ADHD is a common psychiatric disorder, and one of the most frequently diagnosed mental health conditions in children and adolescents. ADHD stands for “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” although not all subtypes include hyperactivity as a symptom.
This condition is marked by significant problems with attentional processes, sometimes accompanied by hyperactive behavior and impulsiveness. Although it’s typically treated with stimulant medications, concerns about side effects in pediatric patients have motivated many people to seek behavioral or natural treatments for ADHD instead.
Classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, the causes and biological mechanisms of ADHD are quite complex. Although there’s no true cure, many different types of treatments can produce a significant improvement in attention, concentration, and other symptoms. This includes including standard medication, cognitive behavioral therapies, and natural alternatives for ADHD.
Many parents of children with ADHD are wary of the prescription medications that are normally used, and rightfully so. ADHD is generally treated with relatively strong stimulant medication. Although some adults do benefit from medication, the use of drugs like dextroamphetamine (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin) for children has raised concerns about side effects.
Natural treatments for ADHD do exist, in a variety of different forms. Many of these alternate approaches to ADHD therapy have been shown to produce significant improvements in attention, concentration, short term memory, information retention, and academic performance– all of which are impaired by ADHD.
Along with non-pharmaceutical ADHD treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy and biofeedback therapy, many herbs as natural medications for ADHD have shown promise as an alternative approach to counteracting neurochemical imbalances underlying the disorder. Unlike prescription stimulants, herbal ADHD remedies don’t generally produce negative side effects like irritability, sleeplessness, elevated heart rate, or addiction potential.
Herbal solutions for ADHD, especially when combined with other non-pharmaceutical therapies, may help reduce symptoms and improve academic and occupational function for both children and adults who have the disorder.
ADHD affects up to 7% of children under 18, although estimates vary depending on which set of diagnostic criteria is used. Beginning in the 1970s, there has been an upward trend in ADHD diagnosis rates.
Most researchers and medical professionals believe that this stems from a better understanding and recognition of the disorder. While in the past, hyperactive ADHD kids may have been dismissed as unruly troublemakers, modern medicine recognizes their symptoms as a distinct neurodevelopmental condition.
ADHD comes in multiple forms, which may or may not include hyperactivity as a symptom. Usually, ADHD is diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, due to its adverse affects on academic performance and classroom behavior. However, many adults also have this condition.
ADHD Symptoms & Subtypes
The primary symptom of ADHD is generally the inability to focus and concentrate. This can be accompanied by hyperactivity and impulsivity. These three cognitive and behavioral problems interfere significantly with a person’s ability to succeed in academic and work environments, as well as causing problems in interpersonal relationships.
When most people think of ADHD, they picture a hyperactive little boy who won’t sit still. What people often don’t realize is that not everyone with ADHD is hyperactive, behaviorally impulsive, or disruptive in an academic environment. This type of ADHD is known as ADHD-PI, which stands for “predominantly inattentive.”
There are three main ADHD subtypes:
- Predominantly inattentive. People with ADHD-PI struggle with focus and concentration, but are not hyperactive or impulsive.
- Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive. This is the “classic” ADHD that’s widely known and publicized. In schoolchildren, this subtype is more likely to be recognized than ADHD-PI, since children with hyperactivity tend to be disruptive in a classroom environment.
- Combined type. This subtype contains elements of both.
In order for a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist to diagnose a patient with ADHD of any subtype, they must present with some or all of the following symptoms:
- Being easily distracted.
- Difficulty focusing on one task.
- Becoming bored quickly with one task.
- Difficulty focusing on organizing and completing tasks.
- Difficulty completing school assignments or job-related tasks.
- Seeming not to listen when spoken to.
- Frequent daydreaming.
- Difficulty processing information quickly.
- Difficulty following instructions.
Along with the symptoms listed above, accompanying hyperactive symptoms can include:
- Frequent fidgeting.
- Nonstop talking.
- Difficulty sitting still.
- Difficulty doing tasks or activities quietly.
