Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the least understood conditions of modern society.  First recognized in 1980, it is now seen as having three main aspects:  inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.  Inattention involves difficulty staying focused, wandering off task, and being disorganized.  Hyperactivity is expressed by the need to move around constantly, even in situations where it is not appropriate.  Impulsivity is where the individual is acting without thinking of the consequences, having little control over delayed gratification, interrupting others.  These behaviors are not due to defiance or lack of comprehension, but are beyond the individual’s ability to control.

      The causes of ADHD can be difficult to pin down:  brain chemicals, lack of discipline, too much TV, genetic disorder, pesticides, food additives?  In addition, studies show that a fetus exposed to alcohol and tobacco is 2.4 times more likely to develop ADHD.  Diet has also been implicated.  Adolescents with diets high in fat, refined sugar, and sodium are two times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as other kids.  Additional studies have also linked ADHD to diets deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain development and function.

     There is also the issue of over-diagnosis.  There are at least fifty medical conditions that can mimic ADHD symptoms.  Here are a few of the main ones:  low blood sugar, food allergies, learning disorders, hypo or hyperthyroidism, adrenal imbalances, metabolic disorders, sleep problems, iron and/or vitamin deficiencies.  Without a thorough review of the other possible causes of the ADHD symptoms, a child can be put on medication unnecessarily.  That’s why when I treat a child with those symptoms, I begin by looking for underlying medical conditions to be certain we are actually dealing with ADHD.

     Sometimes, pressure to start a child on medication comes from teachers, who are struggling with a disruptive student.  This is often because the child may have trouble focusing, doing homework, or staying on task.  The all-too-typical situation is the parent then talking to a pediatrician about the situation and the doctor handing them a prescription for a stimulant medication on the spot.  This is because in ADHD, individuals tend to produce inadequate amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that help to regulate mood, attention, and focus.  They also tend to fidget a lot because the movement and stimulation cause the body to produce more dopamine and norepinephrine.  Many of them like video games because they provide constant auditory and visual stimulation.  ADHD medications provide stimulation to the brain, which is why individuals with ADHD don’t feel the constant need to fidget and move all the time.  This why stimulants can have the paradoxical effect of calming a hyperactive child. 

     While putting children on medication can make a difference for some, many parents are concerned because of the potential side effects and also because they worry about their child having to take a stimulant drug for the rest of their lives once they start on it.  The most common side effects I see in children is a decrease in appetite.  Their hunger diminishes and they tend to lose weight, so they don’t get enough nutrients for a developing body and brain.  Stimulants also increase heart rate and blood pressure and can cause problems with sleep.  Some children also get moody and irritable.  Others can experience a rebound after the medication wears off and wind up worse than they were.

     When it comes to treatment, I first look for underlying medical conditions to rule them out as the causes of the ADHD symptoms.  If testing reveals those to be normal, we then move to working with the family on a natural approach.  I have many families that come to me because their child is on an ADHD medication and they want to decrease their dose or wean their child off of it.  I have seen many children improve just with a change in the diet that moves them away from artificial flavors, dyes, preservatives, pesticides, and other chemicals.  I also may recommend certain supplements that have a similar effect on the brain as pharmaceuticals but without the side effects.

     It definitely takes a commitment from the parents, because giving medication is easier.  But the easy way isn’t necessarily the best or most healthful one.  Fortunately, when the family is dedicated to giving the natural approach enough time to work, they are usually very happy with the results.  Many have been successful in reducing the dosage of ADHD medication or weaning their child off of it altogether.