By Krysteena Stephens, M.A., IMFT and Victoria Dunckley, M.D.
Typically, in both children and adults, treatment for ADD/ADHD involves use of psychotropic medication designed to reduce the inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior that are characteristic of the disorder. These medications work by activating the brain’s frontal lobe, which governs executive functioning (“getting things done”), working memory (storing and manipulating information in “the mind’s eye”), social behavior, and emotional control. While stimulants and other ADHD medications have been shown to improve these symptoms—particularly in the short term—many patients (and parents of patients) seek natural treatments either to augment or to reduce/replace medical treatments. Here are five evidence-based natural methods you can implement to improve brain blood flow, reduce nervous system inflammation, and support healthy brain chemistry:
In a double blind, placebo controlled study monitoring the effects of zinc plus methylphenidate (Ritalin, a common stimulant), parents and teachers were asked to monitor and scale the behaviors of 44 children diagnosed with ADHD and found that both parent and teacher ratings improved over a 6-week period for the children taking 15mg of zinc per day along with methylphenidate while the control group’s (methylphenidate alone) ratings did not. This makes sense as the mineral zinc is crucial for the proper functioning of the brain chemical and hormone norepinephrine (involved in attention and memory), as well as GABA, a calming neurotransmitter.
Regarding iron, lower stores—as opposed to iron blood levels—are correlated with more severe ADHD symptoms, and iron deficiency is common in ADHD diagnosed individuals. Research suggests that children with ADHD with low ferritin (a measure of iron stores) may benefit from iron supplementation. Consuming iron-rich foods like spinach, chicken, oysters, and turkey on a regular basis will help boost iron stores; iron supplementation should be implemented under doctor supervision since too much can cause constipation and/or be toxic.[†] Magnesium is another mineral found to be low in children with ADHD, and supplementation has been shown to reduce hyperactivity. Magnesium also promotes deeper sleep, muscle relaxation, and normal electrical signaling. Daily supplementation of fish oil may be another natural remedy helpful in treatment of ADHD symptoms as demonstrated in a study of children whose symptoms significantly decreased over a 12-week period when supplementing with fatty acids.
In general, aside from eating a clean diet with abundant organic fruits and veggies, taking a pharmaceutical-grade multivitamin with chelated minerals along with high-grade fish oil supplement may improve both cognitive and behavior symptoms directly and indirectly, especially over time. Appropriate blood tests may include a ferritin level for iron, red blood cell magnesium levels, and serum or red blood cell zinc levels to help assess whether additional supplementation is needed; blood tests are not always definitive, however, and should be used in conjunction with clinical information.
Consistently, research has shown that screen-time in the evening (or worse, just before bedtime or after lights-out) contributes to sleep issues. Furthermore, light from any screen device suppresses melatonin and impairs cognition, so it’s not just stimulating content or activity that does the trick. Clearly, the alarming rise of screen usage in recent years is affecting our children and their developing brains. Abiding by healthy screen time guidelines will assist in putting a halt to the increase in screen-time and its associated behavioral issues, but ADHD children may need a 3-4 week “electronic fast” to help reset circadian rhythms and brain chemistry.
We’re all affected by the so-called modern lifestyle, but kids and adults with ADHD seem to be more affected, perhaps because their brains are more sensitive, or perhaps because they simply have more energy to burn. If there’s an overlying message here, it’s to return to Mother Nature: think how our ancestors lived, and try to imitate it as closely as possible. They moved to hunt, grow, gather and pick their food; they were active during daylight hours and rested at night; and they were not exposed to artificial light, artificial foods, or artificial play. Mother Nature cannot be fooled!
For more help with the impact of electronics on attention and impulse control, see Reset Your Child's Brain: a Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time.
[*] Healthy children showed improvements in cognition as well, but the ADHD group showed additional improvements in behavioral control.
[†] In the aforementioned study, the children took 80mg of iron daily for 12 weeks in the form of ferrous sulfate.