ADD and ADHD: Alternatives to Medication
The diagnoses of ADD and ADHD have skyrocketed over the past forty years. But these conditions are simply a conglomeration of symptoms (aggressiveness, inattentiveness, meltdowns, lack of concentration, etc.) that have a root cause(s). Some patients are pushed towards using pills right off the bat, but in my practice that is an absolute last resort. There are a lot of things we investigate and consider prior to ever recommending medications.
Short and Long Term Effects of Stimulant Medications
Stimulant medications have both short- and long-term effects on kids. In the short-term you may notice:
- Appetite loss and weight loss; which indicates they are not getting the nutrients they need for a growing body and brain
- Change in personality
- Sleep issues; which can affect learning and memory
- Elevated blood pressure and heart rate
- GI issues
- Rebound irritability
In the long-term, we see even more serious side-effects:
- Increased risk of obesity as an adult
- Stunted growth
- Delayed onset of puberty
- Increased cardiovascular risks
- Increased risk of anxiety and depression as a late teen or adult
- Increased risk of drug abuse
The Potential Root Causes of ADD/ADHD
The good news is, there are a LOT of supported causes for behavioral issues and ADD/ADHD that can be addressed at home. Each child’s condition is unique; they may have one particular trigger or many. It’s worth taking time to strategically address their environment in order to find out exactly what influences them. Some of the most common causes to consider include:
A Poor Diet and an Unhealthy Gut
A diet high in processed foods (especially high fructose corn syrup and food dyes), fruit juice, processed food additives and caffeine can be a large contributor to behavioral issues in children. What you eat has a large impact on the GI tract and microbiome and that in turn impacts the production of neurotransmitters, like histamine, dopamine and serotonin. A diet high in processed and sugary foods increases the production of histamine in the gut, leading to anxiety, dark circles under the eyes, allergies, runny nose, etc. In fact, 95% of your serotonin and dopamine is made within the GI tract, not your brain.
Children with ADHD hare 7x more likely to have food allergies and intolerances, and wheat is at the top of the list. Some children may have undiagnosed celiac disease (an autoimmune response to gluten), while others may simply have a wheat or gluten intolerance. There are several ways to test for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, but the gold standard in our practice is utilizing an elimination and reintroduction diet to identify any and all food intolerances.
It’s true, genetics influence the health issues each individual experiences, but only by about 5-10%. Genes are not static and can be turned “on and off” depending on the environment. Diet, lifestyle, toxin exposures, etc. can all influence how genes are expressed. So, although a genetic predisposition may explain why one child develops ADD and another doesn’t, there are MANY non-genetic lifestyle factors that can support the child experiencing ADD symptoms.
Perinatal use of drugs and certain medications have been linked with the development of ADD/ADHD in offspring. We recommend pregnant women be very thoughtful and inquisitive when taking medications during pregnancy.
Lead and Mercury Toxicity
More common than you might think, heavy metal toxicities can influence a the body’s ability to detox. We can test for this if there is suspicion of exposure.
Pesticides and Chemicals
Children can be exposed to pesticides in the yard or through the food they consume, and pesky chemicals commonly come from household cleaning products, personal hygiene products, laundry detergent, and lead paint.
Fluoride is an endocrine disruptor and is harmful to the mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell). We recommend our patients use a quality water filter to avoid fluoride and other toxins that may be present in your water source. Cavities are not caused by a fluoride deficiency.
Emotionally Unstable Home Environment / Stressors
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to understand a child’s stress levels as this can contribute to an increase in adrenaline and anxiety.
Poor Sleep Schedule or Poor Sleep Quality
Children especially need good sleep in order to experience healthy growth and healthy brains. During the deep stages of sleep the brain undergoes important processes that are vital to learning, memory, repair and overall functional. A sleep-deprived child is not a happy child.
What Can You Do?
I get lots of questions from parents about what they can do to support their child. It’s important to note that each child is different – there is no “one-size-fits-all” model for treating ADD/ADHD, particularly because the CAUSE(S) may be different for each child. That said, here a few starting points we have our patients consider:
- Do an elimination and reintroduction diet. This is the GOLD STANDARD approach for almost all of our patients. Patients who have done this well (and as a family) have experienced incredible improvements in everyone’s health. It is imperative to do this diet correctly. Otherwise, you will get false results.
- Eliminate most grains and sugars from your child’s diet. Both grains and sugar tend to cause allergies to flare and histamine levels to rise which can contribute to anxiety and behavior issues. It’s the quality of the grains that is the issue these days. It is also being consumed in excessive quantities.
- Avoid soft drinks, fruit juices and pasteurized milk; replace with filtered, non-fluoridated water. This is a non-negotiable. With the exception of the rare, special occasions, sugary drinks should be off limits (and that includes diet beverages – those might just be worse!).
- Increase omega-3 fats with food and/or supplementation. Omega-3 fats are crucial for a healthy brain. Some research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can improve the symptoms of ADHD more effectively than drugs. Excellent food sources of omega-3s include wild caught salmon (frozen or canned), sardines and pasture-raised/free range eggs. Other sources include nuts and seeds, especially walnuts. Pesto, anyone?
- Minimize all processed, inflammatory fats. Opt for quality olive oil, coconut oil and grass-fed butter, avocados and nuts and seeds. Say no to the canola oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil and fried foods. These oils are processed in a way that makes them unhealthy.
- Clear your house of pesticides and commercial washing detergents, cleaning products and hygiene products. Opt for more natural alternatives. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource for finding non-toxic products.
- Spend more time outside, off the screens. Outdoor play is great exercise for kids and the natural light exposure helps reset their circadian rhythms. As it gets closer to bedtime, restrict blue light exposure from screens as that will energize the brain and negatively impact quality of sleep. And sunshine is an excellent source of Vitamin D!
- Address gut health. If your not sure where to begin, we can help. Start by avoiding unnecessary use of antibiotics, Tylenol, ibuprofen, and acid-suppressing medications as each of these can have significant negative impacts on the gut flora and gut permeability/”leaky gut”.
I know the above list can be daunting to some of you, but be encouraged to start small. Little changes can make a big difference and can increase your confidence to make more changes. Even as the numbers of ADD/ADHD diagnoses rise, there is much HOPE for healing.
If you’d like assistance in identifying and addressing the causes of your child’s condition, please consider completing an Initial Health & Medical Investigation with us. We are 100% online and serve patients all over the country (and internationally!). We can help you get on the right track towards optimal wellness for your whole family.