drinks which contain either massive 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 can make a good alternative since its caffeine is balanced with the calming compound l-theanine.
Nicotine and ADHD
Even more controversial is the use of nicotine for ADHD.
People with ADHD often self-medicate by smoking to improve focus, memory, and concentration. (34)
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 — separate 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.
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Activities That Help ADHD Naturally
Not every drug-free ADHD remedy is something you take — some are things you do instead.
Dr. John Ratey, 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 the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which work to regulate the attention system.
Exercise also promotes the growth of new neurotransmitter receptors, which makes the neurotransmitters you have work better.
Meditation also shows significant promise in treating adult ADHD.
Two-third of adults who meditate report a significant decline in inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms, and an increase in self-organization, stress tolerance, and regulation of emotions. (35)
Tapping, officially known as the Emotional Freedom Technique, is a form of do-it-yourself acupressure that acts as general purpose personal development tool.
It can be used for pretty much anything that ails you.
Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that’s been widely studied for ADHD.
In a review of 15 studies, researchers concluded that neurofeedback effectively reduces the ADHD symptoms of inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. (47)
One review of large-scale clinical trials found that neurofeedback helps ADHD by modulating both over and under-arousal, and works as well as the typical ADHD medications. (48)
Other Drug-Free Therapies
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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.
But when you consider that the food you eat forms the building blocks of your brain and neurotransmitters that control your thoughts and behaviors, examining your diet just makes common 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 at its best.
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 nourish your brain, here’s the best (and shortest) piece of dietary advice you’ll ever receive:
Eat. Real. Food.
While 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 fresh fruits and vegetables, 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 also go a long way to getting rid of 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 role in ADHD.
If you switch to eating whole, unprocessed foods with no reduction in symptoms, you may still be eating foods that you reacting to.
One study that put children on a strict elimination diet discovered that 64% of them had food sensitivities that triggered their ADHD symptoms. (60)
You can start by eliminating any food you suspect is a problem for a few weeks and see if you notice any improvement.
If you don’t know where to begin, take a look at 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: (61)
- tree nuts
If you need more guidance, you can download University of Wisconsin’s elimination diet patient handout which contains a step-by-step plan.
This all may take some trial and error, but it will be worth it if it helps you 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 certainly 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 (i.e., lactose intolerance). (62)
Food sensitivities are unpleasant reactions to foods such as with acid reflux, nausea, or abdominal cramps. (63)
Substances in Foods That Can Trigger ADHD
Eating unprocessed foods will help you eliminate the worst dietary contributors to ADHD.
You’ve seen what an ADHD diet should look like in general, but when it comes to the workings of the brain, the devil is often in the details.
Let’s take a closer look at some substances in foods that could be a hidden cause of your ADHD:
Sugar and ADHD
Sugar is so refined that it’s more a chemical than a food and has no nutritive value whatsoever.
Zero. Zip. Nada.
So for every empty sugar calorie consumed, your brain gets shorted of the nutrients it needs.
Weirdly, if you lack the enzymes to break down refined sugar, you can have an intolerance reaction to it. (64)
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 that sugar is a huge problem for our health and for our brains in so many ways, sugar’s innocence seems unlikely.
Refined sugar puts your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride.
When your brain’s glucose level dips, it leads to mood swings, irritability, tiredness, mental confusion, and impaired judgment.
Excessive glucose affects your attention span, short-term memory, and mood stability. (65)
A diet that’s high in sugar and saturated fat reduces your brain’s ability to learn and generate new brain cells. (66)
Sugar increases brain inflammation, a contributor to ADHD. (67)
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 the “staff of life” get to be so bad for us?
Changes in the way we grow and process wheat have decreased its nutrients and raised the amount of gluten so we can make fluffier baked goods. (68)
And 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 300 possible symptoms of celiac disease, including neurological and psychiatric symptoms. (69)
A gluten-free diet brings significant relief of ADHD symptoms in those with celiac disease. (70)
But can it help those not diagnosed with this disorder?
According to the National Center for Celiac Awareness, 83% of people with celiac disease have not been diagnosed — so it’s possible to have it and not know it.
Also, you don’t have to have full-blown celiac disease to experience the negative effects of wheat.
Gluten sensitivity is even more common than celiac disease.
A sensitivity means your body negatively reacts to gluten by a mechanism that is not an autoimmune response.
The easiest way to determine if gluten is a problem for you is with a simple elimination diet.
Cut out 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 to 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 our food supply. (71)
And no one really knows what this chemical cocktail is doing to our brains.
Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a pediatrician and allergist, wrote the game-changing book Why Your Child Is Hyperactive back in 1974.
He was the first doctor to publicly speculate that chemicals in our diet were causing ADHD.
He popularized the first ADHD diet which avoided artificial food additives and salicylates, naturally occurring compounds found in many foods, especially temperate zone fruits like apples and grapes.
As resistant as the mainstream has been to embrace his 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. (72)
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 sugar-laden soda.
Artificial sweeteners are bad news for your brain and aren’t making anyone thinner.
They cause brain fog, migraines, dizziness, anxiety, and depression. (73)
Ironically, they confuse your brain into craving more sweet foods and drinks. (74)
Over 10,000 complaints of aspartame adverse reactions have been reported to the FDA, including increasing attention deficit symptoms. (75)
Addressing Nutritional Deficiencies
There are many common nutritional deficiencies that have been linked to ADHD.
Even if you eat a very 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.
While our nutritional needs have increased, our diets have become less nutritious.
Fruits and vegetables are grown in depleted soils and have been bred to taste better, be easier to store and ship, and be more productive, rather than for their 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 by simply 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. (76)
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. (80)
Unfortunately, zinc deficiency is surprisingly common — an estimated 2 billion people are deficient worldwide. (81)
While zinc alone has not delivered significant benefits in children with ADHD, zinc supplementation can reduce the need for prescription ADHD drugs. (82)
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. (83)
We think that’s a smart idea for everyone as well, but especially if you have ADHD.
Natural Remedies for ADHD: Take the Next Step
There are four main strategies for reducing ADHD symptoms naturally:
- Take proven-to-work supplements such as omega-3 essential fatty acids and specific vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbs.
- Engage in a healthy lifestyle that includes both physical exercise and stress management.
- Use proven healing techniques like neurofeedback, tapping, yoga, or art or music therapy.
- Eat a diet of unprocessed food and avoid non-nutritive substances like sugar, food additives, and artificial sweeteners.
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 implementing any changes.
Some supplements can interact with medications and some therapies can lessen your need for medication.