Complementary therapies can help ease ADHD symptoms
When my son Wilder was diagnosed with ADHD, like a lot of parents, I was overwhelmed. Though I’d sensed this diagnosis was coming — I was the only mom visibly sweating when leaving toddler-time classes — I felt unprepared for all the questions that came with it: “Do we medicate? What about therapy? Should we change his diet?
While my husband and I ultimately decided to medicate Wilder, we also know that medication isn’t a cure. We work on developing essential skills that are difficult for ADHDers, and we continue to experiment with alternative or complementary therapies — things that can be done instead of or in addition to medication that help mitigate ADHD symptoms.
If you are a parent of one of the estimated 6.4 million U.S. kids diagnosed with ADHD, here are a few of the more promising therapies we’ve tried, along with psychiatric nurse practitioner Holly Vause’s take on each one. Vause works at Alder Grove Wellness Group and is assistant professor at the University of Colorado College of Nursing. Rule No. 1? Be safe: Do your research and talk to your doctor before using any treatment with your child.
Growing evidence suggests using high-quality, higher-dose omega-3 fatty acids can help children with ADHD, Vause says. Vayarin, a relatively new EPA-enriched, omega-3, prescription medical food, is increasingly being used for ADHD. In a 2011 clinical study published in European Psychiatry, researchers detected significant differences between Vayarin and placebo groups in reducing symptoms. “While the evidence is not slam dunk like it is for stimulants, it (Vayarin) seems to work for a lot of families,” Vause says. Evidence for other supplements, such as iron, zinc and amino acids, isn’t that robust, but if parents are seeing improvement, they should stick with it, she says.
“There is no great evidence that taking away food dyes, processed foods and sugars helps, but anecdotally, I hear it quite often,” Vause says. If you’re going to try it, experts recommend eliminating one element at a time and then reintroducing it to gauge the effect before moving to the next possible culprit. Some research suggests a protein-rich diet can help alleviate symptoms. It’s important, however, to talk with your doctor about any nutritional changes. As a pediatrician once told me: “You can’t pay attention if you’re starving, either.”
Limited research shows that playing in or just being surrounded by nature can buy ADHD kids, who struggle with sensory input, some calm. “Nature is calmer and more peaceful — there’s less visual input, and it’s not loud,” Vause says. A 2011 study, “Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD?,” published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being found that such spaces, when measured against built outdoor and indoor settings, made more of a difference in symptom severity.
Exercise, indoors or outside, can help ease symptoms, and is something Vause recommends to all of her patients. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of many books about exercise’s effect on the brain, has said that people should think of exercise as medication and something they should do, generally in conjunction with drugs, to help increase attention and improve mood. One 2003 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology looked at the effects of recess on ADHD kids’ classroom behavior and concluded: “Levels of inappropriate behavior were consistently higher on days when participants did not have recess, compared with days when they did have recess.”
This method maps the brain and uses brain exercises to improve impulse control and attentiveness. While pricey — treatment can run thousands of dollars — there is some evidence it works. In a study of 100 children, half were medicated and the other half received medication and neurofeedback. Results found that the latter group maintained improved attentiveness after both groups were taken off medication. Parents should note, however, that the therapy hasn’t been extensively tested.
In the end, Vause says, many alternative therapies are worth trying. But she cautions against dismissing medication outright. Evidence shows that treating ADHD will dramatically reduce the risk of substance abuse later in life, when untreated teens or adults might attempt to self-medicate, she says.
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