ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder in children. In fact, it is one of the most commonly diagnosed long-term disorders in children overall, falling just behind asthma. According to data gathered by America’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 11% of children between the ages of four and 17 in the US are diagnosed with ADHD, and three out of four of those children are on medication to treat the condition.
While few experts dispute that ADHD is a legitimate condition and that medication can be effective in many cases, others also worry that there is an over-reliance on the traditional institutional approach. Some fear that the side effects of various stimulants may outweigh the benefits. Others are concerned that young people may come to rely on medication as a crutch instead of learning healthy coping mechanisms. And many believe that families should be aware of alternative options for treating and managing ADHD.
What Are ADHD Medications?
More often than not, children who are diagnosed with ADHD are prescribed a psychostimulant to help manage the symptoms of ADHD including hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. As the name suggests, these medications stimulate the brain to help improve focus. The most common ADHD medications include methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), and Adderall, which is a combination of four amphetamine salts.
The effects of ADHD medications typically last anywhere from one to four hours, but they can last up to eight or nine hours with slow-release formulas. The most common side effects are headaches, decreased appetite, sleep problems, and jitteriness. Some children can also experience what is called a rebound activation, or a peak in hyperactivity when the medication wears off.
While some parents find that medication can reduce some of the symptoms related to ADHD, others find that it causes additional problems that can lead to a downward spiral of dependence on pharmaceuticals. For example, children who experience rebound activation may be prescribed higher dosages to reduce ‘comedown’ outbursts. Children who have trouble sleeping may be prescribed additional medication to tackle insomnia. So where does it end?
Is Medication Really The Answer?
Dana Kay is a board-certified holistic health and nutrition practitioner who understands firsthand the frustrations and uncertainty that parents of children with ADHD may go through when it comes to navigating medication. When her son was just five years old, he was diagnosed with ADHD. Like most parents, she trusted her pediatrician when he prescribed her son Focalin XR.
Kay says: “For a while, things seemed to be going well. My son was calm and able to focus better at school. He even started playing nicer with his younger brother at home. It was peaceful. Sadly, this peacefulness didn’t last long. He started becoming quieter, more anxious, didn’t want to eat, and had trouble sleeping at night. He would have huge meltdowns every afternoon. It was as if the medication wore off and all of this pent-up energy was being released like a volcanic eruption.
“We started on five milligrams of Focalin XR, and within two weeks, the doctor had him at 10 milligrams and then 15 milligrams. Two weeks later he was at 20 milligrams. He couldn’t sleep and started to lose weight. They put him on another medication to help him sleep. When the medication started to wear off too early in the afternoon, they popped on an afternoon dose to boost him up. And then he was so anxious from that, that all of a sudden, they were suggesting an anti-anxiety medication.”
Kay was at her wits end and deeply disturbed by what was happening to her son. She began researching everything she could about ADHD and ultimately came to the decision that medication was not the way to go. Her studies led her to holistic healing modalities and as soon as she implemented a healthy, all-natural diet and lifestyle, she began to see significant results. Today her son is 11 years old and is excelling at school and personally, despite not being on medication for years.
When it comes to dealing with ADHD, parents are quick to turn to medications as a be-all and end-all solution, but many are not aware that there are alternative ways to help mitigate and manage the symptoms. Diet is one area that is often overlooked by parents and the biomedical community alike. However, a growing body of research suggests that diet and nutrition can actually have a powerful effect on behavior.
One major study in the UK pointed to the fact that certain food additives like artificial colors and flavors can increase hyperactivity in children. Other research suggests that certain foods such as dairy, soy, wheat, chocolate, honey, white rice, and potatoes can trigger symptoms of ADHD. Many experts agree that dietary modifications can have a positive effect on children with ADHD, either when implemented on their own or in combination with medication.
“Many people don’t realize that there is a huge connection between our gut health and brain health,” Kay says. “Ninety-five percent of the serotonin and 50 percent of the dopamine in our bodies are made in our guts. These neurotransmitters are our feel-good hormones, and they help us to manage our emotions and balance and maintain our moods. These are things that children with ADHD struggle with.”
Kay’s decade-long research into gut health, diet, and ADHD prompted her to create Our Road to Thrive and the ‘ADHD Thrive Method 4 Kids’ program to help families who have children with ADHD fight the symptoms with food and natural solutions. The 12-week program offers actionable steps for implementing dietary and lifestyle changes. Kay also offers functional lab testing to uncover potential chronic health issues that may be contributing to behavioral issues.
While Kay sees the value of ADHD medication in some cases, she does not believe that it should always be the first line of defense. “Medicine has its place and purpose,” she says. “But if the body is not in the best shape in terms of making sure the nutrients are balanced, then the medication can’t do its job to work efficiently. That’s when you may find yourself in this cycle of constantly increasing the dose, having side effects, or adding other medications to treat the side effects.”
“Of course every child is different, but you may find that simply changing the diet reduces symptoms so much that you don’t need to go further.”