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Evaluating Drug-Free Alternatives for A.D.H.D.

It’s a list that would make any health-food storegoer proud: Vitamins. Fish oil. Giving up processed foods, sugars, or food additives. Herbal therapy with St. John’s Wort, echinacea, gingko biloba, or ginseng. Biofeedback. Massage. Yoga.

All healthful pursuits, for sure, but are any of these alternative therapies effective for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.)? Don’t bet the rent, says an article in today’s New York Times. According to author Tara Parker-Pope,

About 2.5 million children in the United States take stimulant drugs for attention and hyperactivity problems. But concerns about side effects have prompted many parents to look elsewhere: as many as two-thirds of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or A.D.H.D., have used some form of alternative treatment.

Possible side effects of common A.D.H.D. medications can include “decreased appetite and weight loss, insomnia, abdominal pain and personality changes”; a 2001 Canadian Medical Association Journal report found severe effects such as these in more than 10 percent of child patients. And parents found new reason to worry in 2006, when the F.D.A. ordered that “stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta carry warnings of risk for sudden death, heart attacks and hallucinations in some patients.”

No wonder alternative therapies are looking increasingly attractive to concerned moms and dads. Dietary changes, the most common treatment strategy for those seeking to avoid prescription drugs, may be at least somewhat effective. “A growing body of evidence,” according to the journal Pediatric Clinics of North America, points to the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, flax seed, and some nuts) as dietary supplements for children with A.D.H.D.

In a 2007 study in U.K. medical journal The Lancet, researchers looked at “the effect of artificial coloring and preservatives on hyperactive behavior in children.” Subjects consumed an additive-free diet for six weeks and were then split into two groups, one of which received a placebo beverage at two-week intervals, the other, one containing a mix of additives. Hyperactive behaviors increased in the additive group.

Studies on sugar avoidance, however, suggest that any link between sugar and hyperactivity comes from parental perception, not reality:

In one study, mothers who were told the child received sugar reported more hyperactive behavior, even when the food was in fact artificially sweetened. Mothers who were told the child received a low-sugar snack were less likely to report worse behavior.

Biofeedback therapy, in which children “wear electrodes on their head and learn to control video games by exercising the parts of the brain related to attention and focus,” has been found as effective as medication, without the harmful side effects. Even better, kids say they enjoy it!

As for herbal supplements, little to no reliable data are available. The studies in existence are often poorly designed, with no control groups and short trial periods. Proponents of natural medicine argue that more research needs to happen on herbal treatments, taking into account the more holistic nature of naturopathy, where treatments are often used in combination.

The take-home messages? If you’re interested in alternative treatments for A.D.H.D., take the time to research emerging therapies before trying them. Maintain a healthy skepticism, and remember that natural medicines aren’t any more of a magic cure-all than traditional treatments; conversely, realize that many alternative therapies don’t have enough research to back them up yet, and could well be found effective in the future. Consult with a physician who will work with you to integrate allopathic and holistic treatments; the Integrative Pediatrics Council at is named as a resource in the Times article. Finally, if you decide to give multiple treatments a go, try them one at a time so you know definitively which ones are working for you.

Evaluating Drug-Free Alternatives for A.D.H.D.

Renée M. Grinnell

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APA Reference
Grinnell, R. (2018). Evaluating Drug-Free Alternatives for A.D.H.D.. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Jun 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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