~ADHD (or ADD) - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Part 2 - Complementary Strategies

~ADHD (or ADD) - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Part 2 - Complementary Strategies
Complementary Strategies

  • Exercise
  • Environmental Health
  • Sugar
  • Allergenic Foods
  • Nutrition
  • Supplements
  • Nutrition

Given the perils of conventional approaches to ADHD and the frightening problems that can arise if untreated, it is fortunate that a wide variety of less invasive, safer, and effective approaches to ADHD are currently available. These include mind-body approaches, environmental strategies, exercise, dietary changes, and supplements.

  • Behavioral Medicine: A good first step in addressing ADHD nonpharmaceutically is using a few key behavioral techniques:
  • Establish Routines: Setting routines is an important component of treatment for people with ADHD and should include set times for bed, play, bathing, TV, dinner, school, and homework.
  • Maintain Eye Contact: People with ADHD should be encouraged to look people in the eyes when spoken to and acknowledge what was said.
  • Practice Meditation: Techniques to enhance focus and attention such as meditation are useful. One therapy called the interactive metronome improves attention, motor control, and selected academic skills in boys with ADHD. An interactive metronome works by combining a computer with a metronome to help the user match his or her timing during tapping exercises to that of a reference tone (Shaffer et al. 2001).
  • Avoid Information Overload: Information technologies are creating attention disorders among business executives who have to handle vast amounts of information (Davenport et al. 2000). Because people with ADHD have slow brain processing speeds, they perceive time as moving more quickly and have difficulty processing the glut of new information all around us (Goddard 2000).
  • Try Biofeedback: Biofeedback electroencephalograph (EEG) training works to teach children with ADHD to enter a calm, alpha brainwave state and use different neurological pathways, which improves impulse control, increases attention, and allows more efficient processing of information. Biofeedback may be particularly effective for ADHD because people with this disorder have slower brainwaves in frontal and polar regions of the brain than people without it, which explains the use of stimulant medications (Chabot 2001). Biofeedback has also been used to treat alcoholism and appears to work so well that many children with ADHD can stop their drug therapies using this technique. Typically 20-40 sessions are required.


The next strategy to try is using an exercise routine. Exercise is a rather obvious but overlooked way to help control the symptoms of ADHD. One study looked at the rate of spontaneous eye blinks, the acoustic startle eye blink response (ASER), and motor activity in children with ADHD. Researchers subjected subjects to a treadmill exercise bout at 65-75% VO2 max (the maximum oxygen uptake by the lungs). The results suggest vigorous exercise can improve symptoms of ADHD via dopamine release (Tantillo et al. 2002). A current position paper on exercise and children by the American Heart Association ( www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4596 ) recommends 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on most days of the week and a minimum of 30 minutes of vigorous activity 3-4 days a week. This level of activity is shown to help prevent a wide variety of behavioral and physical disorders in children.

Environmental Health

While a bit more difficult to perform than mind-body or exercise protocols, a thorough evaluation and clean-up of environmental toxins should be made immediately upon diagnosis with ADHD. Very current research suggests that environmental chemicals, molds, fungi, and neurodevelopmental toxins such as heavy metals and organohalide pollutants are possibly linked to ADHD. Changes in thyroid function may be one reason environmental toxins can affect ADHD (Kidd 2000). One review notes parallels between the features of ADHD and the behavior of monkeys exposed developmentally to lead or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (Rice 2000).

Finally, according to an article in Life Extension Magazine (O'Brien 2001), mercury vapor from dental amalgam fillings can cause many of the symptoms of ADHD. Mercury toxicity in mothers can cause learning disabilities, autism, and ADHD in unborn children by fast placental transfer and could explain the explosion in learning and behavioral problems since World War II when mercury was first used in dentistry. Symptoms of mercury toxicity include irritability, anxiety, restlessness, memory and attention problems, confusion, and loss of coordination.

Diet. Specific dietary tactics including avoiding allergenic foods, reducing sugar intake, and increasing consumption of foods rich in vitamins and minerals have been shown to help control ADHD in children and adults.