There are also impulsive symptoms that are often seen in ADHD:
- Difficulty restraining emotions or refraining from speaking when inappropriate.
- Acting without regard for potential consequences.
- Difficulty waiting one’s turn.
- Frequently interruption other people’s conversations or activities.
When these symptoms are met, a child or adult can be diagnosed with one of the three subtypes of ADHD. From there, the person and their doctor can consider treatment options, including medication, behavioral therapy, and natural alternatives for ADHD.
Many people with ADHD also suffer from other conditions, such as learning disorders, behavioral disorders, or mood disorders.
What Causes ADHD?
No one knows what exactly causes ADHD. It appears to result from a complex set of interacting genetic, environmental, and societal factors. ADHD is associated with differences in dopamine neurotransmission in the brain, and this underlying biochemical imbalance is the target of most ADHD medications.
Twin studies have indicated that ADHD is definitely heritable, indicating a strong genetic component. The genes involved in ADHD affect transmission of dopamine, a neurotransmitter chemical, in the brain. Evidence suggests that genetic inheritance is the main factor that determines whether someone has ADHD, as well as whether ADHD symptoms will persist into adulthood.
A lesser role is played by environmental factors. Exposure to alcohol, nicotine, and other substances during gestation can increase a child’s risk of developing ADHD, as can premature birth, low birth weight, and early childhood infections. Social factors, such as family dysfunction or an inadequate education system, may also worsen ADHD symptoms.
The most common approach to ADHD treatment, in both children and adults, is to prescribe stimulant medications. These medications act as dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, which helps correct neurochemical problems that lead to ADHD symptoms. However, concerns about side effects and addiction potential have led many people to seek behavioral or natural treatment for ADHD instead.
Common ADHD Drugs
The most commonly prescribed ADHD medications are classified as psychostimulants, although there are a handful of alternatives that are not stimulants. Some of the medications that are available for ADHD include:
- Methylphenidate (Ritalin/Concerta). Methylphenidate has been commonly prescribed for ADHD since the 1990s. It helps correct dopamine and norepinephrine functions in the brain, improving concentration.
- Dextroamphetamine (Adderall/Dexedrine). Dextroamphetamine, like methylphenidate, is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor, although it’s also a releasing agent for dopamine and norepinephrine. This potent CNS stimulant increases alertness, promotes concentration, and reduces fatigue.
- Guanfacine is used for both hypertension and ADHD. Although it isn’t a psychostimulant, it can strengthen prefrontal cortical regulation of attention and impulse control.
- Atomoxetine (Strattera). Atomoxetine is a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, although it does not affect dopamine.
Drawbacks & Side Effects of ADHD Medication
ADHD medications can be helpful for some people, but they come with risks of side effects. This is especially true of stimulant medications. Some of the side effects of dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, and other stimulant medications can include:
- Appetite loss and weight loss
- Irritability and restlessness
- Elevated heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Bruxism (teeth grinding)
- Amphetamine psychosis (rare, but possible with overdose or underlying psychotic disorder)
- Addiction potential
One concern with stimulants, especially amphetamines, is that they can easily become habit-forming. Along with improved concentration, memory, and cognition, they can cause feelings of euphoria and elevated mood. It’s possible for people to become dependent on them.
Natural Alternatives for ADHD
Because of the side effects and habit-forming potential typical of many common medications, many people seek out natural alternatives for ADHD instead. This can include dietary changes, behavioral therapies, biofeedback, and herbal remedies. These methods can produce a significant improvement in symptoms, without negative side effects.
Behavioral therapies are often recommended instead of medication, especially for very young children or for people with mild symptoms. Approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, and social skills training can help people learn to manage and counteract ADHD symptoms effectively.
Neurofeedback therapy is a form of biofeedback that uses real-time displays of brain activity, obtained with an EEG machine. Brain waves are measured and displayed with audiovisual media, allowing patients to be trained to self-regulate their own brain processes. Neurofeedback for ADHD is approved by the American Society of Pediatrics, and this therapy represents a welcome alternative to medications for altering brain function to treat ADHD symptoms.
