After three decades of treating thousands of children and adolescents with ADHD, I’ve learned this essential fact about the disorder: ADHD is not a "behavior problem" or a "discipline problem"; ADHD is a medical disorder in which genetic, neurological, nutritional, and environmental factors imbalance the brain, causing unbalanced behavior.
Every person with ADHD—child, adolescent, or adult—has a unique pattern of deficiencies and excesses that imbalance the brain. Correcting these deficiencies and excesses, by adding what is needed and subtracting what isn’t, is key to treating ADHD. And although everyone is different, there are three "additions" and three "subtractions" that can help just about anyone with their attention:
1. Add magnesium.
I’ve been treating children and adults with ADHD for 30 years—and I can’t remember one person with the disorder who didn’t benefit from taking a magnesium supplement. Why? Too little magnesium weakens the brain because the mineral plays a key role in the formation of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that help send messages between brain cells. The possible results of a magnesium-deprived brain: poor concentration, irritability and anxiety, depression and apathy, mood swings, fatigue, and sleep problems. Unfortunately, nine out of ten people with ADHD are deficient in the mineral.
My recommendation: For those 13 and older, 200 to 300 milligrams (mg) twice daily is what I usually suggest to my patients.
2. Add zinc.
Like magnesium, the mineral zinc helps create several neurotransmitters. It’s also necessary for the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. In fact, zinc nourishes the entire brain, neuron by neuron; it’s essential for the stability of the outer covering (membrane) of neurons, it protects neurons from oxidative damage, and it keeps neurons energized. Like magnesium, research shows that many people with ADHD are deficient in zinc—and that replacing the mineral improves symptoms.
My recommendation: 15 mg, twice daily, with meals. (I don’t recommend zinc for children under 6.)
3. Add in probiotics.
In one study, taking a supplement of probiotics—good-for-you bacteria, like the lactobacillus acidophilus found in yogurt and other fermented foods—was just as effective as the ADHD drug Ritalin in improving impulse control and attentiveness. Probiotics help balance the brain in several ways. They affect the vagus nerve, which starts at the brainstem and ends at the colon. They also help manufacture neurotransmitters and balance hormones. They strengthen the immune system (inflammation from immune problems affects the brain) and they neutralize toxic by-products of unfriendly bacteria that imbalance brain function.
My recommendation: Consider taking probiotics., 50 to 60 billion CFUs total per day.
4. Say no to sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).
Doctors who dismiss the connection between a sugary diet and ADHD have their heads in the sand—or maybe in the sugar bowl. In my experience with thousands of parents of kids with ADHD, many see behavior worsen after their child consumes a lot of sugar—and behavior gradually improves when their child eats a diet low in sugar and other refined carbohydrates. However, the best way to deal with sugar isn’t to drive yourself and your child crazy by trying to cut every last speck of the stuff out of the diet. A smarter approach is to reduce or remove sugar-sweetened beverages and drinks like soda. They’re the main source of sugar in the diets of children and adolescents. (Other SSBs include fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and coffee or tea drinks.)
My recommendation: Keep SSBs off your shopping list and out of the house. Research shows that if you don’t buy them, you won’t drink them.
5. Avoid inactivity.
Dozens of studies on ADHD and exercise show that regular exercise can reduce hyperactivity, reduce inattention, reduce impulsivity, and help children cooperate with parents, siblings, teachers, and friends. It can improve motor skills, balance, and strength—giving ADHD children a greater sense of physical competence and comfort. It will also improve "executive function"—the ability to organize, make decisions, think ahead, and delay short-term gratification for long-term results as well as boost math and reading scores, ease stress, decrease intrusive thoughts, lessen worry and anxiety, and improve mood!
And any type of activity can work. Those same studies show that you can improve ADHD using many types of exercise, including martial arts, yoga, walking, jogging, running and races, bicycling, swimming and aquatic exercise, skipping rope, dancing, weight-training, basketball, soccer, and even tag. In other words, it’s not the type of exercise that matters—it’s getting out and moving your body that counts.
My recommendation: Maximize exercise; never minimize it.
6. Eliminate poor sleep.
My clinical experience has shown me that nearly every child and adult with ADHD has sleep problems like trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early—and dozens of scientific studies confirm my clinical findings. Fortunately, the mineral magnesium—which helps relax the body and calm the mind—is one of the best (if not the best) sleeping aid you can give to your ADHD child or take yourself. In fact, my clinical experience has shown me that a deficiency of magnesium is often the cause of sleeping problems.
Nutritional deficiencies are often neglected in the treatment of ADHD, but thanks to the growing field of integrative psychiatry, there is hope for successful, holistic treatment for children and adults with ADHD.
This article was co-authored by Bill Gottlieb.