4 Simple Steps to Fix ADHD
- Approximately two million children in the US have ADHD, and many are taking medications.
- ADHD medications cancause decrease appetite and growth and cause insomnia, but they’ve also caused fatal heart attacks in children and adults.
- When you look at the symptoms and start putting them together with an understanding of how the body works naturally, you can take easy and powerful steps to promote the health in these kids and adults with ADHD.
by Dr. John Neustadt
I’m going to talk to you today about an issue that’s come up repeatedly in my clinical practice and frequently when I speak with people or do consulting work with people over the phone, which I frequently do, and that is the issue of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD is a condition that becomes apparent in some children in the preschool and early school years. It is hard for these children to control their behavior or pay attention. It is estimated that between 3 and 5% of children have ADHD, or approximately two million children in the United States. This means that in a classroom of twenty-five to thirty children, it’s likely that at least one will have ADHD.
The principal characteristics of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These symptoms appear early in a child’s life. Because many normal children may have these symptoms, but at a low level, or the symptoms may be caused by another disorder, it’s important that the child receive a thorough examination and appropriate diagnosis by a well-qualified professional.
The conventional approach to ADHD is to prescribe medications. They go by such names as Adderrall, Concerta, Cylert, Dexedrine, Focalin, Metadate, and Ritalin. They’re stimulant-type medications that work off specific pathways in the brain. Interestingly, even though they’re considered stimulants, they can help people with ADHD calm the irritability and improve their concentration; however, nobody has a deficiency in Ritalin, nobody has a deficiency in Concerta, and it doesn’t actually identify or fix the problem.
And, in fact, these medications can have some serious and dangerous side effects. They decrease appetite and growth and cause insomnia. But these medicaitons have also caused fatal heart attacks in children and adults. In Canada doctors are required to discuss the potential side effects and the effects that it can cause on the heart with parents and with children before prescribing them because in rare occasionas it can cause arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). But the effects on the heart are serious enough that, in some cases, it’s been fatal.
Between 1993 and 2003 ADHD medications killed nineteen children and an additional twenty-six reports were recorded of strokes and rapid heart rates. These were recorded side effects, and since reporting side effects is voluntary, the risk is likely greater. Regardless, what’s shocking, these physicians and drug companies took a nonfatal condition and made it fatal for these children. Case reports of fatal heart attacks in adults taking ADHD medications have also been reported.
And although the risk of sudden death is rare, it’s enough of a concern that the Canadian Medical Association published recommendations in 2006 for physicians to hopefully reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death from these medications. Among other recommendations, doctors are instructed to screen all patients for a family history of sudden or cardiac death before prescribing these medications. Additionally, cardiac status should be evaluated periodically in patients on long-term treatment. Doctors in the U.S. aren’t required to screen for these warning signs.
If you or your child has been prescribed those medications, like any medications, make sure you ask about potential side effects. But what I found in the research and in my clinical practice is that there are incredibly effective ways to approach the evaluation and the management of this condition to actually help naturally and safely improve mood, attention and energy without or in addition to the medications.
ADHD is a collection of symptoms. There aren’t any blood test or imaging that’s used to diagnose ADHD. It’s all based on symptoms. When you look at the symptoms and start putting them together with an understanding of how the body works naturally, you can take easy and powerful steps to promote the health in these kids and adults with ADHD.
Control Blood Sugar
The first thing is to understand that low blood sugar, or poor blood sugar control, can affect mood and concentration and mimic the symptoms of ADHD.
Blood sugar regulation is a key issue to be aware of because when blood sugar drops it can create difficulty concentrating and irritability. You may have experienced this. I know I have. One of the important things to make sure with children is that they’re having protein with every meal.
Breakfast is really important to get them to start the day out right with some protein. They should eat protein with lunch and with dinner and with every snack. A lot of people may not realize, but protein is an excellent way for helping to regulate and smooth out blood sugar so you’re not getting these big spikes and then those drops.
The other thing that’s really important is sleep. Now, if children aren’t getting enough sleep, they’re going to have a hard time concentrating, just like us adults. So making sure that children are getting enough sleep is crucial. Younger kids need about 10 hours of sleep per night, but the amount of sleep that’s recommended changes with age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides recommendations for how much sleep people need. For school age kids ages 6-12 years, it’s recommended they get 9-12 hours per day (including naps). For 13-18 year olds, 8-10 hours per day and for adults 7 or more hours per night.
