Attentions disorders are on the rise with over 11% of American children struggling with some variation of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). While mainstream treatment typically includes prescriptions such as Adderall, Ritalin, Strattera, Clonidine or antidepressants, drugs do little to address the root cause of symptoms. Furthermore, pharmaceutical approaches can result in adverse reactions such as sleep disturbance, decreased appetite, delayed growth, head and stomach aches, tics, irritability and moodiness.
With a series of negative side effects such as those, it is not surprising that natural alternatives have gained in popularity. Fortunately, there are quite a few scientifically supported methods for improving symptoms associated with ADD/ADHD that focus on adjusting imbalances within the body at the source. We have compiled the Top 7 Alternatives below.
Allergenic or Inflammatory foods
People that are sensitive to certain foods can knowingly or unknowingly experience inflammation within the gut which can result in disordered neurotransmitter production and brain inflammation (1). Removing allergenic foods with an elimination diet can be very helpful.
In a study of 76 children with ADHD, 82% of children had significantly improved behavior and 21% were classified as having normal behavior after 4 weeks on an “oligo-antigenic diet” (2). This type of diet includes meats such as lamb or chicken, fruits such as banana and apple, green vegetables, with carbohydrates such as rice and potatoes alongside vitamins, water and calcium.
A separate study observed 182 children with ADHD on an elimination diet which resulted in 66% experiencing “excellent” improvement (3). After behavior stabilized, foods were reintroduced individually. The following were the most reactive foods:
- Sugar (refined)
- Food coloring (especially red)
- Additives and artificial flavors
As far back as the 1970’s, food has been investigated as a probable link to ADHD. The Feingold diet was created by Benjamin Feingold, MD based on observations that 30-50% of his patients with ADHD improved after removing/reducing foods and medications, such as aspirin, which are high in salicylates in tandem with foods and medications containing artificial colors and flavors (4). Feingold’s clinical findings were supported with over a dozen research studies and the list of dangerous food substances was expanded to include MSG, benzoate preservatives and more.
Removing foods and embarking on an elimination diet can feel overwhelming, especially when trying to convince a child to comply. For a more manageable approach, try eliminating the most common food allergens (such as those foods listed above) as a first step to identifying if your child’s symptoms are diet related. If there is no improvement, there may be a benefit in trying the Feingold diet.
Decrease screen time and increase exercise
Many parents notice that their child’s behavior changes after screen time, however parents that are supporting a child with attention challenges may notice a more apparent decrease in focus and positive behavior. Research is clear that screen time has a directly negative effect in those already struggling with attention (5). In fact, studies have found that this negative effect is present in children, adolescents and young adults. Decreasing screen time can feel like a big challenge initially, but children are often able to self-regulate better when they are less distracted by screens leading to fewer challenges in the long-term.
Supplementation can improve behavior in those suffering from micronutrient deficiencies linked to ADD/ADHD. Many nutrient deficiencies have a direct effect on neurological function and numerous studies have found that kids with attention disorders suffer have one or more nutrient insufficiency. Deficiencies can be caused by a lack of dietary intake or a genetic propensity towards poor absorption and need for higher doses to meet daily requirements.
Studies have found a variance of iron deficiency in kids with ADD/ADHD ranging from 18% up to 84% likely due to different regional dietary patterns (6). After supplementation, iron-deficient children had significant improvement in behavior comparable to those using stimulant medications. Dietary iron is obtained though eating spirulina, grass-fed beef, lentils, spinach, black beans and pistachios.
Magnesium and B6
Pairing supplementation of magnesium and B6 for 8 weeks resulted in significant improvements in aggressiveness and hyperactivity in a study of 40 school-aged children (7). Magnesium and B6 are both common deficiencies. Dietary sources of magnesium include leafy greens like spinach and chard as well as almonds, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, and beans. B6 is found in turkey and chicken breast, grass-fed beef, pistachios, pinto beans, and avocado.
Zinc deficiency is common in children with ADD/ADHD and multiple studies found that kids with attention disorders had significantly lower zinc levels than healthy kids (8). Interestingly, one study found that a small percentage of children had excessively high zinc levels leading researchers to conclude that irregular zinc metabolism, and not simply deficiency, may be a factor in ADD/ADHD. Excessive zinc intake can deplete copper stores so it is best to supplement zinc alongside copper. The highest dietary sources of zinc are lamb, grass-fed beef, chickpeas, pumpkin and flax seeds, nuts, chicken and beans.
Omega-3 & Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Imbalance or deficiencies in fatty acids are not unusual due to the large amount of unhealthy inflammatory oils added to processed foods today. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids work best in a balance of 2 Omega-6 to 1 Omega-3 within the body but often children and adults consuming a western diet are closer to 25:1. This sets the stage for neurological inflammation and may be the reason that a recent review found that 13 of 16 studies focused on supplementing essential fatty acids to children with ADHD had significantly positive effects (9). The researcher concluded that supplementation with the ratio of 9:3:1 eicosapentaenoic acid: docosahexaenoic acid: gamma linolenic acid, respectively, allowed children to reduce symptoms and medication. Reducing processed foods and increasing whole foods such as fish, flax, nuts and seeds is a great way to support fatty acid balance.
Some children with ADHD have been found to have low plasma levels of L-carnitine and have benefited greatly from supplementation after 8 weeks. Although the actions of L-carnitine are not totally understood, it is thought that increasing intake improves energy production on a cellular level. Large doses may be detrimental long-term so smaller doses are recommended alongside a healthy whole food diet. L-Carnitine is found in the highest concentration in red meat. Smaller amounts are available in other animal products like poultry, seafood and dairy.