Nutrition & Vitamins for ADHD
There is evidence that diet may play a role in ADHD symptoms, especially in children. Food allergies, vitamin deficiencies, and blood sugar levels may affect or exacerbate problems with concentration.
Since the 1970s, some researchers have produced evidence that some food colorings may produce ADHD behavior in children, specifically hyperactivity. In Europe, this led to mandatory labeling and daily recommended intake for these additives. However, such action has not been taken in the United States. Some of the colors and additives that may contribute to hyperactivity in children include:
- Sodium Benzoate
- Yellow No. 6
- Yellow No. 10.
- Red No. 40.
- Yellow No. 5.
Along with the possible effects of food additives, there is some evidence suggesting that certain nutrient deficiencies could also contribute to ADHD symptoms.
- Zinc. Zinc supplementation as a natural treatment for ADHD is an idea stemming from a handful of studies that found zinc supplementation to reduce the need for high doses of stimulant medication.
- Magnesium. ADHD has also been linked to mild magnesium deficiency.
- L-carnitine. Some evidence has suggested that L-carnitine, an amino acid derivative found in meat, may be helpful as a supplementary natural treatment for ADHD.
7 Herbal Solutions for ADHD Symptoms
Many adults and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have found that certain herbs are effective as natural ADHD medications. Scientific research has often provided support for these claims, indicating that many natural plants contain compounds that help improve concentration, reduce hyperactivity, and promote healthy executive function in the prefrontal cortex.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is known to promote cerebral blood flow, promote strong memory, and improve cognition and mental sharpness. Recent clinical research into ginkgo as a natural treatment for ADHD have shown promising results.
In one 2014 study, children with ADHD were given 240 mg daily of ginkgo biloba. They were given a clinical assessment; a quality of life questionnaire; and a continuous performance test, which is a computerized assessment designed to look for attention deficit symptoms. The subjects’ symptoms were found to improve significantly, suggesting that ginkgo could be used as an alternative ADHD medication.
Green oats are unripe oats, which are often processed into wild oat extract. Green oats are thought to act as a nerve tonic, calming anxiety and reducing stress. The calming effects of green oats have created interest in its potential as a natural herbal remedy for ADHD.
A study published in 2011 found that green oat extract improved cognitive performance. Subjects were found to make fewer errors on the color-naming part of the Stroop test after consuming about 1600 mg of the extract. Although this study evaluated older people with mild cognitive decline, green oats could also help improve focus and concentration in people with ADHD.
Brahmi (Bacopa monneri), also called water hyssop, is a plant from India. As an herbal medicine, it’s used to improve cognition and memory. One 2013 study found that standardized brahmi extracts had nootropic effects, improving memory and concentration. Subjects showed improvement on cognitively demanding tests after consuming brahmi extracts in doses of 320 mg.
Guta kola (Centella asiatica) has anxiolytic effects, reducing anxiety and stress while enhancing mental clarity. Guta kola’s relaxing properties could make it a suitable natural alternative for ADHD with hyperactivity symptoms.
Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is a Chinese herbal medicine that’s often used to improve memory, concentration, and mental clarity. In a 2011 study evaluating the effects of ginseng on 8-14 year olds with ADHD, researchers found that doses of 1,000 mg improved attention and social function. This indicates that ginseng can work as a natural ADHD herbal remedy.
The bark of the French maritime pine tree (Pinus pinaster) contains an extract called pycnogenol, which may help reduce the syptoms of ADHD. Pycnogenol can be beneficial as a natural ADHD treatment for children with the disorder.
When given 1 mg per kg of body weight, 6-14 year old subjects had better results than those who were given a placebo. When asked to fill out the Connor Ratings Scale, a widely used ADHD assessment, teachers reported that the children who had been given pine bark extract had fewer attention problems. The children also showed improved scores on the Weschler IQ scale.
Pycnogenol can also help lower stress hormones and normalize adrenaline and noradrenaline levels, reducing hyperactivity as well as reducing oxidative stress on the body’s cells.