Published on ADDitudeMag.com

Treating ADHD without Meds: A User's Guide

From fish oil to zinc, from brain training to behavior therapy, there is a wide range of options worth trying to improve ADHD symptoms.


Alternatives to Medication

Medication is a valuable tool for managing the core symptoms of ADHD, but it is not the only treatment option available to those with ADHD. Some alternative therapies involve diet and lifestyle changes, while others tap into technology to train the brain to be more focused and less impulsive. For many, the best treatment plan includes several approaches.

Be Open to Treatment Options

"There's no way to predict in advance if a child or an adult will be helped by any individual treatment, even medication," says Duke University's David Rabiner, Ph.D. His advice? It is critical to monitor your symptoms (and those of your child) to know what's working--and to be open to a variety of changes in diet, exercise, sleep habits and more.

Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy is a structured discipline strategy that aims to teach children new ways of behaving by rewarding desired behavior, such as following directions, and eliminating undesired actions, such as losing homework. The American Psychological Association says that behavior therapy should be the first line of treatment for children under five. It can be effective for older children as well.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are important in brain and nerve cell function. The body cannot make omega-3 fatty acids by itself, so people have to get them through diet and supplements. This is especially important for people with ADHD, who may have low levels of the nutrient. There are two types of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, EPA and DHA. The best supplements have two or three times more EPA than DHA.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT aims to change irrational or negative thought patterns that get in the way of staying on task or getting things done—two obstacles for ADHDers. For a person with ADHD who thinks, "This has to be perfect or it's no good" or "I never do anything right," CBT challenges the truth of those thoughts by getting the patient to examine the evidence.

Protein is Critical

Diet is a component of managing ADHD symptoms. Protein prevents surges in blood sugar that may increase hyperactivity, and aids in producing attention-boosting neurotransmitters. High-fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can help stabilize energy levels. If you or your child is taking a stimulant medication, a low-fat breakfast will maximize the effectiveness of the meds. Fats can cause the body to absorb the medication more slowly, delaying the drug’s effectiveness.

Iron, Zinc, and Vitamins C and B6

Several key vitamins and minerals are key to producing and regulating  neurotransmitter levels in the brain, especially when a child or adult is deficient in one of them. Vitamin C is a building block of neurotransmitters, while iron and vitamin B6 increase dopamine levels. Zinc regulates dopamine, and may help the stimulant medication methylphenidate work more effectively.

Exercise

One well-known benefit of exercise is an increase in endorphins, which can improve mood. Exercise also elevates the levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain, which increases focus and attention. Walking for 30 minutes four times a week will do the trick, but skill-based exercises like martial arts or ballet are especially effective for those with ADHD.

Brain-Training Programs

Software programs, such as Cogmed, may improve working memory—the ability to hold information in your mind long enough to accomplish a goal (like remembering a phone number long enough to dial it). Other brain training programs may reduce impulsivity and increase attention. The “games” in the programs look and feel like video games, but are designed to exercise parts of the brain that aren’t working at their optimum level.

Green Time

Studies have shown that spending 20 minutes a day in nature may improve ADHD symptoms in kids and adults. Green time is especially effective in helping kids recover from attention fatigue, which occurs after long periods spent in school. Gardening, biking to school, and walking the dog in the park are all good ways to incorporate green time into the day.

Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback is a high-tech way to manage ADHD symptoms. During a session, the patient dons an electrode-lined cap, and is asked to perform a complex cognitive task. The aim is to teach patients to produce brain-wave patterns associated with focus. Sessions are brief (30 minutes) and painless, but expensive. A course of treatment can range from $2,000 to $5,000.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is attention/awareness training that helps manage stress, develop positive emotions, and strengthens self-regulation skills. It involves silent meditation and becoming more aware during daily activities—in other words, staying in the moment. In one study, mindfulness training improved attention and lowered anxiety and depression in ADHD adults and adolescents.

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