Supplements for ADHD: Do Vitamins, Herbs, and Fatty Acids Work?

Parents often ask if they can treat their child’s ADHD without prescription medication. There are many alternative treatments in addition to prescription medications – some of which are more effective than others.  I will cover ADHD treatment with supplements today.

Supplements for ADHD – general

If you’re giving your kids supplements for any reason, be sure to tell their physician and pharmacist to avoid any known complications or interactions with other treatments.

Supplement use in general is gaining popularity. All you have to do is visit a pharmacy or specialty store and you will see various products marketed to treat ADHD.

There are some studies that show people with ADHD have low levels of certain vitamins and minerals. More studies are being done to determine if supplementing helps symptoms. There is growing evidence for vitamin supplementation, but there are no standard recommendations yet.

Should you use high dose vitamins?

Clinical trials using various combinations of high dose vitamins such as vitamin C, pantothenic acid, and pyridoxine show no effect on ADHD.

I don’t recommend high dose vitamin supplements unless a specific deficiency is identified. I don’t routinely screen for deficiencies at this time because there are no standard recommendations for this. We still have a long way to go before we know enough to make recommendations.

For children without a known vitamin deficiency, a standard pediatric multivitamin can be used, but effectiveness is not proven. I have no problems with anyone taking a multivitamin daily. However, I cannot recommend any specific brand since none of them are regulated by the FDA and there are many reports that show the label often misrepresents levels of what is really in the bottle. There have been instances of higher or lower than listed amounts of ingredients as well as unlisted ingredients in supplements.

My advice is to buy a brand that allows independent lab testing of their products if you choose to buy any vitamin or supplement.

Vitamins & minerals

The following is adapted from the University of Maryland Medical Center with the help of ADDitude Magazine and Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.

Magnesium

Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include irritability, decreased attention span, and mental confusion.

Some experts believe that children with ADHD may be showing the effects of mild magnesium deficiency. In one preliminary study of 75 magnesium-deficient children with ADHD, those who received magnesium supplements showed an improvement in behavior compared to those who did not receive the supplements.

Too much magnesium can be dangerous and magnesium can interfere with certain medications, including antibiotics and blood pressure medications.

Talk to your doctor before supplementing with magnesium.

Vitamin B6

Adequate levels of vitamin B6 are needed for the body to make and use brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, the chemicals affected in children with ADHD.

One preliminary study found that B6 pyridoxine was slightly more effective than Ritalin in improving behavior among hyperactive children – but other studies failed to show a benefit. The study that did show benefit used a high dose of B6, which could cause nerve damage, so more studies need to be done to confirm that it helps.

If B6 is found to help, we need to learn how to monitor levels and dose the vitamin before this can be used safely.

Because high doses can be dangerous, do not give your child B6 without your doctor’s supervision.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C can help modulate the dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the reward and pleasure centers in the brain.

Vitamin C can affect the way your body absorbs medications (especially stimulants for ADHD) so it is suggested to avoid vitamin C supplements and citrus fruits that are high in vitamin C within the hour of taking medicines.

Preliminary evidence suggests that a low dose of vitamin C in combination with flaxseed oil twice per day might improve some measures of attention, impulsivity, restlessness, and self-control in some children with ADHD. More evidence is needed before this combination can be recommended.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is the one vitamin that is recommended to take as a supplement by many experts.

As we have gotten smarter about sun exposure, our vitamin D levels have decreased. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to many problems, including ADHD.

Zinc

Zinc regulates the activity of brain chemicals, fatty acids, and melatonin. All of these are related to behavior.

Several studies show that zinc may help improve behavior.

Higher doses of zinc can be dangerous, so talk to your doctor before giving zinc to a child or taking it yourself.

Iron

Iron deficiencies commonly occur in children due to inadequate dietary sources since kids are so picky. Other causes include blood loss or excessive milk intake.

Iron is needed for the synthesis of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin- all neurotransmitters in the brain.

Low iron has been linked to learning and behavior problems.

Too much iron can be dangerous, so talk with your doctor if you want to start high dose supplements. (Regular multivitamins with iron should not cause overdose if used according to package directions.)

If you’re using high doses of iron, it is important to follow labs to be sure the iron dose is not too high.

Essential fatty acids

Fatty acids, such as those found in fish, fish oil, flax seed (omega-3 fatty acids) and evening primrose oil (omega-6 fatty acids) are “good fats” that play a key role in normal brain function.

In a large review, Omega-3/6 supplementation made no difference in ADHD symptoms, but there are other benefits to this supplement and it carries little risk.

If you want to try fish oil to see if it reduces ADHD symptoms, talk to your doctor about the best dose. Some experts recommend that young school aged kids take 1,000-1,500 mg a day, and kids over 8 years get 2,000-2,500 mg daily.

For ADHD symptom control it is often recommended to get twice the amount of EPA to DHA.

L-carnitine

L-carnitine is formed from an amino acid and helps cells in the body produce energy.