Allergenic Foods. Food allergies are a common, though controversial area of concern for people with ADHD. Oligoantigenic (few-foods) diets for ADHD have convincing double-blind evidence of efficacy (Egger et al. 1985); however, they appear to be most effective in children, not adults (Arnold 2001). In brief, a nonallergenic diet involves eliminating many foods considered allergenic. The theory that certain foods are allergenic and cause health problems such as ADHD is based on the premise from evolutionary medicine that foods which are the most genetically altered from wild foods on which we evolved are the most likely to cause allergies.

The most widely known proponent of the allergenic theory of ADHD is Benjamin Feingold, M.D., who suggested that food additives in particular are to blame, including artificial colors, flavor enhancers, thickeners, bleaching and anticaking agents, and preservatives. Research has indeed shown that food dyes can cause irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbances (Rowe et al. 1994) while other food additives can cause similar symptoms (Boris et al. 1994). Other commonly allergenic foods and food products, such as wheat, oranges, soy, milk, corn, and eggs, are also often eliminated. An elimination diet involves systematically eliminating one possible food allergen at a time to see whether a specific food is causing ADHD.

Sugar. Sugar is certainly the single most damaging food linked to ADHD and a variety of other disorders. The sudden release of insulin and drop in blood glucose caused by refined sugar intake (reactive hypoglycemia) rapidly raises adrenaline, causing a fight or flight response and the aggressive behavior, hyperactivity, and attention problems found in ADHD (Wender et al. 1991). Children with ADHD also experience abnormal rhythms in regard to the stress hormone cortisol, which often occurs in people who have problems metabolizing carbohydrates (Kaneko et al. 1993; Wolraich et al. 1994). Girardi et al. (1995) found that, upon sugar feeding, people with ADHD release only half the catecholamines (adrenal hormones such as norepinephrine and epinephrine that counterbalance a rapid drop in glucose due to high insulin) as controls. Girardi et al. (1995) also noted that PET scans of children with ADHD showed much less brain activity due to insufficient glucose and tests indicated worse cognitive performance.

In addition, many of the children with ADHD became more hyperactive following the glucose intake in an effort to trigger their adrenal glands to produce more catecholamines. Finally, the most recent studies also show that ADHD is linked to catecholamine dysfunction and energy disorders in brain neurons because it is improved by medications that enhance catecholamine function (Todd et al. 2001). The results of this and other studies on sugar and ADHD emphasize the importance of well-balanced meals rich in protein and complex carbohydrates, which raise catecholamine levels and control fluctuations in glucose.

Poor Nutrition. Optimal levels of certain nutrients, which are often hard to obtain in a normal diet, are crucial in preventing and treating ADHD. In addition, deficiencies of certain nutrients during the critical period of brain formation can lead to permanent damage that may be linked to ADHD in later life. Since 90% of total brain growth takes place during the first 3 years of life, it is essential to provide high-quality building blocks, through diet or supplementation, during this period. Poor nutrition affects the development of the brain during this period and can have damaging effects that may lead to ADHD (Scrimshaw et al. 1968). Early studies show that children who lack optimal amounts of essential nutrients experience reduced attention span and intellectual ability (Crook 1980). Unfortunately, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary survey of 3300 U.S. children and adolescents showed that less than 1% meet the recommended daily requirements for the five food groups and 16% do not meet any of the requirements (Munoz et al. 1997).

Nutritional Supplements

  • Essential Fatty Acids
  • Phosphatidylserine
  • Choline
  • DMAE
  • Amino Acids
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Herbs
  • Hormone Imbalances

Numerous studies suggest that people with ADHD may be deficient in specific nutrients and that in some cases, supplementation may improve some of the symptoms of the disorder.

Essential Fatty Acids. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are the most important nutrients to consider in the battle against ADHD. For example, one study found that a deficiency of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids is linked to ADHD (Richardson et al. 2000a; 2000b). Another study found that deficiencies in highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs) cause the symptoms of ADHD. After 12 weeks of supplementation with HUFAs, researchers found major improvements in ADHD-related symptoms in children with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia (Richardson et al. 2002).

