ADHD is a very common diagnosis in children (though adults can have it too) so many families have questions. Luckily there are some things that can help with ADHD symptoms other than medication. Below, I’ve compiled recommendations and advice from experts and previous podcast guests on ways to support a child with ADHD.
What Is ADHD?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common mental health disorder affecting kids today. It’s thought that ADHD affects boys more than girls, but some experts believe it affects them equally. Girls exhibit symptoms in a different way though and are underdiagnosed because of it.
ADHD is characterized by impulsive behavior, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness. Some ADHD children are impulsive and hyperactive, others are inattentive, and others are both.
What used to be called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is now the version of ADHD that is only inattentive (not hyperactive or impulsive). If you think your child’s behavior may signal ADHD it’s important to get professional help to make a diagnosis and rule out other issues.
ADHD is not something that can be diagnosed by a single test. Instead, it is diagnosed by a qualified professional when a person has exhibited some or all of the associated symptoms for at least six months.
Causes of ADHD
ADHD is a complicated disorder that doesn’t have a single cause. It presents differently in each case and for this reason, a personalized plan is often a beneficial remedy.
Some of the things that can contribute to ADHD are the following:
- Genetics: ADHD can run in families. If a parent has ADHD, a child is over 50 percent more likely to also get it. If their sibling has ADHD they are 30 percent more likely to have ADHD too. As we learn more about genetics, some theories are emerging about links to potential mutations that may also increase the risk.
- Prenatal health: Issues in pregnancy are associated with a higher risk of ADHD in the child.
- Toxin exposure during pregnancy: Another theory is that exposure to things like pesticides, lead, and plastics during pregnancy can increase risk.
- Diet: A healthy diet is always important for health put those with certain dietary habits are at higher risk for ADHD. Research shows that risks include high sugar, low nutrient foods, and foods with additives.
- Modern education: It’s thought that some cases of ADHD are not physiological but are a symptom of a one-size-fits-all education system. In fact, some experts argue that the best remedy for ADHD would be a change in the education system.
Often it is a combination of these causes and not just one, which is why treatment also varies from child to child. Parents of kids with ADHD often become the primary researchers and advocates, pulling in and testing resources to see what is helpful.
Natural Remedies for ADHD
Many kids with ADHD can develop low self-esteem because of their inability to have self-control or perform in school. Just getting a diagnosis can help with self-esteem issues. But it’s important to also deal with underlying causes and there are ways to address the symptoms of ADHD naturally and support the child.
Here are some things that can help kids with ADHD.
A real food, nutrient-dense diet is important for overall health. But because many ADHD sufferers also have nutrient deficiencies, it’s especially important to make the diet as nutrient dense as possible. A healthy diet includes:
- Quality protein: Grass-fed, pastured, and wild-caught meat, poultry, and fish are healthy sources of protein. Poultry is especially helpful since it contains tryptophan which can help the body produce serotonin.
- Healthy fats: Stick with healthy fats from grass-fed and pastured animal products, coconut oil, avocados, real olive oil, etc. Fat helps stabilize blood sugar and improve hormone function.
- Lots of fresh vegetables: Veggies are full of nutrients that the body desperately needs to function well. Leafy greens are especially good for B vitamins.
- Oily fish: Instead of taking fish oil supplements, you can include oily fish (like salmon and anchovies). Salmon is also a good source of vitamin B6.
Additionally, there are some foods that should be avoided. These include:
- Processed foods: Additives may contribute to ADHD symptoms in some kids. Processed foods are also low in nutrients and high in sugar, so should be avoided anyway.
- High-sugar foods: This is especially true for processed sugar foods. High sugar in the diet is generally not healthy, but for some kids with ADHD, sugar is a big trigger for symptoms. Research doesn’t clearly point to all sugar being a problem, but does show processed sugar can cause symptoms to worsen.
- Food allergens: Studies show a link between food allergies and ADHD. Eliminate the top allergens (dairy, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat) and any other foods you know your child is allergic to.
Many families have found that changing the diet reduces symptoms significantly.
While it’s always best to get nutrients from food first, there are times when supplements are useful. When deficiencies are present it’s usually helpful to take a supplement to get levels back to normal. Here are some supplements that experts find may help children with ADHD.
- Fish oil: Supports brain function. These essential fatty acids are important for optimal brain functioning. Fish oil supplementation reduces symptoms according to a 2017 study. As a personal note, I suggest caution with fish oil supplementation as there is also current research showing it may be harmful. In our family, we try to get these beneficial fats from fish vs a supplement whenever we can. About 500-1000 mg of fish oil per day is recommended for children dealing with ADHD.
- B-complex vitamins: The “complex” part is important. A vitamin B complex contains B6, B12, biotin, and folate, essential vitamins for the nervous system and can help with the formation of serotonin. Research published in 2016 shows lower levels of vitamins B2, B6, and folate are connected to a higher chance of ADHD diagnosis. B2 and B6 were associated with severity of symptoms as well. Due to this, there is speculation that certain gene mutations that make it more difficult to utilize B vitamins may also increase the risk. Finding out about this with a test like Nutrition Genome and working with a practitioner can help get levels back into normal range.