One study found that 54% of a group of boys with ADHD showed improvement in behavior when taking L-carnitine. More research is needed to confirm any benefit.

Because L-carnitine has not been studied for safety in children, talk to your doctor before giving a child L-carnitine.

L-carnitine may make symptoms of hypothyroid worse and may increase the risk of seizures in people who have had seizures before. It can also interact with some medications. L-carnitine should not be given until you talk to your child’s doctor.

 

Proteins

Proteins are great for maintaining a healthy blood sugar and for keeping the brain focused.

They are best eaten as foods: lean meats, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds, legumes, and fish are high protein foods. Most people in our country eat more protein than is needed.

If your child does not eat these foods in good quantity, there are supplements available. Talk with your doctor to see if they are appropriate for your child. Many of the supplements are high in sugar and other additives. Some have too much protein for children to safely eat on a regular basis.

Herbs

There are some studies supporting nutritional supplements or herbal medicines for ADHD, but many reported treatments have not been found effective.

Pinus marinus (French maritime pine bark), and a Chinese herbal formula (Ningdong) showed some support.

Current data suggest that Ginkgo biloba (ginkgo) and Hypercium perforatum (St. John’s wort) are ineffective in treating ADHD.

Summary

In general I think we all should eat a healthy diet that is made up primarily of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates.

If children are on a restricted diet due to allergy or sensitivities to foods or additives (or extreme pickiness), discuss their diet with your doctor. Consider working with a nutritionist to be sure your child is getting all the nutrition needed for proper growth.

If supplements are being considered, they should be discussed with your doctor. Talking about risks and benefits can help decide which are right for your child.


Looking for more?

Many parents benefit from support groups to learn from others who have gone through or are currently going through similar situations, fears, failures, and successes. Find one in your area that might help you go through the process with others who share your concerns. If you know of a support group that deserves mention, please share!

ADHD

CHADD is the nationwide support group that offers a lot online and has many local chapters, such as ADHDKC. I am a volunteer board member of ADHDKC and have been impressed with the impact they have made in our community in the short time they have existed (established in 2012). I encourage parents to attend their free informational meetings. The speakers have all been fantastic and there are many more great topics coming up!

Anxiety

Many parents are surprised to learn how much anxiety can affect behavior and learning. To look for local support groups, check out the tool on Psychology Today.

Autism

The Autism Society has an extensive list of resources.

Dyslexia 

Dyslexia Help is designed to help dyslexics, parents, and professionals find the resources they need, from scholarly articles and reviewed books to online forums and support groups.

Learning Disabilities 

Learning Disabilities Association of America offers support groups as well as information to help understand learning disabilities, negotiating the special education process, and helping your child and yourself.

Tourette’s Syndrome and Tic Disorders 

Tourette’s Syndrome Association is a great resource for people with tic disorders.

General Support Group List 

For a list of many support groups in Kansas: Support Groups in Kansas .

School information

Choosing schools for kids with ADHD and learning differences isn’t always possible, but look to the linked articles on ways to decide what might work best for your child. When choosing colleges, look specifically for programs they offer for students who learn differently and plan ahead to get your teen ready for this challenge.

Midwest ADHD Conference – April 2018

Check out the Midwest ADHD Conference coming to the KC area in April, 2018. I’m involved in the planning stages and it will be a FANTASTIC conference for parents, adults with ADHD, and educators/teachers.

Midwest ADHD Conference
The Midwest ADHD Conference will be held in April 2018, in Overland Park, Kansas.


Share Quest for Health

 

Which Supplements Help Prevent and Treat Infections?

I don’t know anyone who wants to get sick, so most of us try our best to avoid illnesses. We do this by washing our hands and encouraging our kids to cover their coughs. We avoid sick people as much as possible (though we don’t always stay home when we should). We should routinely get enough sleep (most Americans fail in this regard) and eat more fruits and vegetables (again, most of us fail to get the minimum recommended amounts of plants in our diets).

All of these measures can help, but can we get more help from nutritional supplements or other natural remedies? What will boost our immune system?

I’m often asked if vitamin C, zinc, or essential oils will help various ailments or boost our immune system. I know that many people try natural products that are promoted to boost or support the immune system. They’re hopeful that stimulating immune system activity will help the body fight off a virus. But research doesn’t show that our immune system works that way. A virus can cause illness even in healthy people. If you want to read an in-depth summary of how our immune system works, the Skeptical Raptor has done a nice job discussing the complexities and why it’s not as easy as eating healthy and taking supplements. Not to mention the fact that we don’t necessarily want an overactive immune system, which is associated with allergies and autoimmune diseases.

One thing we need to remember first and foremost in the discussion of supplements is that this is an under-regulated industry. The FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. For this reason I hesitate to recommend supplements at all. Even though I do recommend Vitamin D supplements because studies support the need for additional Vitamin D in most people, I cannot endorse one particular product. Over the years many supplements, homeopathic products and herbs have been reported to have significant variances in amounts of product and unnamed contaminants, including lead and other hazards.

