Treating ADHD the Natural Way

Your child's high activity and enthusiasm can be assets. (

More and more children are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The CDC reports an average increase of 3 percent a year, to a total of 4.5 million. With almost 10 percent of kids aged 9-17 taking stimulants such as Ritalin, many parents wonder if there are any natural treatments that might reduce or eliminate the need for medication.

In Mental Health, Naturally, a new book published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kathi J. Kemper discusses safe, proven alternatives for ADHD and other mental health conditions.

Dr. Kemper, author of The Holistic Pediatrician, starts by advising concerned parents to look at their child’s strengths, not just deficits or weaknesses. High activity, she says, can be viewed as enthusiasm, exuberance and vitality. Kids who seem inattentive, “off in their own little world,” are often creative and innovative. And impulsiveness could also be called spontaneity. The same qualities that may be called “problems” in the classroom can contribute to career success and a bright future.

In the meantime, Dr. Kemper says there are a variety of methods than can help increase focus, attentiveness and patience.

Start with a healthy lifestyle. Exercise is important, including stretching breaks, sports, games, and quiet exercise such as tai chi and yoga. Sleep can be improved with a cool, dark room; sedating fragrances like lavender, roses or chamomile; and fewer distractions (yes, that means taking the TV out of the bedroom).

Nutrition is vital for good brain function. Dr. Kemper says you don’t need to ban sugar entirely, but too many simple carbohydrates can impair concentration. Emphasize whole foods, complex carbohydrates and protein. Working with a nutritionist can help identify allergies to corn, dairy, eggs and other foods, and some children do better when they stay away from artificial colors and flavors.

Here are some additional tips from Dr. Kemper:

  • Environment. Try natural “daylight” lighting instead of harsh bulbs. Do homework to baroque music to improve attention and motivation. Spend more time outside in nature, use a daily activity chart, and avoid toxins, including heavy metals, chemicals, formaldehyde and organic pollutants.
  • Vitamins, minerals and supplements. Studies have shown success for B6 combined with magnesium, and for omega-3 fatty acids (serve fish twice a week, or use a supplement with 500-2,000 mg per day). Make sure your child is not deficient in iron, zinc or calcium. Carnitine may be helpful, and melatonin at bedtime can help kids fall asleep, though daytime use does not improve hyperactivity.
  • Herbs. Research suggests possible benefits from ginseng, ginkgo, and pycnogenol (pine bark extract).The theanine in green tea can be calming, but it contains some caffeine, so avoid it after 5 p.m.
  • Other interventions. Biofeedback, massage and homeopathy can be helpful. Work with your child’s school – under Section 504 of the U.S. Vocational Rehabilitation Act, students with ADHD may be eligible for services including smaller class sizes and tutoring. If needed, medications help around 65 percent of kids with ADHD. Because of risks, try other strategies first, and start medications on a 1-month trial basis, with ongoing monitoring for side effects.

For more suggestions, see Mental Health, Naturally: The Family guide to Holistic Care for a Healthy Mind and Body, by Kathi J. Kemper, MD, MPH, FAAP (2010, American Academy of Pediatrics), available at the HealthyChildren bookstore.

More information on alternative mental health care:

SAMHSA: Alternative Approaches to Mental Health Care

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Looking for a practitioner in Portland?

Integrative Mental Health Care of Oregon: Practitioner Guide

Safe Harbor: Alternative Mental Health Care Providers in Oregon

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians: Find a Doctor