To get enough sleep, it’s important to limit the use of technology at night. Make sure that children are not on screens at night. That can create irritability and decrease their ability to sleep. A 2015 study showed that using light-emitting devices (smartphones, tablets, computers) at night before bed makes it harder to fall asleep and resulted in it taking hours longer to feel fully awake and reach the same level of alertness that people not using these devices experienced.
Now, getting good sleep, of course, can help with mood and irritability as well. Just making these two changes—regulating blood sugar through better diet and getting adequate sleep—can make a huge impact on their “disorder,” their ADHD that they were diagnosed with.
Test for Nutrient Deficiencies
Another thing to look at is understand potential nutritional deficiencies that can contribute to these behavioral issues and these struggles that these poor kids are going through. Nutritional deficiencies that feed the pathways on which the drugs that are prescribed work, those drugs Concerta and Ritalin, they work by artificially enhancing dopamine and norepinephrine and epinephrine. No one has a deficiency of Concerta or Ritalin, and if our bodies can naturally produce those the hormones that these drugs affect, the question is why aren’t they?
We know all of the nutrients that are required to produce those hormones, and they can be tested for. They’re amino acids, vitamins and minerals, so asking your doctor to run those tests can identify if there are deficiencies, which can then be easily addressed with dietary supplements. The tests I have run for my patients and have great success using are a plasma amino acids test and a urinary organic acids test. Those are really important for identifying underlying issues that may be going on.
Test for Food Allergies
Another issue that could be happening is a food allergy or a food intolerance. I’m not referring to the type of allergy that causes anaphylactic shock and throat to swell up and that can be deadly. I’m talking about a type of allergy that caused by a different immune protein in the body, an immune protein called IgG. They tend to be a little more insidious. When the person eats, they can get postnasal drip, gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, or constipation. If any of those symptoms are accompanying the ADHD symptoms, then it maybe that their body is reacting to foods they’re eating.
I like the 90-Foods Antibodies IgG test. It’s available through labs. And if a blood draw is not feasible because the child is too young, or for other reasons, a bloodspot test that screens for 30 foods can be helpful. Food allergies may also be something that’s contributing to their discomfort or their irritability. Chronic food allergies can cause inflammation in the gut and lead to leaky gut.
When you start to think more holistically and asking what the underlying causes of the symptoms might be, you get away from the knee-jerk reaction that the conventional medical system has of diagnosing these children and prescribing medications to them indefinitely. Having these children (and adults) take mediations without searching for, and correcting, the underlying causes, does them a huge disservice.
They get labeled that they have an issue and a problem, and it can cause additional anxiety in them, additional social issues, and definitely a lot more anxiety for the family and the parents.
With an integrative approach to health, we can actually help identify some of the potential underlying causes, not just for ADHD, but for many other conditions that people are struggling with, and oftentimes, there are really straight forward, simple solutions that can help.
Clavenna A, Bonati M. Pediatric pharmacoepidemiology – safety and effectiveness of medicines for ADHD. Expert Opin Drug Saf. 2017;16(12):1335-1345. [Article]
Lord R, Braley JA, eds. Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine. 2nd ed. Duluth: Metametrix Institute; 2008. [Book]
Nissen SE. ADHD Drugs and Cardiovascular Risk. N Engl J Med. 2006;354(14):1445-1448. [Article]
Sinha A, Lewis O, Kumar R, Yeruva SL, Curry BH. Adult ADHD Medications and Their Cardiovascular Implications. Case Rep Cardiol. 2016;2016:2343691. [Article]
Wilens TE, Prince JB, Spencer TJ, Biederman J. Stimulants and Sudden Death: What Is a Physician to Do? Pediatrics. 2006;118(3):1215-1219. [Article]
Wooltorton E. Medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: cardiovascular concerns. CMAJ. 2006;175(1):29. [Article]
Lab testing is part of many doctors’ appointment. The complete blood count (CBC) is a routine blood test that healthcare providers order on annual exams and as a general screening test for anemia.
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