Some ADHD diagnoses might be EFA deficiencies in disguise. One study found that ADHD patients reporting symptoms indicative of EFA deficiency had significantly lower levels of plasma arachidonic acid (AA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) than did ADHD patients without these symptoms or controls. In this study patients with low omega-3 fatty acid levels had more temper tantrums and learning, health, and sleep problems than those with high levels of these fatty acids (Burgess et al. 2000). DHA supplementation has proven helpful in people with ADHD (Voigt et al. 2001). DHA can be found in deep-sea, cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, and tuna; sea vegetables (which is where fish obtain DHA); and micro-algae. Supplements are derived from these sources. Linoleic and linolenic acids found in products such as flax and hempseed oil are precursors of DHA and AA, but their manufacture in the body can be blocked by saturated and trans fats.

Phosphatidylserine. Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a natural extract of lecithin and a phospholipid that is vital to brain cell structure and function. Phospholipids are molecules with an amino acid component and a fatty acid component which are found in every cell membrane in our bodies. ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism are now considered "phospholipid disorders" because phospholipids are so important in the natural history, symptoms, and prevalence of these conditions which aggregate within families (Richardson et al. 2000a; 2000b). PS plays an important role in neurotransmitter systems, brain metabolism levels, and maintaining nerve connections in the brain. PS helps lower cortisol levels that are increased in chronically stressed individuals and improves brain cell membrane fluidity, which helps with dementia and depression. While there is little experimental data available using PS for ADHD as yet, its many cognitive benefits suggest it should prove extremely helpful (Jorisse et al. 2001).

Choline. Choline, a precursor for acetylcholine, is another important supplement for ADHD. One study found that the genetic and structural indicators of poor memory in the brain (called developmental instability) correlated with lower concentrations of creatine-phosphocreatine (Cre) and choline-containing compounds, whereas Cre and N-acetyl-aspartate correlated with good memory. This finding may be due to differences in frontal lobe energy metabolism (Yeo et al. 2000).

DMAE. Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) is naturally present in the brain and found in such "brain foods" as anchovies and sardines. DMAE accelerates the brain's synthesis of acetylcholine. As a supplement for ADHD, it has been used effectively to treat such symptoms as shortened attention span, hyperactivity, learning and behavior problems, reading and speech difficulties, and impaired motor coordination (Dean et al. 1990).

Amino Acids. Adequate protein intake is essential for manufacture of neurotransmitters in the brain from amino acids, which is crucial for reducing ADHD symptoms. Children with ADHD are often deficient in L-glutamine, a precursor for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that calms the mind and may play a role in hyperactivity. One study suggests that ADHD is caused by a deficiency of glutamate, with prefrontal brain regions being especially affected, while obsessive-compulsive disorder is caused by too much glutamate (Carlsson 2000). Another review found that amino acid supplementation for ADHD is most effective in the short term (2-3 months), but long-term benefits and ideal dosages have yet to be determined (Arnold et al. 2000).

Vitamins. Vitamins may help prevent and treat ADHD by protecting the nervous system from free radical attack and supporting the body in making neurotransmitters. Sociologists Schoenthaler et al. (2000) found that multivitamin supplementation of school-age children (ages 6-12) with behavioral problems such as ADHD helps control antisocial behaviors such as swearing, vandalism, assault, and refusal to work. Previous studies by these researchers have shown similar findings among prisoners, ages 13-26. Of all the vitamins, B vitamins are particularly important for fighting ADHD because they assist brain enzymes in using carbohydrates for energy, help synthesize neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, and form myelin, which shields connections between neurons. A deficiency of B1 (thiamin) causes nervousness, irritability, and increased sensitivity to noise. B6 deficiency causes low levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which are found in hyperactive children (Bhagavan et al. 1975). Vitamin C is also important for making neurotransmitters.