Summaries of supplement and other “natural treatment” effectiveness:

  • Probiotics may actually help prevent the number of infections. There are many, many types of probiotics, so further studies are needed on how to choose the best strain.
  • Zinc has been shown to help prevent upper respiratory tract infections in children and teens and to decrease the duration of the common cold symptoms. It is best given as a lozenge to help with absorption. Intranasal zinc has been linked to a permanent loss of smell and should not be used. High doses can cause significant side effects, so talk to your doctor and pharmacist before supplementing.
  • Nasal saline rinses show benefit in treating symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections. Learn how to do these correctly before trying it though. I often recommend Nasopure products as an unpaid endorsement. They’re a local company with a very helpful website. Use their library to learn how to properly use nasal rinses in kids as young as 2 years of age.
  • Honey may reduce the frequency of cough and improve the quality of sleep for children with the common cold. Honey should never be used in children younger than 1 year of age because of the risk of botulism.
  • Echinacea has consistently been shown to be ineffective in many studies. I know that many people have heard of its benefits, so if you aren’t convinced that you shouldn’t waste money on it, see the NCCIH’s Echinacea page.
  • Garlic shows overall low evidence of benefit.
  • Vitamin C can shorten the duration of illness mildly with daily supplementation.
  • Chinese herbal medicines do not have high quality studies so effectiveness is unknown.
  • Geranium extract (Pelargonium sidoides) has insufficient evidence of benefit for cold and cough symptoms.
  • Turmeric‘s supposed anti-inflammatory properties have not been shown to be effective by research.
  • Essential oils have the potential for beneficial effects – but they also have the potential for adverse reactions. Although they are touted as a cure for many ailments, published studies regarding the uses of aromatherapy have generally focused on its psychological effects on stress and anxiety or its use as a topical treatment for skin conditions. Both Young Living and dōTERRA have received warning letters from the FDA about improper marketing and unsubstantiated claims for uses of their oils. While many people think essential oils are safe, they can lead to significant problems. Some people suffer from allergic reactions to oils. They can increase sensitivity to the sun when applied topically. Tea tree oil and lavender have estrogen-like effects and caution should be used with these. Some of these substances can even lead to seizures, liver damage, and death if used improperly. Ingestion of the oils is a growing concern – as more households have them, more children are ingesting them.
Alice Callahan’s “Immune-Boosting” Supplements Won’t Protect You from Back-to-School Germs is a great review of many of the supplements touted to prevent or treat illnesses. Her background in nutrition provides a solid base for reviewing claims that many of us don’t understand completely.
Generally supplements are not recommended, but if you choose to use them, use them cautiously.
  • Supplements contain a wide variety of ingredients – including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbs. Research has confirmed health benefits of some dietary supplements but not others. The woo can be strong in this area, so be cautious where you get your information.
  • Supplements have been known to include unlisted ingredients and to have inconsistent levels of product. When they are recalled, there is no mechanism in place to identify and notify people who have purchased affected products.
  • Find a reliable source to evaluate effectiveness and risks. Some reports have shown that people who take supplements have higher risks of cancer, liver damage, birth defects, bleeding, and other health problems. When looking for information, use noncommercial sites (National Institutes of HealthFood and Drug AdministrationUS Department of AgricultureNational Center for Complementary Health) rather than depending on information from sellers.
  • Natural does not mean safe. I’ve always said that I wouldn’t give my picky eater marijuana to stimulate his appetite and encourage him to eat. Not even if it was organic. That usually gets the point across. You need to know the risks of a product, even if it’s natural.
  • If supplements will be taken, talk to your doctor and pharmacist about drug interactions. Sometimes it’s difficult to know the risks because not all ingredients are included on the label and not all ingredients have been well studied, especially in combination with other supplements and medications.
  • Most dietary supplements have not been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children. Remember just because something’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. Arsenic is natural but I wouldn’t advise taking it in high doses.
  • If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are no miracle cures. Avoid being manipulated by advertising. It’s easy to fall prey because we all want to feel better quickly and parents want their kids to be healthy. But if it claims to be 100% effective or to have no side effects, it’s probably false advertising. Personal accounts of something working are as likely to be based on bias or coincidence as to be from real benefit. Rely on large clinical studies that have been reproduced by other researchers.
  • Dr. Chad Hayes has a very long, but wonderful post on how many of the integrative medicines are not simply not beneficial but potentially dangerous – Citations Needed: The curious “science” of integrative medicineMy experience at “Get Your Life Back NOW!”
This post isn’t about antibiotics, but they don’t work against viral illnesses any better than supplements. They don’t prevent the development of ear infections or pneumonia, so even if your child seems to always develop these complications, your doctor should not prescribe them preventatively. Don’t use antibiotics for routine upper respiratory infections, stomach bugs, and other viral illnesses.

Do you know what really boosts your immune system?