My eight-year-old son was just diagnosed with ADHD. My husband and I can’t decide if we should give him medication or pursue alternative treatments. What do you recommend?
This is a tough dilemma for many parents. On one hand, studies show that commonly prescribed medications like Ritalin and Adderall are helpful for 60 to 75 percent of children who are properly diagnosed with ADHD: their ability to focus increases, their grades improve, and they feel better about themselves. On the other hand, these medications are psychostimulants with many potential side effects: insomnia, headaches, abdominal pain, weight loss, and depression. Research on the long-term effects of these drugs is insufficient, but in 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings about side effects such as stunted growth and psychiatric problems.
From a holistic point of view, chemical overstimulation of the nervous system isn’t healthy. Fortunately, there are many natural treatments that are effective both alone and in conjunction with drug therapy. Although my answers here are framed by the case of a child, they are applicable to teens and adults as well.
In ayurveda, ADHD is classified as a vata imbalance. Vata is “wind energy”: it’s light, changeable, dry, cool, and mobile. It governs the movement of our bodies and our thoughts. Everyone has some vata in their prakriti (constitution), but those who have a predominance of this light, expansive energy (i.e., a “vata constitution”) tend to have sensitive nervous systems, so they experience the world with a heightened intensity. As a result, they’re prone to anxiety, inattention, restlessness, and sleep problems. Ironically, these children will often seek out sensory-stimulating activities (such as action movies or sugar-laden foods), creating a vicious cycle that agitates their already overactive nervous systems.
Commonly prescribed ADHD drugs stimulate the brain cells to release more of the neurotransmitters called dopamine and norepinephrine, which generally enhance a child’s ability to control impulsive behaviors and concentrate—but they also cause increased activity in the central nervous system (CNS). I would venture to say that these drugs perpetuate the underlying cause of ADHD—overstimulation of a sensitive CNS—throwing your child’s vata energy further out of balance. According to ayurveda, adopting a vata-pacifying lifestyle is the best natural option for your son.
Children with ADHD are drawn to new activities, adventure, and change. Yet they’re balanced by the opposite: activities that are calming, relaxing, and nurturing.
Children with ADHD are drawn to new activities, adventure, and change. Yet they’re balanced by the opposite: activities that are calming, relaxing, and nurturing. Your son needs regularity and structure to counter his natural tendency toward chaos: a regular time to do his homework, exercise, relax, eat, go to bed, and wake up to begin a new day. Here’s some advice about how to create a vata-calming environment for him at home.
Do a 5- to 10-minute relaxation with your son at least once a day. Lie down on the floor or in bed in shavasana (corpse pose), supporting your heads with a pillow and covering up with a blanket to stay warm. Then ask your child to feel his body from head to toe. Turn the practice into a game; together, pretend you are a scoop of ice cream melting in the sun, or that you’re sinking into a huge feather pillow. Imagine your breath is like the waves of the ocean—or ask your child to instruct you. The idea is to get your child to relax and deepen his breath, which helps his CNS switch from a sympathetic mode, which is a “fight-or-flight” state, to a parasympathetic mode, which is a nourishing and restorative state. Try this when your child comes home from school, or before supper or bedtime; these are times when our kids can be most overstimulated.
A bedtime massage is particularly calming for children with ADHD.
Oil is the quintessential vata balancer, so a bedtime massage is particularly calming for children with ADHD. To begin, wet your hands and pour a teaspoon of organic unrefined oil in your palm. (Olive, almond, and sesame oils are especially grounding.) Then rub your hands together and massage the mixture into your child’s skin. Let the oil soak in for a few minutes, then towel off any remaining residue. Try to do this at least once a week. If you don’t have time to give your child a head-to-toe treatment, just massage his feet (covering them with socks to protect the sheets). If your child has trouble falling asleep, this bedtime activity will help.
Despite multiple studies in the last 20 years suggesting that diet and food additives can exacerbate hyperactivity, the current medical stance is that there is no causal link between food and ADHD. In my own practice, parents who have reduced their child’s intake of sugar, refined foods, and foods with chemical additives (food dyes, preservatives, MSG, etc.) report significant improvement in their child’s behavior over four to eight weeks. These children are also less disruptive and more focused when they eat plenty of cooked vegetables and whole grains, along with moderate amounts of protein and organic unrefined oils.
In addition, give your son 50 mg of B-complex vitamins and 100 to 200 mg of fish oils geared for children. These supplements nourish and stabilize the CNS while improving mood stability, mental focus, and brain function.
Herbs that calm, soothe, and nourish the nervous system include lemon balm, chamomile, hops, passion flower, skullcap, brahmi, valerian, and St. John’s Wort. They can be taken safely as teas or tinctures—just follow the instructions on the bottle or box. (Dosing for children is one-fourth to one-half the adult dose based on their weight.)
Most of our kids are perpetually plugged in—texting on their cell phones, playing computer games, watching TV for hours on end. This constant electronic stimulation not only fragments their attention but also exposes them to electromagnetic radiation (EMR) at potentially harmful levels. When a child is sensitive, this exposure agitates his nervous system. Sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, headaches, dizziness, memory and attention problems, and distorted vision are all possible side effects of EMR. Try to limit how much electromagnetic exposure your child is getting by reducing his screen time to an hour or less a day.
If you decide to give your child medication, find a doctor who is willing to work with you to find the minimal dose that is effective. Ask your doctor to allow your child to take “holidays” from the medication when intense concentration and focus aren’t necessary (on the weekends, during summer break, etc.). By carefully monitoring your child’s behavior, you can help your doctor find the dosage and schedule that allow him to succeed in school, while decreasing his chances of experiencing side effects.
Remember, the purpose of these alternative treatments is to make your child feel loved, grounded, and nourished.
Remember that the purpose of these alternative treatments is to make your child feel loved, grounded, and nourished. Tell him that his new routine is an experiment to improve his mental focus—and let him play a role in how the changes are implemented. That means that you might compromise on a few things, but it also means more cooperation. Find alternatives that he will enjoy (for example, substituting a wholesome natural treat for a sugary one, or playing with a remote-control car rather than a video game), so that you don't make his life miserabe in your attempt to quell his ADHD symptoms. Together, you'll find creative ways to gradually move in a positive direction. Your child will be happier—and so will you.