Your child often exhibits rambunctious, restless behavior that sometimes includes anxiety, aggressiveness, and inability to concentrate.
His teacher requests a conference. When you meet up, she mentions your child often gets distracted, says he needs frequent reminders to finish his homework, and interrupts other classmates. She even calls him hyperactive.
Your question becomes, is this normal behavior for children his age, or could this indicate a deeper underlying problem?
What is ADHD?
If a child exhibits these behaviors nearly constantly, your doctor might diagnose him or her with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Characterized by hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity, ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders that, left unchecked, can continue into adolescence and as adult ADHD.
“Everyone has trouble at times with paying attention, listening, or waiting,” says an article on Kids Health. “But people with ADHD have trouble with these things almost all the time. They’re not doing it on purpose. ADHD is a medical condition that affects a person’s attention and self-control.”
Experts aren’t entirely sure “what is ADHD” (or what causes ADHD). Some suspect genetics, environment, or some combination of these and other factors contribute to this condition. Like any disorder, multiple factors probably contribute to signs of ADHD; what we call a multifactorial problem.
Regardless, how ADHD symptoms can impact social interaction and wellbeing are vast and differ dramatically among children. ADHD-related symptoms include learning disabilities, depression and anxiety, antisocial behavior, bipolar disorder, and sleep disorders (including bed-wetting problems).
By the way, people often confuse ADHD with attention deficit disorder (ADD), but there’s a difference that’s worth mentioning. ADD is a type of ADHD that doesn’t involve constant movement and fidgeting, but the definitions aren’t entirely clear-cut.
“The confusion dates to 1994,” says WebMD. “That’s when doctors decided all forms of attention-deficit disorder would be called ‘attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,’ even if the person wasn’t hyperactive.” Throughout this article, we’ll use ADHD.
ADHD in Children: Troubling Statistics
The American Psychiatric Association argues about five percent of children have ADHD. Other studies show higher numbers: According to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about eight percent of children were diagnosed with ADHD in 2003. By 2012, that number grew to 11 percent and will likely continue to rise.
An increase in ADHD medications accompanies that diagnosis. (More on those in a minute.) The percent of children ages four to 17 using ADHD medications increased from 4.8 percent in 2007 to 6.1 percent in 2011. About three in four children aged two to five with ADHD – in other words, ADHD in toddlers or in that age range – received medication, based on healthcare claims data from 2008-2014.
ADHD doesn’t discriminate: ADHD can impact anyone regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic class. At the same time, males have three times the risk compared with females. One particularly alarming statistic: The rate of ADHD among non-Hispanic black girls increased a whopping 90 percent from 2001 to 2010.
Actually, that isn’t the only alarming statistic. ADHD symptoms include difficulty focusing and paying attention, difficulty controlling behavior, and hyperactivity. Other statistics equally troubling include:
- About 50 – 65 percent of children with ADHD have other psychiatric disorders including autism spectrum disorder.
- Symptoms of ADHD persist in up to 78 percent of children into adulthood.
- Researchers show people suffering from ADHD might have decreased life expectancy, with more than double the risk of premature death from unnatural causes, like accidents, compared to people without ADHD.
Medication and Behavioral Therapy: How Doctors Treat ADHD
Healthcare professionals usually treat ADHD with a combination of behavioral therapy and prescription drugs. The benefits of therapy aren’t immediate, but pharmaceutical drugs can help relieve some of the child’s symptoms (bringing parents and teachers temporary relief from, say, behavioral issues).
“While ADHD medications do not always work perfectly for everyone, in many cases they take effect almost instantly,” says Ariana Eunjung Cha in The Washington Post. “Behavior therapy, on the other hand, can take many months to have an impact and often requires significant trial and error to figure out which strategies work.”
Medications to treat ADHD include methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines (Adderall). Some researchers believe that physicians are more likely to prescribe medications to those with more severe ADHD compared with those exhibiting milder symptoms.
Regardless of who gets them, as Cha notes, “the long-term effects of those drugs on a young brain and body have not been well studied, and the side effects can be numerous, including poor appetite, sleeplessness, irritability and slowed growth.”
And they’re heavily prescribed. Government statistics in 2016 found about 75 percent of young children with ADHD received medications – that’s three out of every four children showing signs and symptoms of ADHD! – leading U.S. health officials to urge parents try behavior therapy first before trying drugs.
But drugs are also a big business. In a 2014 Psychology Today article, Dale Archer, MD, notes that the sale of these medications is now five times what they were in 2002, with revenues exceeding $8 billion per year.
Many parents don’t want to keep their child on a drug with side effects, which can be vast and in the bigger picture exacerbate ADHD-related problems. According to Roy Boorady, MD, sleep problems, moodiness and irritability (especially once the medication wears off), headaches, and delayed growth are just some of the side effects with ADHD medications. Others include decreased appetite, weight loss, increased blood pressure, dizziness, and nervousness.
A Different Approach to ADHD
Everyone is different; a concept called biochemical individuality. It likewise makes sense that every child with ADHD, rather than lumping everyone into one category, will exhibit different behaviors and symptoms.
According to Mark Hyman, MD, every case of ADHD is unique, with different imbalances that require different diagnostic tests and therapies.
“We give names to disease like depression or ADHD,” he says in his book The UltraMind Solution, “but that just helps us group people together who have the same symptoms for the purposes of giving them all the same drug therapy.”
In other words, you go to your doctor, who diagnoses your child with ADHD, writes a prescription, and makes a referral to see a behavioral therapist. That might be oversimplifying the process somewhat, but that becomes a typical experience many parents have.
Practitioners like Hyman take a different approach to disorders like ADHD: Rather than assign a label onto the problem and write a prescription or make a referral, they determine what might be creating that problem to begin, and set about correcting it.
