“Pay attention.”

It’s the number one rule that any teacher gives to his or her students, and it’s a basic requirement for employees who are working on a task or attending a meeting. Anyone who has ever sat in a classroom or presentation knows that it’s tougher to follow this rule when they’re tired, or hungry, or going through emotional stress.

But when lack of focus and restlessness become too extreme, a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have to be considered.

ADHD is classified as a psychiatric disorder characterized by continual inattention, distractibility, impulsivity, or hyperactivity. Symptoms fall into the following two broad categories: inattention, in which people have trouble paying close attention to details, staying focused on tasks, listening when spoken to, or frequently losing items needed to complete tasks; and hyperactivity or impulsivity, in which people fidget, squirm, frequently feel restless, or answer a question before the speaker has finished. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/conditions/all/condition-attent...?)

The condition begins during a person’s childhood and can become apparent as early as the preschool years. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents, and is thought to affect 9.2 percent of boys and 2.9 percent of girls who are school-aged. An estimated 4.4 percent of men and women also suffer from ADHD, but the condition often goes unrecognized in adults.

Although the causes of ADHD are still unknown, there are risk factors that may increase the likelihood of diagnosis. For example, the disorder tends to run in families, and one in four children with ADHD have at least one relative with ADHD. Diet may also play a role, as recent studies suggest that vitamin and mineral deficiencies may be common among ADHD-diagnosed children, and food allergies (including wheat, soy, corn, dairy, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts) are believed to worsen ADHD symptoms.

Conventional treatment for ADHD involves behavioral or family therapy. However, there are a number of herbs and supplements that have been studied for use in people with the condition. Here are four complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies that have been researched for potential benefits:


Zinc is an important mineral that plays an important role in a number of processes in the body. It is believed to have strong effects in terms of enhancing the immune system. It has been used for wound healing, diarrhea in malnourished children, skin conditions, and diabetes, among other disorders.

There is good scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of zinc for ADHD, according to Natural Standard Research. One study suggested that children who have ADHD tend to have lower blood levels of zinc, while two others reported that zinc supplements reduced symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Zinc supplementation may be more effective for older children with higher body mass index (BMI) scores and is generally considered safe when taken at the recommended dosages. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/patient-zinc.asp)


Caffeine is a natural compound found in the leaves, seeds, or fruits of more than 60 plants, including coffee (Coffea arabica) beans, cacao (Theobroma cacao) beans, kola (Cola acuminata) nuts, guarana (Paullinia cupana) berries, and tea (Camellia sinensis) leaves.

It has been suggested that caffeine may be used as an alternative to prescription drugs for the treatment of ADHD. Although early research found that it may be effective, there is conflicting evidence from human and animal research regarding its use for this purpose in children.

Some studies suggest that caffeine may improve impulsivity and behavior, but not performance. More information on the effectiveness of caffeine for ADHD is needed before conclusions can be made. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/patient-caffei...)


Ginseng refers to several species of the Araliaceae family, the two most common of which are Asian ginseng and American ginseng. The word “ginseng” is derived from ren-shen, the Chinese word for the plant, which means “man-root,” referring to the root's human-like shape.

The plant has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years for a number of purposes, ranging from increasing appetite and enhancing strength to improving memory. Ginseng has also been studied for use in treating and preventing cancer.

Early research looked at the effects of an herbal mixture containing ginseng on children who had been diagnosed with ADHD. However, solid evidence in support of ginseng as a potential treatment is still needed. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/ginseng.asp)

St. John’s wort

St. John’s wort extracts have traditionally been used for a wide range of medical conditions, the most common of which is depression. Many studies report that St. John's wort may be as effective as conventional antidepressants in treating moderate to major depression (1-3 months).

The herb has also been studied as a potential treatment for ADHD. One high-quality study examined the effects of St. John’s wort in a group of children who had been diagnosed with the disorder. However, after taking an extract three times daily for eight weeks, results were still unclear as to whether the treatment may be effective for ADHD. More well-designed trials are needed before a conclusion can be made. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/stjohnswort.asp)

Based on Natural Standard research, a number of other CAM therapies have been studied for potential ADHD benefits.

These include the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is found in fish like salmon and tuna (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/patient-docosa...); evening primrose oil, which contains an omega-6 fatty acid and has been studied for skin and breast conditions (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/patient-primro...); and phenylalanine, an essential amino acid that has been studied for its potential benefits on depression and skin disorders (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/sports/all/patient-phenylalanin...). However, these three alternative treatments have been found to have negative results for ADHD. More research is needed before further conclusions can be made.

Please remember to always consult a doctor or pharmacist before taking any new herbs or supplements, or trying any new alternative therapies. Talking to a medical professional may help avoid any unwanted drug interactions and ensure that the chosen treatment is the most effective one.

Natural Standard

The authority on integrative medicine.
Catherine Ulbricht, Pharm.D.

Catherine Ulbricht, Pharm.D., co-founder of Natural Standard Research Collaboration, is the Senior Attending Pharmacist at Massachussetts General Hospital.

Most Recent Posts from Natural Standard

Dietary Supplement Interactions

Even all-natural herbs and supplements can interact.

Music Therapy for Health and Wellness

Music has been studied as an integrative therapy for many conditions.

Attention: Integrative Therapies

Herb and supplement use in ADHD