Pay Attention!

Natural Treatments for ADD/ADHD

Today’s epidemic of attention problems in children have been linked to everything from artificial additives/colors/preservatives in food, food allergies, heavy metal and pesticide exposure, and maternal alcohol use and smoking, to an infant’s not crawling enough, celiac disease and genes. More, “Parents and teachers today seem to believe that any boy who wriggles in his seat and willfully defies his teacher’s rules has ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder],” says Elizabeth J. Roberts, a medical doctor and child psychiatrist in California.

“Well-intentioned but misinformed teachers, parents using the Internet to diagnose their children, and hurried doctors are all part of a complex system that drives the current practice of misdiagnosing and overmedicating children,” she notes. Roberts counsels that the solution lies in the practice of good, conscientious medicine that is careful, thorough and patient-centered.

Drug Dangers

Two years ago this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called for stronger warning labels for stimulant drugs used to treat common types of attention deficit disorder (ADD). The biggest change applies to amphetamine-containing drugs for ADHD—Adderall and Dexedrine, as well as methylphenidates, such as Concerta and Ritalin.

Although the warning on these drugs is the strongest the FDA can mandate, many experts say it’s not strong enough. Stating that “misuse of amphetamines may cause sudden death and serious cardiovascular adverse effects” is misleading, advises Sidney M. Wolfe, a physician associated with the Health Research Group, since it fails to tell patients that they may suffer sudden death even if they use these meds properly but have certain heart conditions.

Despite these concerns, the first long-term study of preschoolers taking Ritalin found benefits, even while it warned of side effects ranging from slowed growth to irritability and insomnia in 40 percent of young children participating. “This is a catastrophe,” says Peter Breggin, a medical doctor and New York psychiatrist, who opposes the use of psychiatric drugs for children.

In addition to conducting thorough physical assessments for heart disease, Dr. Wolfe advises monitoring anyone taking these stimulants for aggressive or hostile behavior. Other concerns include seizures and vision problems. Youngsters taking these drugs are alsomore likely to smoke, research finds, while Ritalin and amphetamines have become commonly abused drugs.

Nutrition Counts

Fortunately, as one recent study suggests, food supplement treatment of ADHD may be of equal efficacy to Ritalin treatment. All children, and especially those with learning difficulties, benefit from a multiple vitaminmineral supplement with antioxidants, B complex and vitamin C. Other useful supplements to consider are the essential amino acids that support production of the neurotransmitters necessary for optimal brain function, and the essential fatty acids that promote brain development and reduce aggressive/impulsive behavior.

Certified nutritionist Marcia Zimmerman recommends eliminating common allergenic foods, such as dairy and wheat, for a month, then slowly adding back nutritious choices. She also suggests cutting out additives blacklisted on the Feingold diet: artificial colorings, flavorings, sweeteners, preservatives and salicylates. The latter are found in aspirin and many foods, including apples, oranges and plums.

Since protein-rich foods, including eggs, fish, lamb, legumes, skinless poultry and tofu, support alertness and concentration, they make good selections for breakfast and lunch. It’s better to leave the more relaxing carbohydrates, particularly favorite fruits and vegetables, for dinner or an evening snack. Because certified organic foods are produced without toxic chemicals, they make positive choices for anyone with attention problems.

Complementary Health Aids

Creative educational techniques are important to school success. These may include brief lessons with the child as an active participant, and hands-on direct instruction from computer software. For young children, Montessori teaching methods, which apply a physical, sensory, individualized approach to learning, can be especially beneficial.

Most children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD thrive outdoors. So, making hiking, nature study, skating, skiing, swimming and other noncompetitive activities part of the family routine helps. Biofeedback, massage and yoga also may help these children at different ages and developmental stages.

Experts advise parents to always focus on the positive side of any child’s behavior: channel his energy in constructive ways, catch her doing something right and praise her, and make use of individual creativity. Parents of children with attention deficits also need to face their own fears that they are somehow to blame for this disorder— and to give themselves credit for all they do to set clear guidelines, reinforce responsible behavior, foster self-esteem and encourage persistent effort by their child.

Roon Frost is editor in chief of
Taste for Life magazine and a contributor to numerous national magazines.

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