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.
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
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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
The Autism Society has an extensive list of resources.
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 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 .
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.