12 Natural Remedies For ADHD To Try Before Medication

Photo: Marco Govel

There's no doubt we have an ever-increasing brain health epidemic in the United States. An estimated 40 million Americans suffer from some sort of anxiety-related disorder, and 30 million people suffer from depression. The prevalence of ADHD, which stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has also skyrocketed in the last few decades. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ADHD diagnoses jumped to 41 percent between 2003 and 2011. In 2016, more than 9 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 17—more than 6 million children in total—were diagnosed with ADHD.

The many symptoms of ADHD.

ADHD is characterized by the inability to keep focused, hyperactivity, and increased impulsivity that can make school and other structured settings challenging for children. It has three main subtypes: hyperactive-impulsive, inattentive, and combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive, all of which can contribute to symptoms such as:

  • Trouble listening
  • Inability to sit still
  • Lack of organizational skills
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Anger management problems
  • Difficulty staying focused

Typically, conventional medicine’s solution to ADHD and other brain-related problems is medication, and ADHD drugs are designed to help manage symptoms by targeting certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Adderall and Ritalin are two of the most common ADHD medications, and they come with a variety of side effects, including trouble sleeping and mood swings. A few studies have looked at the effect these medications can have in the long term, and one found that ADHD medications didn't significantly improve symptoms, and instead, individuals taking them had lower self-esteem than those who weren't prescribed medication. That doesn't mean that medication is not a good choice for everyone; it just means that it's important to seek out all of your options before jumping into a long-term regimen.

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Natural remedies for ADHD.

As a functional medicine practitioner, I try to avoid medications and the side effects that come with them as much as possible. By clinically investigating the underlying and often overlooked factors that contribute to ADHD, we can then target and address these problems naturally (and effectively) to avoid a lifetime of ongoing and sometimes debilitating symptoms. Here's where to start:

1. Correct nutrient deficiencies that might affect the brain.

Your body requires specific nutrients to function optimally—and your brain is no exception. I often see many health problems caused or greatly exasperated by not getting enough of the right nutrients. What do I mean by this? For starters, magnesium deficiency is found more often in children with ADHD, with one study finding that 95 percent of the children with ADHD examined were deficient. Supplementing with 200 milligrams of magnesium per day over six months has been shown to decrease symptoms of hyperactivity.

Photo: Suzanne Clements

Zinc is another common deficiency that is directly related to brain health since it plays an important role in the metabolism of neurotransmitters, specifically your happy hormone dopamine. Low levels of zinc have been correlated with ADHD, and many studies suggest that zinc supplementation may help reduce symptoms of hyperactivity in children. While supplementing with zinc hasn't been shown to help when there isn't a deficiency present, it just goes to show how important this mineral is to healthy brain function. You can find zinc in dark leafy greens, wild-caught salmon, and legumes.

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2. Support any genetic weaknesses linked to ADHD.

Genetics influence almost every aspect of your health, and mutations in your DNA can put you at a higher risk for certain health problems. Examining your genetic weaknesses can help you understand whether these are a factor and help you to address them. In the case of ADHD, mutations in the BHMT gene have been directly associated with developing the condition. Additionally, the COMT gene works to keep the balance between neurotransmitters, and a change in this gene can increase your risk for ADHD.

3. Avoid food dyes and additives.

In functional medicine, we know the power food has over our health. It can either fuel our bodies and be a huge source of health and well-being, or it can feed disease and make us feel "blah." When we think of eliminating certain foods that can damage our health, we usually focus on whole food groups, and we often forget the smaller additives hiding in many of today's prepackaged foods. Our intake of artificial food dyes has increased from 12 milligrams per day in 1950 to 68 milligrams per day in 2012. According to studies, just 50 milligrams a day was shown to increase hyperactivity and symptoms of ADHD. Some of the food dyes and additives to look out for are:

  • FD&C Yellow No. 6: found in cereal, candy, and soft drinks
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5: found in cereal, pickles, and granola bars
  • D&C Yellow No. 1: found in juices and frozen desserts
  • FD&C Red No. 40: found in candy, soft drinks, and even children's over-the-counter medications
  • FD&C Blue No. 1 and No. 2: found in candy, sports drinks, and cereals
  • FD&C Green No. 3: found in candy, sports drinks, cereals, and ice cream
  • Sodium benzoate: a preservative found in everything from soft drinks to condiments
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4. Uncover any food intolerances.

We can't discredit the fact that many food groups as a whole can further aggravate ADHD symptoms. In general, gluten and other grains, dairy, and sugar are some of the most common triggers for those with ADHD. Research has even linked celiac disease with ADHD, with one study showing a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms after starting a gluten-free diet. But what food groups should you eliminate first? Everyone's body is different, so each person is going to have different food sensitivities. An elimination diet is my gold standard for discovering your personal food intolerances to help you take back control of your health and reverse symptoms. Not sure where to begin? Check out my mindbodygreen Elimination Diet Class.