- Minerals: Magnesium, calcium, and zinc, in particular, are important for relaxing the nervous system. Low levels of these nutrients were found in children diagnosed with ADHD, according to a 2011 study. Personally, I don’t supplement with calcium as many of us get too much. Probiotics which increases the bioavailability of calcium in the body, reduces inflammation, and may also be supportive.
- GABA: According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, children with ADHD tend to have low levels of this important amino acid. GABA is known to calm the nervous system so adding a GABA supplement may be beneficial. With any supplement, but especially amino acids, it is really important to work with a doctor or practitioner who specializes and understands this area.
- Probiotics: Preliminary research suggests that ADHD may be an immune reaction and that probiotics can help. Probiotics early in life may also protect against neuropsychiatric disorders later in childhood, as explained in this Nature article. I personally take Probiotics and give it to my kids since it has tested survivability.
- Vitamin D: There are receptors for vitamin D throughout the central nervous system and in the hippocampus. Vitamin D is important for activating enzymes in the brain and the cerebrospinal fluid. These enzymes are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth. So vitamin D is really important for brain function! Studies support this, too. Vitamin D supplementation in children with ADHD may help with cognitive function. Note: Since Vitamin D is fat soluble, this is one that should not be taken without blood tests and without the oversight of a doctor or practitioner. Additionally, there is evidence that the vitamin D we get from sun exposure is different and more potentially beneficial than supplemental vitamin D. I write all about it in this post.
Brain “Retraining” Alternative Treatment for ADHD
If you’ve heard of neuroplasticity, you probably know a little about this. The concept is that the brain is capable of learning new ways of functioning. A therapy called Brain Harmony uses an auditory and visual protocol is used to relax the nervous system. Participants are then able to have better outcomes with other therapies.
To learn more about this, check out this podcast episode that touches on specific ways this therapy can help the brain.
Rethink Education and Learning Environment
If it’s true that some cases of ADHD are a symptom of an education system that doesn’t suit all children, then rethinking this education system would be a natural remedy. I’m a big advocate for children getting more movement and time outside, so I’d personally love to see these changes implemented… even for children not diagnosed with ADHD!
According to ADDitude, some of the things that can help with ADHD students include:
- extra recess time (recess is also a great time for kids to practice social skills)
- shorter lessons with breaks in between
- tests given earlier in the day and kept short
- using creative projects in place of tests
- using standing desks or fidget chairs
- offering tactile learning activities (learning spelling with magnet letters, for example)
- mixing high energy classes like gym or music between low energy classes like reading or math
- no homework
Some families (including ours) decide to homeschool so they can give individualized attention to their children who struggle in a traditional school setting. Another option is finding a private school that utilizes some of the techniques that work for kids with ADHD.
Homeschool or private school aren’t an option for everyone, but public schools are starting to improve. Many now recognize how sitting and doing busy work isn’t beneficial for most children (even non-ADHD kids). An article on Edweek explains that children who are more active show better focus, faster cognitive processing, and more successful memory retention than kids who sit still all day.
You can approach your child’s teacher and see if she can help find solutions. She may have training in ADHD special needs or know another teacher who does and can help. Perhaps she could add a few 5-minute breaks into the day for physical activity to relieve some of the ADHD symptoms.
Local support groups can also help family members and friends of kids dealing with ADHD. Other families who have dealt with ADHD may be able to point you in the right direction for the best doctor or treatments. Two organizations, CHADD and Attention Deficit Disorder Association, sponsor events for networking and education. You can also ask your child’s doctor for recommendations for local support groups.
ADHD Natural Remedies: Bottom Line
ADHD is a complicated disorder that affects many children. But it doesn’t have to disrupt their lives or require medication. There are many natural remedies that can help some children with ADHD. Talk with your child’s doctor to see if these remedies might help.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Does your family have experience with ADHD? What have you done that has been helpful?
- Do Omega-3/6 Fatty Acids Have a Therapeutic Role in Children and Young People with ADHD? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5603098/
- Mahmoud, M. M., El-Mazary, A. A., Maher, R. M., & Saber, M. M. (2011, December 29). Zinc, ferritin, magnesium and copper in a group of Egyptian children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22206662/
- Reduced GABA Concentration in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3970207/
- Pelsser, L. M., Buitelaar, J. K., & Savelkoul, H. F. (2009, March). ADHD as a (non) allergic hypersensitivity disorder: A hypothesis. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18444966/
- A possible link between early probiotic intervention and the risk of neuropsychiatric disorders later in childhood: A randomized trial. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/pr201551.pdf
- Impact of Vitamin D Supplementation on Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29457493/
- Editors, A. (2017, December 29). 10 Ways We Would Fix the U.S. School System. Retrieved from https://www.additudemag.com/slideshows/how-can-we-improve-education-for-students-with-adhd/
- Abdelbary, M. (2018, June 27). Learning in Motion: Bring Movement Back to the Classroom. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-learning-in-motion-bring-movement-back-to-the-classroom/2017/08