A Note about Supplementation
It is very important that supplementation is supervised by a healthcare practitioner due to the inherent risk involving individual differences in metabolism, excessive intake leading to adverse reactions, drug interactions, and deficiencies in competing nutrients. However, increasing dietary intake of these micronutrients is typically safe and beneficial.
Essential oils are known for their myriad properties ranging from antimicrobial to calming and beyond. Not surprisingly, a few oils have also been found to be helpful in managing ADD/ADHD.
Dr. Terry Friedman completed a study with 40 children in 2001 and concluded that smelling vetiver oil, derived from the root of an Asian grass, three times per day for 30 days improved the performance of children with attention disorders by 100% (10). The study also found positive effects for many children after smelling cedarwood oil.
Oils such as lavender have a calming effect while rosemary, and peppermint increase alertness resulting in the ability to focus on tasks for longer periods of time.
Eating a healthy breakfast with a balance of protein, healthy fat and complex carbohydrates from whole foods can be extremely beneficial for children with ADD/ADHD. Research supports that when children struggling with attention disorders experience a drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) below <75mg/dL, they experience a significant decrease in cognitive behavior and performance. Hypoglycemia can occur when a child has not eaten for a long period of time, such as after a night of sleep, but can also occur from a biological response called reactive hypoglycemia. This occurs when a child eats a high-sugar/refined carbohydrate meal forcing a strong insulin response after the blood sugar shoots up quickly causing the blood sugar to then drops too low. For this reason, it is imperative that children eat a balanced breakfast with healthy anti-inflammatory fats and lean protein to maintain healthy blood sugar levels and stave off hunger by slowing digestion. Here are a few balanced breakfast options:
Eggs are an excellent source of protein and fat as well as important micronutrients. Beginning the day with eggs scrambled with your child’s favorite vegetables and topped with avocado or wrap up the “goods” in an omelet for a wonderful start to the day. For a filling and balanced meal, add a side of sweet potato hash browns or fries.
Combine the following in a food processor for 30 seconds or more to desired consistency. Enjoy with nut milk or coconut yogurt (feel free to sub nuts and seeds for other varieties):
- 1 cup raw almonds
- 1 cup raw cashews
- 1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
- 1 cup raw sunflower seeds
- ½ cup raisins
- 1/3 cup melted honey
- 1/3 cup melted coconut oil or grass-fed butter
- 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- ¼ tsp salt
In a blender, combine:
- 3 pastured eggs
- 1 cup raw cashews
- 2/3 cup water or nut milk
- 1 tbsp. honey
- 3 tbsp. melted coconut oil
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ¾ tsp baking soda
- 2 tbsp. coconut flour
Use grass-fed butter or coconut oil for frying and top with a drizzle of real maple syrup
Chocolate – almond – banana smoothie
Blend 1 scoop stevia-sweetened chocolate protein powder with ½ cup ice, ¾ cup nut milk, 1 tbsp. almond butter, ½ banana, and 1 large handful of spinach.
Schools that support kinesthetic learning
Some experts theorize that children struggling with attention disorders suffer in school from lack of stimulation. This may be why stimulant drugs such as Ritalin seem to be effective for some children. They go onto explain that these children likely fall under the umbrella of kinesthetic learners, meaning that they learn best by “doing” and interacting (12). This is in comparison to people that learn more efficiently by auditory or visual means.
Discussing your child’s options for learning through kinesthetic, or hands-on means with potential schools and teachers may lay the groundwork for a more successful school experience.
NFB and Brain Map
Neurofeedback (also called EEG biofeedback, Neurotherapy and Brainwave Biofeedback) is a noninvasive procedure that involves placing electrodes on the surface of the scalp. Electrodes measure activity throughout the regions of the brain and display the brain waves on a computer monitor. In people suffering from ADD/ADHD, brain wave activity may be dysregulated in specific areas. By utilizing neurofeedback procedures, the practitioner can monitor brain waves while the patient plays video games, watches a movie, or listens to music. Simultaneously, the practitioner can encourage the brain to utilize appropriate brain waves by making small adjustments in the video game, music or movie with an integrated computer program which subconsciously provides feedback to the patient.
The goal is to train the brain by providing biofeedback associated with utilization of the appropriate areas of the brain. This can be thought of as exercise or conditioning for a brain and the benefits are often permanent. For over a decade, research has supported the beneficial and positive effects of neurofeedback for children with ADD/ADHD citing improved alertness, attention, behavior, emotional regulation mental flexibility and cognitive function (13).
Give it a Try
It may not be easy, but trying the scientifically supported natural alternatives discussed in this article with the support of a trained healthcare professional can offer an opportunity for permanent improvements in your or your child’s life. Whenever imbalances are addressed at the foundation, there is a better likelihood of reducing or reversing unwanted symptoms and experiencing optimal health!
CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2015;14(1):110-31.
Lancet. 1985 Mar 9;1(8428):540-5
Crook WG. Can what a child eats make him dull, stupid or hyperactive? J Disabil 1980; 13: 281-286
Med J Aust. 1978 Dec 2;2(12):570-2.
Pediatrics. 2010 Aug;126(2):214-21. doi: 10.1542/peds.2009-1508. Epub 2010 Jul 5.
J Atten Disord. 2013 May;17(4):347-57. doi: 10.1177/1087054711430712. Epub 2012 Jan 30.
Magnes Res. 2006 Mar;19(1):46-52.
Biol Psychiatry. 1996 Dec 15;40(12):1308-10.
J Lipids. 2017;2017:6285218. doi: 10.1155/2017/6285218. Epub 2017 Aug 30.
Friendman, T. Attention Deficit And Hyperactivity Disorder
J Huazhong Univ Sci Technolog Med Sci. 2005;25(3):368-70.