That often takes time, trial-and-error, and effort, but ultimately it becomes a far more effective approach to remedying ADHD.
At the same time, research shows some simple but powerful dietary and lifestyle modifications can have a profound effect on ADHD. Food often becomes the place to begin. What your child eats can profoundly influence behavior including attention, conduct disorder, and mood.
All-Natural Strategies for Dealing with ADHD
ADHD can be a complex disorder that requires multiple approaches to remedy, but taking the right steps can help your child become a more confident person and a more focused student. Armed with the right tactics, they can grow into healthy, happy, well-adjusted adolescents and adults. These strategies can help.
1. Cut the sugar.
The link between sugary processed foods and ADHD is less than conclusive, but any parent knows how overeating sugar can leave any kid – especially a child with ADHD – feeling jittery, rambunctious, and overly energetic. “Numerous studies have looked at the relationship between refined sugar and ADHD,” says Archer. “Most indicate sugar does not play a role, while mothers in the trenches with children bouncing off the walls often disagree.” Archer recommends letting your child eat sugar and monitor his or her behavior in a written log for one week. Then remove sugar the following week. Repeat until you have four weeks of data and compare the results.
2. Eat more anti-inflammatory foods.
Foods like wild-caught fish and freshly ground flaxseed (in protein smoothies) are great, but if your kid won’t touch those, supplements can also help. One systematic review and meta-analysis found omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, particularly with higher doses of the fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), could modestly help treat ADHD. Researchers concluded “given its relatively benign side-effect profile and evidence of modest efficacy, it may be reasonable to use omega-3 fatty supplementation to augment traditional pharmacologic interventions or for families who decline other psychopharmacologic options.”
3. Increase antioxidant intake.
One study with 76 children found significantly increased oxidative stress in those with ADHD. Foods high in antioxidants include berries and other fruits and a colorful assortment of vegetables. Give your kids as many varieties of these as he or she can eat, and make them fun with snacks like organic apple slices with almond butter. Load up their smoothies with organic berries. Dark chocolate is also rich in antioxidants. Look for a low-sugar dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao.
4. Address nutrient deficiencies.
A nutrient-poor diet high in sugar means many children aren’t getting optimal nutrients, and many medications can further deplete those nutrients. Take vitamin B6: The body needs this vitamin to convert tryptophan into your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, and insufficient serotonin can manifest as mood disorders including ADHD. Other research shows kids with ADHD have significantly lower levels of vitamin D. A full spectrum of nutrient deficiencies is beyond this article’s scope. Please work with your chiropractor or other healthcare professional to test for nutrient insufficiencies and address supplementation to optimize those levels.
5. Eliminate food sensitivities.
Elimination diets have been used for decades to treat ADHD. They typically demand at least a two-to-four-week period where someone strictly adheres and completely avoids potentially problematic foods. Researchers connect gluten sensitivities with ADHD, and dairy can also create problems. Consider pulling the usual suspects – including dairy, gluten, and added sugars – for at least three weeks (maybe longer or even permanently) and see if ADHD symptoms don’t improve.
6. Mind the gut.
Researchers speculate dietary components that modulate gut microbiota might also influence ADHD development or symptoms. Because dopamine (your “reward” neurotransmitters) are abnormalities and deficits in reward processing are hallmarks of ADHD, researchers believe the microbiome might contribute to ADHD development via the gut-brain axis. Further studies will elucidate those and other gut-brain connections, and researchers believe a better understanding about the gut microbiome might provide new possibilities for ADHD prevention and treatment.
7. Implement regular exercise.
Exercise has a powerful effect on your body but also your brain, and research shows it can impact structural brain growth and functional neurocognitive development, benefiting children with ADHD. What becomes important is finding a type of exercise your child enjoys and will actually stick with consistently. That might mean team sports, lifting weights, or yoga.
8. Get sufficient sleep.
Sleep problems and sleep disorders go hand-in-hand with ADHD. A vicious cycle occurs as poor sleep impacts behavioral issues and other ADHD symptoms, and ADHD can subsequently interfere with sleep levels. Researchers recommend good sleep hygiene as a first line of therapy here. Ensure your child has a set bedtime each evening, find rituals to help him or her unwind before bed, and minimize stimuli like TV watching or video games. Some children with ADHD might require nutrients like melatonin to fall and stay asleep safely. Speak with your chiropractor or other healthcare professional to discuss non-invasive sleep options.
9. Incorporate mind-body therapy.
Research shows yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation are among the many tools that can significantly improve symptoms of ADHD among children. These therapies provide a wide range of effects on psychosocial, emotional, and neurobiological functioning, and one study found they can also reduce costs over a 10-year period compared with medications. (Never mind that techniques like medication carry no side effects, unlike medication.) Find something your child will do. If yoga classes are akin to a dental visit, those feelings could amplify ADHD symptoms. At the same time, giving your child an opportunity to try these mind-body therapies could yield improvements in mood, behavior, and other factors.
10. Visit a chiropractor.
With growing concerns about medications, more people are seeking alternative approaches to treating children with ADHD. One review among four males, (nine to 13 years old) found improvement in ADHD symptoms including hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattentiveness, as well as behavioral, social, or emotional difficulties who received chiropractic care for at least five months. A chiropractor can also help you further address a dietary and lifestyle protocol that addresses the specific needs of your child.
With these strategies, you can naturally address ADHD whether you or your child is taking medication or not. Patience and time are keywords here. Every situation will be different, so slapping a label onto a child and then medicating him doesn’t look at the underlying factors that could contribute to ADHD.
That’s why I encourage you to work with your chiropractor and/or your team of healthcare professionals to address your body’s whole health. And please, never ever take anyone off ADHD medication or discontinue any protocol without permission of your qualified practitioner.