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Exercise, Good Food, Meditation: Alternatives to ADHD Meds

Patients can use behavioral and lifestyle strategies to help manage ADHD.

Key points

  • Exercise, good food, and meditation can all help treat symptoms of ADHD.
  • There's a connection between a restrictive, “few-foods” diet and a reduction in ADHD symptoms.
  • Physical activity promotes brain growth, enhances learning skills, and may have effects even stronger than healthy foods on ADHD relief.
  • ADHD patients report improvements in their executive functioning—especially as it relates to “inhibitory control”—following exercise.
Photo by William Choquette from Pexels
Source: Photo by William Choquette from Pexels

Struggling with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Call the doctor; get more meds. Right? Not necessarily. In fact, recent research results are expanding the arsenal of behavior and lifestyle strategies that patients can use to manage this chronic and pervasive disorder without upping their supply of pills.

Among the latest investigations is a study published November 2021 in Scientific Reports, showing a connection between a restrictive, “few-foods” diet and a reduction in ADHD symptoms. Specifically, authors report a correlation between improved nutrition and changes in brain activity that increase a person’s inhibitions. Inhibition is the antithesis of impulsiveness, which is a hallmark behavior of ADHD. Although this study focuses on children, other scientific initiatives have noted relationships between healthy eating and improvements in ADHD management.

Scientists also have shown that physical activity, which generally promotes brain growth and enhances learning skills, may have effects even stronger than healthy foods on ADHD-symptom relief. In a study in the Journal of Pediatrics, investigators determined that “single bouts of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise may be a tool in the non-pharmaceutical treatment of children with ADHD.” Their results suggest such exercise has “positive implications for aspects of neurocognitive function and inhibitory control in children with ADHD.”

Additional evidence underscores the exercise-is-good hypothesis. In the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers “support the efficacy of using exercise interventions in improving some aspects of cognitive functions in individuals with [autism spectrum disorder] and ADHD.” Indeed, nearly 60 percent of ADHD patients in the study reported improvements in their executive functioning—especially as it relates to “inhibitory control”—following exercise, study authors say.

But One Size Does Not Fit All

Although one of the most treatable disorders in psychiatry, ADHD has several variants that defy a cookie-cutter approach and is often associated with co-morbid psychiatric conditions, including oppositional, conduct, and mood and anxiety disorders, as well as behaviors that can lead to addictions. Indeed, treatment must account for what authors of an article in the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine refer to as “all aspects of an individual’s life.” In their book ADHD 2.0, psychiatrists Edward M. Hallowell MD and John J. Ratey MD call ADHD a “complex set of contradictory or paradoxical tendencies,” including “lack of focus combined with an ability to super focus, lack of direction combined with highly directed entrepreneurialism, [and] a tendency to procrastinate with a knack for getting a week’s worth of work done in two hours.”

Of course, prescribed medication has so far proven the most direct—and effective—method for controlling ADHD symptoms. But pharmacological approaches do have their cons. For example, scientists writing in a 2021 edition of the Journal of Personalized Medicine say drawbacks include difficulties in achieving pharmacological effectiveness in all individuals, particularly because of patient variances in the neurophysiological changes associated with ADHD, and the “presence of adverse drug effects.” Other experts point to the potential for abuse of stimulants used to treat ADHD and the tendency by patients to “fall off” their prescribed medication plan. All are reasons why the past five years have been marked by a seeming raft of scientific investigations into psychosocial, behavioral—even environmental—therapies that may enhance the effectiveness of or, in some cases, be used in lieu of, ADHD medications.

As the author of a 2020 article in the ADHD magazine, ADDitude states, “ADHD is genetic, but it also is environmental to a degree. You can’t change your DNA. But you can change your eating, fitness, and sleep habits—all of which may have real, positive effects on ADHD symptoms.” He goes on to detail “the power of sleep,” evidence of the “epigenetic effects of food on the brain,” and the benefits of exercise for both the mind and body.

Treating ADHD Through Both Mind and Body

Speaking of mind and body, one of the more interesting studies of non-pharmacologic treatments for ADHD appears in the journal Children-Basel. Authors there write that the implications of mind-body therapies, including “mindfulness, biofeedback, deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive relaxation, hypnotherapy, and yoga” for minimizing ADHD symptoms should continue to be explored. “Meditation and mindfulness may improve symptoms not because of the quantity of brainwave activity, but because of the learned skill to control attention and focus to a specific purpose or action (i.e., the breath) … How mind-body therapies affect neuroanatomical and neurotransmitter [brain] function may also support [their] therapeutic use,” they conclude.

We Are Still Learning

Of course, all this information demonstrates we as experts have much more to learn about ADHD and ways of effectively controlling it. What we do know, however, is that ADHD patients have simple, no-cost steps they can take now— on their own—to improve the quality of their lives. Here are a few tips:

  • Download specialized apps to your mobile phone. Yes, apps. Some apps help manage time (like GoogleKeep or Todoist, which supports task lists and reminder alerts for getting projects done) and CalenMob (for syncing calendars); others apply to organizing finances (Simplifi), calming you (Naturespace and Breathe2Relax), or preventing impulsive judgments and spending (Urge).
  • Take charge of your life and develop a structure for it. De-clutter, clean up messes—now. Set up a filing system for important papers, invest in calendars you can write notes on or fill with Post-it reminders, avoid making promises you are unable to keep.
  • Wear a watch, so that you simply have to lift your wrist or turn your head to know the time. Anticipate a project, an errand, or a trip through traffic is likely to take longer than you think. Vow to be on time. A 2 p.m. appointment means just that – big clock hand on the 12 and small one on the 2.
  • Prioritize tasks and then set a schedule to accomplish them. Avoid getting sidetracked or jumping from project to project without completing any of them.
  • Follow daily routines. Move through your day like clockwork. Arise from bed about the same time; eat at the same times; set aside an appropriate amount of time for reading, meditation, important phone calls, bill paying, and other priority tasks during specific times of day; return to bed at the same time.

And, as the ADDitude magazine article suggests, eat right, sleep well, and exercise. They are not only key elements for managing symptoms of ADHD. They are the recipe for overall good health.

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