Minerals. Select minerals are especially effective in preventing and controlling ADHD. Zinc is an important cofactor for production of neurotransmitters, prostaglandins, and melatonin and for metabolism of dopamine and fatty acids, all of which are involved in ADHD. One study showed that zinc and fatty acids were decreased in children with ADHD (Bekaroglu et al. 1996). A more recent study examined zinc, D-amphetamine, and Efamol (evening primrose oil, rich in gamma-linolenic acid) in subjects with and without ADHD, using hair, red cell, and urine measurements to assess zinc levels. Efamol supplementation was beneficial only in those with borderline zinc levels. This suggests that Efamol works by improving zinc deficiency. Zinc deficiency in people with ADHD may also be the reason for poor responses to stimulant therapy (Arnold et al. 2000). Magnesium levels appear to be low in patients with ADHD, and supplementation has reduced hyperactivity (Starobrat-Hermelin et al. 1997). A dosage of 200 mg daily has been used in most studies. Finally, iron deficiency has been implicated in ADHD and is a fairly common problem in children.

Herbs. Numerous herbs are shown to help prevent and control ADHD by improving blood flow to the brain and nervous system, reducing stress, and removing toxins from the body.

Hypercoagulation is a disorder in which excess coagulation of the blood leads to hypoxia, or low oxygen, and death in tissues. In newer studies, hypercoagulation has been linked to immune system function and numerous seemingly unrelated diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and cognitive disorders such as ADHD. To help control hypercoagulation, an array of hypocoagulant supplements including curcumin (turmeric extract), ginger, and ginkgo should be used (Liao 2000). In ADHD, hypercoagulation is more of a concern in adults than children.

A study of a combination herbal product containing American ginseng extract, Panax quinquefolium (200 mg), and Ginkgo biloba extract (50 mg) was tested for its ability to improve the symptoms of ADHD. Between 31-74% of patients taking the medication experienced improvements in various indicators including anxiety, shyness, social problems, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness (Lyon et al. 2001). Fish oil, enzymes such as bromelain and Wobenzym, and massage have also been shown to lower blood viscosity.

Interestingly, methylphenidate (Ritalin) appears to work like ginkgo and other herbs by increasing regional cerebral blood flow (Kim et al. 2001). Structural studies show that in children with ADHD there is decreased blood flow and energy use in the prefrontal cortex and striatum. One possible result is a decrease in volume of certain brain areas in people with ADHD. The brain regions responsible for attention, including the anterior corpus callosum, right anterior white matter, and cerebellar areas, are actually smaller in people with ADHD (Paule et al. 2000). Another study indicates there are left hemispheric white matter deficits due to dysmyelination and gray matter deficits in the right hemisphere in ADHD patients (Overmeyer et al. 2001).

Stress-reducing herbs, such as passion flower, valerian, or lemon balm, are recommended because stress contributes to ADHD (Berdonces 2001). Finally, detoxifying herbs and algae, such as spirulina, have also been suggested for ADHD. Spirulina may help ADHD by removing aluminum, carbon tetrachloride, and other toxins from the body (Torres-Duran et al. 1998; Vadiraja et al. 1998). Sevulla et al. (1995) found an 81% improvement in academic scores when children took 1 gram of spirulina every day for 6 months.

Hormone Imbalances. In adults, certain prohormone supplements such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) may help control or prevent ADHD. ADHD is associated with low blood levels of neurosteroids such as DHEA, its principal precursor pregnenolone, and its principal metabolite dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEA-S). Conversely, higher blood levels of these neuro-steroids are associated with fewer symptoms of ADHD (Strous et al. 2001). Prohormone supplements are not safe for children. However, hormone-controlling drugs may sometimes help in cases of child ADHD. For example, some research suggests that children ages two to seven with ADHD and learning disabilities have high levels of thyroid hormone and thus thyroid hormone lowering drugs, such as neomercazole, may be effective. Thyroid treatment is effective in the presence of documented thyroid abnormality only (Arnold 2001).

Continued . . .
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