By Dr. Meghan van Drimmelen | Naturopath Victoria BC
Parenting a child with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) can be overwhelming and frustrating. Academics may be compromised, listening skills at home may be causing family tension, and emotional stress may take over your child as you’re trying to navigate your way through ADHD assessments and treatment options.
You are not alone. It is estimated that 3-5% of school-aged children have ADHD. This means that in a standard classroom, or 25–30 children, at least one child will suffer from ADHD. This disorder is characterized by 3 hallmark symptoms – inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity – of which the presence and severity vary among individuals. These symptoms can present before the age of 7, and may persist all throughout a person’s life.
Standard conventional treatment involves the use of behavioural modification therapies, and the prescription of stimulants such as Ritalin. Stimulants, although can be effective in controlling some ADHD symptoms, can also cause unwanted side effects. In 2010 a group of researchers found that 48% of the ADHD patients studied experienced at least one side effect on stimulant therapy. The most common side effects reported were loss of appetite, insomnia, and mood disturbances. Furthermore, a study in 2007 found that stimulants clearly affect children’s growth rates. In particular, children that were given stimulants were on average 2cm shorter, and weighed 2.7kg less than children who never received medication over a period of 3 years. Less common adverse effects that have been reported are adolescent medication abuse,, and increases in heart rate, heart palpitations, and blood pressure.,
Taking these risks into consideration, many people are turning to naturopathic medicine for answers. Naturopathic medicine offers non-drug, evidence-based natural alternatives that target the underlying cause of this disorder. ADHD is the result of neurotransmitter and neuroendocrine imbalances - the 5 neurotransmitters and hormones affected are norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, cortisol, and insulin. Nutritional deficiencies and lifestyle factors can influence these imbalances. Further, food sensitivities and imbalances in gut microflora can contribute to malabsorption of nutrients.
A Naturopathic Doctors Approach to Treating ADHD
Below you will find my 6-step approach for managing ADHD naturally. Although this article is targeted to the pediatric population, these treatment principles can also be applied to managing ADHD in adults.
1) Promote Quality Sleep
Sleep problems are common in children with ADHD. Often there is resistance to go to bed, due to a feeling of being ‘wired’ or not being able to fall asleep. Sleep deprivation contributes to cortisol, insulin and norepinephrine imbalances. Thus, it is not surprising that inadequate sleep contributes to worsening of daytime symptoms of ADHD.,, Ideally, school-aged children should be sleeping 10-12 hours per night, while adolescents should be sleeping 8-10 hours per night. Creating a consistent calming nighttime routine that includes time away from computers, Ipads and TVs, and incorporating warm Epson salt baths, reading or journaling may help. With the guidance of your health care provider, natural sleeping aids such as melatonin, or L-theanine can also safely be used in children with ADHD to help promote restful sleeps.
2) Encourage Regular Exercise
Physical activity boosts serotonin levels and balances cortisol, dopamine and insulin. Beginning the day with a quick work-out consisting of jumping jacks, running up and down the stairs, or briskly walking to school will help balance these hormones, and prime the brain for learning. A minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day has been shown to improve focus and concentration in children with ADHD.
3) Balance Blood Sugar & Insulin
Studies show that excessive sugar intake, and diets rich in processed foods are linked to ADHD., In my practice I generally recommend focusing on a whole foods Mediterranean-style diet that includes lots of brightly coloured fruits and veggies, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats such as fish, poultry, legumes, nuts, seeds and olive oil. I emphasize limiting sugar to special occasions, and avoiding processed foods all together. This well-rounded diet will help to balance blood sugar and insulin throughout the day and calm the nervous system.
4) Correct Nutrient Deficiencies
Vitamins and minerals influence many metabolic pathways, which control the overall balance of neurotransmitters and hormones in the body. The particular nutrients that are pertinent to ADHD include B vitamins, magnesium, iron, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin D.,,,,,,,,,,,,,
In my practice I offer blood testing for vitamins and minerals and other nutrient markers that are readily available through conventional laboratories – including iron, vitamin B12, zinc, vitamin D and homocysteine. In cases of deficiency, I will recommend supplementation based on the child’s level of deficiency, age and weight. I also offer guided therapeutic trials of nutrient therapy for those vitamins and minerals we cannot readily test for through the blood.
5) Remove Food Sensitivities & Intolerances
Many studies have shown that eliminating common food sensitivities and intolerances from the diet for a period of 2-4 weeks improves symptoms of ADHD in some children. When pooling the evidence together, it is estimated that 25-30% of children with ADHD will have at least some symptom improvement with an elimination diet, and 10% will have full symptom remission. The most common foods that have been shown to aggravate ADHD symptoms include wheat, dairy, egg, chocolate, orange, tomato, and food additives and dyes.
Because food additives and dyes have no nutritional value, I always recommend fully eliminating these compounds from the diet. For children who have ADHD, and additional digestive or allergic symptoms, I will also guide the family through an elimination and challenge diet with the common food triggers listed above. In some cases I will recommend IgG food sensitivity testing to fine tune the foods the child is reacting to.
Food additives to avoid:
- All artificial colours
- All artificial flavours
- All artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, acesulfame K, neotame, saccharin, sucralose
- Sodium benzoate
- Butylated hydroxyanisole and Butylated hydroxytoluene
- Monosodium or monopotassium glutamate
- Any hydrolyzed, textured or modified protein
6) Correct Microbiome Imbalances
The bacteria in our gut not only regulate digestive processes and the absorption of nutrients, they also modulate our immune system and have an affect on our nervous system and brain. Having said this a growing number of researchers have started to study the link between neuropsychiatric disorders such as ADHD and the microbiota.,,
In my practice, I will recommend a trial of probiotics in children with ADHD that also have digestive and immune symptoms, or if a nutritional deficiency has been diagnosed. I will also recommend fermented foods that naturally contain probiotics, as well as foods that help to promote the maintenance and growth of healthy bacteria in the gut (ie. prebiotic foods – garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, bananas, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens).
In health and happiness,
Dr. Meghan van Drimmelen, ND
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