Besides Ritalin...Alternative Approaches to Treating AD/HD


The sheer magnitude of the AD/HD epidemic is staggering. The true frequency of the disorder is very difficult to determine, primarily because there is so much disagreement among doctors about what it is.Overall, it is estimated that between 3-6% of school-age kids in America suffer from AD/HD. Of these, 10-50% will continue to show signs well into adolescence and adulthood. Males with AD/HD outnumber females 5-10:1, though it has proven to be much more difficult to treat girls with conventional treatments.


There is even less agreement among doctors about the cause(s) of AD/HD. No single cause has been discovered, and most doctors believe that it is a complex disorder of brain chemistry and function. Contributing factors may include genetic tendencies, difficult home environments, parental drug use or mental disorders. Many others believe that AD/HD may be related to food allergies or sensitivities, nutritional deficiencies, toxic exposures, heavy metal exposure, or as yet unknown causes.


Conventional treatment

Most kids diagnosed with AD/HD are given prescription drugs, usually stimulants such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts). Why using a stimulant helps to tone down their hyperactivity is still not completely understood. These drugs do seem to work in the short term. They appear to improve kids' organizational skills and handwriting, and teachers often report an improvement in school performance. They are not without side effects, however. Heart palpitations or arrythmias, insomnia, restlessness, headaches, hyperactivity, dizziness, nausea and rashes are commonly reported. Slower growth and depression are some of the more troubling side effects.


Another commonly prescribed drug is Strattera (atomoxetine), which has recently been linked to an increased risk of suicide in children and adolescents. Strattera is an anti-depressant drug whose long-term use for children has not yet been fully evaluated in controlled medical trials. Some physicians warn that using a drug like Strattera could permanently change children's developing brain chemistry.


Alternatives to prescription medication


Nutritional therapy should be a cornerstone of AD/HD treatment. A whole foods diet will provide one with a higher percentage of vitamins and minerals, while reducing exposures to potentially irritating preservatives, colorings and other food additives. Whenever possible, organic foods should be used to reduce exposure to pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.


Food sensitivities or allergies may also be a contributing factor in AD/HD (and other disorders of brain chemistry). While it is true that no single food produces AD/HD symptoms in most kids all of the time, it is highly possible that an abnormal reaction to some food(s) may lead to changes in behavior and function. Indeed, estimates from experts in the field state that between 75-80% of kids with AD/HD have allergies, specific food sensitivities or both. Identifying which foods are the problem is challenging, and involves eliminating the most common triggering foods for a period of time and then reintroducing them one at a time while watching closely for a change in symptoms.The most common problem foods are milk, eggs, wheat, corn, chocolate, oranges, peanuts and soy. For many kids, food additives or sweeteners may be an issue, particularly artificial food colorings such as red #3 (erythrosine) and yellow #5 (tartrazine). Many patients have found success with special diets such as the Feingold diet, which eliminates food additives and foods that contain natural salicylates, a class of chemicals that resemble aspirin.


Using nutritional supplements to correct deficiencies can also be helpful. Many kids with AD/HD benefit greatly when they take an essential fatty acid supplement, particularly one that contains DHA. Additionally, many kids with AD/HD are found to be deficient in trace minerals, which are notably important in passing nerve impulses in the brain. B-complex vitamins are also required to make the chemicals that transmit nerve signals in the brain.


Behavioral techniques involve training parents and teachers to help bring about positive changes in children's behaviors. This often involves reinforcing desired behaviors, such as sitting still in class, with praise and small rewards. Other techniques include biofeedback, which has been called a “video game for the body”. A biofeedback machine measures things like heart rate, muscle tension, body temperature, or brain-wave activity, and helps to show a child suffering from AD/HD what is happening in their body so that they may learn how better to control it. Teaching kids with AD/HD relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation may also help to calm down their overactive minds.


Oftentimes calming herbs can be used to tone down hyperactivity and help with the insomnia frequently experienced by those with AD/HD. Helpful herbs may include lemon balm, chamomile, valerian or kava. As always, one should consult with a well-trained herbal practitioner before taking any herbs long-term.


Heavy metals are toxic to the brain, and many kids are exposed to them through diet, water or other sources, such as vaccines or dental fillings. A physician trained in environmental medicine can identify whether a child with AD/HD has suffered such exposure, and if so, can help remove the poisonous heavy metals using a process known as chelation.


Consulting a constitutional homeopathic practitioner may also be of great help. Homeopathic medicines are safe, have very few, if any, side effects, and are very affordable.


As a complex disorder, AD/HD often responds well to a varied treatment approach. Parents and kids facing or living with a diagnosis of AD/HD need to educate themselves about the many treatment options available and communicate openly with their health care providers about their needs and concerns. Choosing a well-rounded treatment approach helps to ensure that all potential causes are addressed, and that 3-6% of our kids emerge as patient, productive adults.



Children and Adults with AD/HD

The American Feingold Association