Written by Dr. Vincent Esposito

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD/ADD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in children with a 42% increase in the rate of diagnosis between 2003 and 2011. (1)(2) A 2007 study estimates the cost of illness in one individual is $14,576/year. Treatments for ADHD cost Americans an estimated $42.5 billion/year. A 2016 CDC study estimates about 6.1 million children between the ages of 2 and 17 have an ADHD diagnosis. (3) With all the pressure that comes with an ADHD diagnosis, it is becoming more important than ever to find viable natural ADHD treatments.

woman consoling a young boy

ADHD prevalence rates are rising, as is the need for natural treatment strategies.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder defined by impulsive, hyperactive, and inattentive behavior. Generally, ADHD consists of a combination of the following symptoms (4):

  • Having trouble concentrating or focusing
  • Inattention
  • Hyperactivity
  • Having difficulty staying organized
  • Poor time management
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Getting distracted easily
  • Restlessness
  • Frequently interrupting
  • Impulsive actions
  • Being forgetful about completing tasks
  • Having difficulty sitting still
  • Fidgeting
  • Speaking out of turn

Children diagnosed with ADHD/ADD are more likely to have a coexisting condition, including:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Conduct disorders and difficulties, including antisocial behavior, fighting, and oppositional defiant disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Substance abuse
  • Bed-wetting problems
  • Sleep disorders

As of today, it is believed that a combination of genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of ADHD. These can include: (4)

  • Exposure to alcohol, drugs, or cigarette smoke during pregnancy
  • Low birth weight
  • Lack of oxygen at birth
  • Exposure to the environmental toxin during birth or during developmental years
  • Gender (ADHD is more common in males)
  • Injury to the brain

ADHD interventions

Typical treatments for ADHD include medication (usually a stimulant like Adderall or Ritalin) of children, according to a CDC study (62%), psychotherapy, behavioral therapy (47%), or a combination. (6)(3) Researchers suggest a multi-pronged approach to ADHD treatment for children. (7)

We will take a look at the role nutrition, sleep, physical activity, and natural supplements can play a role in the treatment of ADHD.

Nutrition and ADHD

Recent research on ADHD seems to find an association with food additives and ADHD prevalence. (8) More research is needed on this, as the studies looking at this connection could be prone to publication bias and tend to be small. (9)

Food intolerances and food allergies have also been linked to ADHD. Some studies have used an elimination diet to help identify food triggers. (10)(11) An elimination diet involves removing potential dietary triggers, such as gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, and nuts for a specified amount of time. Then, each food is introduced one at a time over the course of a few weeks, while monitoring for any behavioral changes.

little kid eating a snack

Food allergies are associated with heightened ADHD symptoms. Eliminating these go a long way in improving overall behavior.

Additionally, those with ADHD should look to:

  • Reduce and eliminate sugar/refined carbohydrates
  • Increase healthy fats
    • EFAs, avocados, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds
  • Eat quality protein (grass-fed, organic, wild products)
  • Eat green leafy vegetables
    • Increase vegetable intake to at least 5-7 servings/day
  • Avoid food sensitivities and/or food triggers

Sleep and ADHD

Between 25-50% of those with an ADHD diagnosis experience trouble sleeping. The most common symptoms include trouble falling asleep, waking up at night, and reduced sleep durations. (12) Those with ADHD are twice as likely to suffer from insomnia, which can further exacerbate symptoms and mood disorders. (13) Insomnia can be a symptom of ADHD due to changes in the circadian rhythm and regulation of melatonin levels. However, insomnia can also be a side-effect of medications used to treat insomnia, particularly stimulants. Children who take stimulants are twice as likely to suffer from sleep disturbances or insomnia. (14)

Therefore, it is crucial to develop and maintain proper sleep hygiene, as this has been shown to be helpful in children with ADHD. A 12-week study followed children who went through a sleep training program. (15) They found those who completed the program had improved mood, emotion, and social relationships.

child sleeping on his bed

Children with ADHD are twice as likely to suffer from insomnia, so it is important to address and maintain proper sleep hygiene.

Here are some tips you can incorporate to improve your sleep hygiene:

  • Finish your last meal at least 3 hours prior to bedtime.
  • Ideally, you should be in bed by 10:00 or 10:30 PM. If you are going to be much later than that, you can start by trying to go to bed 15 minutes earlier each night until you can get to sleep at that time. This helps normalize our circadian rhythms.
  • Stop all electronic activity at least 1 hour prior to bedtime.
    • Reduce screen time, like television, iPads, video games, and computer screens near bedtime
  • Install a blue-light filter on all your electronic devices.
  • Invest in a pair of blue-light filtering glasses.
  • Turn off all night lights.
  • Block any external sources of light, whether it be from street lights or a neighbor’s house.
  • If you snore or are a mouth-breather, it would be wise to consult a dentist, as it leads to poor sleep.
  • Stay away from multivitamins and other stimulating supplements late at night, as they can keep you up.
  • Try to keep your wake and sleep times on the weekends consistent with your weekdays. This is much easier said than done and takes a lot of practice.

Physical exercise and ADHD

Multiple studies have commented on the benefits of incorporating exercise programs for children with ADHD. (16) Exercise (like aerobic exercise and yoga) tends to improve ADHD symptoms, fine motor skills, cognitive function, anxiety, executive function, and social interaction. (17) Other studies have found exercise to improve teacher and patient interaction, information processing, and reading & math performance. (18)

kid on bike outside ridding

Frequent exercise improves ADHD symptoms, executive function, and fine motor skills.

Supplements for ADHD

In addition to an elimination diet, sleep, and exercise modification, research has identified a number of nutrients that can be useful in addressing ADHD symptoms. For starters, a broad multivitamin/multi-mineral formula improved ADHD symptoms and overall mood based on patient and teacher reports. (19)

Magnesium has been shown to improve cognitive function and symptomatology in children who have ADHD and happen to be magnesium-deficient. (20) Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) improve symptoms of ADHD and lowered omega-6 fatty acids, which are known pro-inflammatory compounds. (21) The EPA/DHA supplementation also improved parent-rated ADHD symptoms. Zinc sulfate has also been shown to decrease hyperactivity, impulsivity and improve socialization in children with ADHD. To take that a step further, zinc sulfate supplementation in combination with Omega-3 fatty acids seem to show greater improvements. (22)(23)

The bottom line

ADHD is a multifactorial condition, with epigenetics, genetics, and environmental factors all playing a role. Stimulant treatments tend to still be the standard, but today a multi-pronged approach should be considered, including nutrition, supplements, sleep, and exercise habits.

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