by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
The holiday season brings a buzz of excitement and activity, but for those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or its close cousin, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), this time of year can be particularly difficult. Stress, sugar, and cabin fever can worsen the symptoms of these increasingly common conditions.
In fact, ADD and ADHD seem to be spreading rapidly in the U.S. Though it’s unclear whether the increase in these conditions are caused by genetics, environment, or some combination, the numbers have reached epidemic proportions. Techno-device distractions are adding further layers to the situation.
Recent data published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that 6.4 million children between 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, and roughly 3.5 million of them are on some form of medication. These statistics, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reflect a 41 percent increase in ADHD diagnoses in the past decade.
So what’s going on here? Are there really that many more children who have ADD/ADHD, or have we simply broadened our diagnostic guidelines? Is it possible we are over-diagnosing these disorders, as well as over-treating them? These are serious questions. Many children are prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin, which, like most prescriptions, come with their share of side effects.
Clearly, we need to get this right.
Looking Beyond Medication
The fact that so many children are being medicated to treat their behavioral issues is tragic, but at the same time, unsurprising. Let’s face it, pharmaceutical interventions don’t take a lot of time from busy schedules, and they seem to work in many cases. However, while these drugs may be effective, I always counsel extreme caution. Before we pull the trigger on controversial medication, let’s explore other researched alternatives.
The first step toward controlling ADHD is to tackle as many environmental factors as possible. For example, there is significant evidence that diet can play a key role in worsening symptoms of ADHD. Too much refined sugar can interfere with dopamine signaling, which can have a profound impact on behavior.
Another dietary issue has to do with chemical additives like colorings, preservatives, and such. Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has judged these chemicals safe, the agency may not be looking at the broader picture. Some children appear to have extreme sensitivity to food additives, a point where genetics and environment collide to produce any number of chronic conditions, including ADD/ADHD.
In a similar vein, I strongly recommend organic foods to reduce pesticide exposure. The neurotoxic effects of these poisons are well documented, and even a thorough washing may not remove all contamination.
Diet as Medicine
While processed foods, pesticides, toxins and chemical additives may contribute to ADD/ADHD, another culprit may be sensitivities or allergies to basic foods. The most common are sensitivities to wheat, eggs, soy, and dairy. A study by Dutch scientists published in the The Lancet found that an allergen-restricted diet consisting of meat, vegetables, rice, pears, and water dramatically improved ADHD symptoms. After about a month, 64 percent of children on the restricted diet showed improvement.
It’s important for parents with ADD/ADHD children to closely observe their child’s behavior after he or she has eaten certain foods. By monitoring responses to specific dietary changes, parents can begin to determine which foods help their children and which hurt them. Food-sensitivity tests can also help sort these issues. Researchers continue to discover how our digestive system interacts with our brain and nervous system—and with conditions such as ADD and ADHD, these connections are particularly apparent.
There are a number of dietary approaches that seem to help ADD/ADHD. I recommend a whole-foods diet emphasizing vegetables and fruit, legumes, lean protein, and healthy fats like olive oil, raw nuts, and moderate amounts of cold-water fish. There is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can improve ADD/ADHD—salmon, sardines, walnuts, chia, and flaxseeds are good sources. Parents should pack a high-protein snack in their child’s school lunch (and their own!), as protein can help maintain focus. Avoid or eliminate sugar, white flour, and white rice, along with refined, processed foods.
Calming the Mind
There’s evidence that regular meditation can help alleviate ADD/ADHD symptoms in children and adults. This is no surprise, as one of the major benefits of daily meditation is increased focus, awareness of the present moment, and inner calm. Even just 5 to 10 minutes a day can make a difference over time, and it’s easy for kids to learn.
It’s also a good idea to restrict screen time. Early research suggests there may be a link between television, video games, computers, and ADD/ADHD in sensitive individuals. Reduce use as much as possible, and at the same time, increase gentle physical activity like walking, as well as time in nature. These measures help foster calm and focus.
Several supplements can help reduce ADD/ADHD behavior. Some people with these conditions show deficiencies in minerals like zinc, magnesium, and selenium, among others. Supplementing with these minerals may help improve mental focus and calm an overactive nervous system.
Research also shows that botanicals such as white peony root, ashwagandha, gotu kola, spirulina, and lemon balm may be helpful in controlling impulsive behavior and increasing mental focus in people with ADD/ADHD.
Another important move is to address environmental toxins. If a heavy metal or toxic body burden is involved, we need to gently remove these pollutants, since heavy metals and environmental toxins can seriously damage the nervous system and wreak havoc on overall health. I recommend a gentle, clinically researched detoxification formula that includes modified citrus pectin (MCP) and alginates. Made from citrus peels and brown kelp respectively, these botanicals have an excellent track record and published data showing they can safely remove mercury and other heavy metals, as well as environmental toxins including pesticides.
Parenting a child with ADD/ADHD or living with one of these conditions as an adult may be frustrating, but there can also be a silver lining. Many people with ADD/ADHD are extremely imaginative, fast thinking, and innovative, able to visualize outside the box to produce original solutions and creative masterpieces. By harnessing this energy with a healthy diet, mind-body practices, and lifestyle changes, those who struggle with these perceived conditions may balance their energies to reach a higher level of inspiration, productivity, and fulfillment. These gentle, natural approaches can also help to boost immunity, energy, and overall wellness—all key factors in optimizing mental and physical health.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.