5. Manage inflammation levels.

Your gut and brain are inextricably linked through the gut-brain axis. In other words: What happens in your gut affects your brain and vice versa. For example, zonulin and occludin are two proteins that contribute to both blood-brain barrier and gut-lining permeability. You can determine whether you have permeability issues through the presence of antibodies, and most likely, if one is compromised, the other one is also. When these are compromised, undigested food proteins and bacterial endotoxins leak into the bloodstream and brain, where they don't belong, increasing inflammation.

A whole area of medical research known as the cytokine model of cognitive function looks at how brain inflammation is implicated in the onset and perpetuation of brain problems such as ADHD. The first step in managing inflammation is assessing where you stand with diagnostic testing. I run these labs in my functional medicine clinic to determine a patient's inflammation levels:

  • Blood-brain barrier proteins: These can determine if the blood-brain barrier has been breached.
  • Zonulin and Occludin: This blood test looks to see if antibodies to these proteins are present.
  • Homocysteine: This amino acid, when high, has been linked to damage of the blood-brain barrier.
  • CRP: High levels of this inflammatory protein can indicate how chronic your inflammation is throughout your body.

Once you've assessed your inflammation, you can then bring in powerful anti-inflammatory food medicines, such as turmeric, green tea, and other superfoods.

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6. Try EEG biofeedback.

Electroencephalographic biofeedback is a type of neurotherapy and learning strategy that examines brain waves to help make individuals aware of their symptoms, which will help them self-regulate their brain function to control their symptoms and increase focus.

7. Get outside.

Photo: @crystalmariesing

According to research, spending just 20 minutes outside can improve concentration in children with ADHD. Research also found that taking a walk in nature or at a park is more effective than just spending time outside in a busy city.

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8. Add in adaptogenic herbs.

Adaptogens are a group of plants that work to restore balance to various areas of the body that are out of whack. They can easily be incorporated into your favorite smoothies, beverages, or meals to help mitigate symptoms of ADHD. Is there anything these magic powders can't do? Research found that children who took Ginkgo biloba once a day for five weeks experienced an improvement in their symptoms. A similar study also looked at the effects of red ginseng and found that a daily dose of 1,000 mg for eight weeks led to a reduction in symptoms, including decreased anxiety and improved social function. Other adaptogens that have been shown to help with ADHD are pine bark extract and Bacopa monnieri.

9. Try CBD oil.

CBD stands for cannabidiol, which is a cannabinoid compound in hemp and marijuana. Unlike THC, CBD does not give you the psychoactive high you experience from weed. While CBD oil can contain very small levels of THC, most don't contain any, making CBD oil a great option for those looking for the benefits associated with hemp and marijuana without the mind-altering effects.

While more studies need to be done to confirm the effectiveness of CBD oil on ADHD symptoms, conclusions can be drawn that it could help manage symptoms due to its ability to significantly drive down inflammation in the brain. CBD oil also helps to relieve anxiety by increasing prefrontal cortex activation and lowering activity in the amygdala areas of the brain, as well as keeping GABA and glutamate levels balanced.

10. Boost your serotonin levels.

Your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin plays a role in impulse control, mood swings, and sleep patterns, which are common symptoms of ADHD. Many people struggling with ADHD also present with serotonin imbalances. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps the production of serotonin and can be found in turkey—hence the reason you feel so drowsy after your big Thanksgiving dinner. Vitamin B6 is also essential for the production of serotonin and has demonstrated an ability to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity. Wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef, sweet potatoes, hazelnuts, and turkey are abundant sources of B6.

11. Manage your sleep.

Insomnia is a very common symptom in those diagnosed with ADHD. Behavioral sleep intervention has been shown in clinical trials to improve sleep patterns, which in turn also helped improve hyperactivity, focus, and other symptoms of ADHD long after the trial was completed.

12. Make exercise a regular activity.

If you've ever experienced the feeling of elation after a good workout, you know the powerful effect of exercise on your mood. Since ADHD is associated with lower levels of dopamine, regular exercise can boost dopamine to help manage ADHD symptoms.

It's important to remember that, since every person's health case is unique, what works for one person won't always work for the next. Working with a qualified practitioner can help identify any underlying health problems that factor into your health to help come up with a plan of care that works best for your individual needs.

Check out the discussion we had when Will Cole visited the mbg podcast!

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional-medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam at www.drwillcole.com and locally in Pittsburgh. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, and brain problems.Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional-medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the author of Ketotarian in which he melds the powerful benefits of the ketogenic and plant-based diets.
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William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

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