Can Complementary and Alternative Treatments Help with ADHD?

Child looking displeasedAttention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is estimated to affect nearly 10% of school-aged children. Nearly half of these children receive medication in an effort to manage symptoms. ADHD affects more boys than girls, and is marked by difficulty concentrating or paying attention, and sometimes with developmentally inappropriate degrees of impulsivity and/or increased activity (e.g., fidgeting, restlessness, or talking excessively). These behaviors frequently result in difficulties at school, home, and when interacting with peers.

Possible causes of ADHD are thought to be some combination of genetics and environmental factors, such as brain injuries, low birth weight, maternal smoking or alcohol use during pregnancy, premature delivery, and exposure to toxins such as lead. Although the current research does not support a causal link between factors such as a child’s diet, family stress, amount of television watched, or exposure to food additives, there is some research suggesting that these may exacerbate symptoms in some children with ADHD.

The recommended treatment for ADHD is a combination of behavior therapy and medication. In addition, it is important for the child’s school and family to be collaborators in helping to reinforce the behavioral plan. For some children, however, even with this approach, symptoms can interfere with functioning and result in significant distress and mood issues.

A recent review article examined the research regarding a number of complementary and alternative (CAM) approaches that may further improve symptoms. There is more research support for some of these recommendations than others, and at present, the generally accepted treatment recommendations remain limited to those listed above. However, some children may benefit from trying one or more of these approaches.

The authors’ recommendations were as follows:

  • Try a probiotic supplement. One hypothesis is that hypersensitivity to certain foods may predispose those with ADHD to a heightened inflammatory response. The authors speculate that the addition of a probiotic may help mitigate this effect.
  • Eliminate most food additives from the diet. Specifically, it is thought that eliminating sodium benzoate and artificial food colorings from the diet help some children. Strive to limit the diet to minimally processed or unprocessed, healthy food choices.
  • Increase dietary intake of Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. Consider foods such as fatty fish and walnuts, or—in consultation with your pediatrician—supplementation. Doing this is thought to improve neurotransmitter reception (chemicals found in the brain) and protect structures in the brain, helping with mood, attention, and possibly behavior.
  • Emphasize lean protein and reduce or eliminate consumption of refined carbohydrates. Avoid sugar, white bread, and other processed grains. Buy organic when possible. Have moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates (e.g., brown rice, beans, legumes) and increase consumption of lower-starch vegetables and fruits. It is thought that refined carbohydrate consumption may worsen symptoms such as inattention and irritability.
  • Limit television watching to fewer than two hours per day. It is thought that TV watching gets in the way of engaging in activities that encourage attention and concentration, such as reading, and may make it difficult for children to tolerate times when they are not being actively stimulated.
  • Get regular aerobic exercise. This may help with mood, memory, concentration, and learning. Group-oriented exercise may also help with developing better social skills.
  • Consider supplementing with B6, magnesium, iron, zinc, and calcium. Doing so may help with hyperactivity, irritability, and restlessness.

Of course, it is important to discuss any potential dietary or supplement additions or changes with your child’s pediatrician and other members of the treatment team.

The authors also recommended other approaches that are beyond the scope of this article; these can be found in the full text of the article referenced below. My own additional recommendations are to try to remain patient with your child, as your support is essential for his or her well-being; and if the stress feels like too much to handle, parents should consider consulting with a professional who can provide support with stress management.

For more information about the review mentioned above, or other information about ADHD, please consult the resources below:

  1. Pellow, J., Solomon, E., & Barnard, C. N. (2011). Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies for Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Alternative Medicine Review, 16(4), 323-337.
  2. Centers for Disease Control: Facts about ADHD. http://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/adhd/facts.html
  3. National Institute of Mental Health: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder/complete-index.shtml

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  • leah

    December 4th, 2012 at 4:05 AM

    One thing that has worked for my son is to switch us all to a gluten free diet
    We worked very closely with his pediatrician to find what could be the ebst approach to treaing his ADHD as I did not want to solely be dependent on medication for him
    We stumbled onto some research regarding food sensitivities and how this caused behavioral changes in some children, so we decided to explore it a little further and after some trial and error discovered that going gluten free has made all of feel much better
    And Seth’s behavior has improved too, so that has been just an added bonus
    I encourage any parent dealing with these issues to look beyond the promise of only pharmaceuticals to help their kids because there are so many other healthier options available if you find the right ones to give a try

  • foster

    December 4th, 2012 at 6:28 AM

    the rates of ADHD in our country seem to be on the rise.I think it is over 8% presently.I certainly believe complementary treatments and precautions can help.Now back to the statistics,why is there a rise?Is it because we are actually engaging our children in diets and activities that go in the opposite direction of these complementary treatments?If complementary treatments can help then can a decrease in the former increase rates of ADHD?

    I say this because if we look at just a few things mentioned here- like food – we are now consuming more processed food than ever before – and also TV viewing among young children is now more than ever. Are we creating problems with out own chosen lifestyles?!

  • KATE

    December 4th, 2012 at 11:22 PM

    I think these are good recommendations not only against ADHD but in general.These seem like healthy choices that can help those with and without ADHD.Nothing wrong in following good practices now,is there!

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    December 5th, 2012 at 9:24 AM

    Thank you for your comments. @Leah, that’s wonderful that going gluten free has been helpful. @Foster – I think that’s a good question but I don’t know that there is a definitive answer at this time unfortunately. Certainly, both the American diet and the food supply have changed quite a bit over the last 50+ years. Our habits have also changes as a culture (eating out more, more TV watching and less outdoor play, less recreational time in general, different chemicals in our environment, etc.). At present, the factors that are considered to be plausible causes are listed above, however, I think we are all affected in some way by the changes I’ve just mentioned.

    Another issue up for debate is to what extent the increase is due to more attention to/awareness of this topic resulting in more diagnoses (rather than more actual cases) but this too is unclear. A very important and complex topic. Making the changes suggested above can be healthy choices for everyone, not just those with ADHD, so it’s worth considering making some or all, in conjunction with one’s health care team.

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