Ask the Experts

Can You Make It Without ADHD Medication?

ADHD medication can help immensely when used properly, but some patients prefer to try alternative treatments or avoid medications for another reason. Use these guidelines to determine if it’s the right path for you.

A woman discusses ADHD treatment without drugs on the phone with her doctor.
Woman with ADHD on phone at work looking at paper

No question about it: ADHD medication really helps relieve the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

That’s because medicines help reverse a deficiency in the brain’s neurotransmitter system, a deficiency that’s at the root of the disorder.

But many people, for many reasons, can’t take medication or prefer not to. While medication is safe for most, pregnant women should not take stimulants. Those who want to pack on some weight often want to lay off for awhile. Still others complain they don’t like the side effects of ADHD medication.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no diet, exercise, alternative therapy, or high level of motivation that normalizes brain function in people with ADHD. Even so, is it possible for people with ADHD to live their lives successfully without medicine? Yes — but not always.

Here’s the process for deciding if ADHD treatment without drugs is possible for you, designed for those who take a short-acting stimulant medication such as Ritalin.

1. Make a list of the ADHD behaviors affecting adults or ADHD children, including:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Distractibility
  • Impulsivity
  • Disorganization
  • Forgetfulness
  • Poor planning/executive function problems

2. List all the activities, events and situations you or your child will encounter while not on medication, such as:

  • School
  • Work
  • Sports
  • Social Situations
  • Parenting
  • Paperwork
  • Homework

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3. Compare the lists to determine if any of the ADHD behaviors interfere with success in activities, events or situations. If not, medication might not be needed.

For example, if you can modify the environment at work so that ADHD behaviors don’t prevent you from doing your job, go ahead and try it without medication. Perhaps your only truly disabling symptoms are auditory distractibility and disorganization. If so, getting an office where the door can be closed, and getting a coach to help you stay organized may eliminate your need for medication.

If your child has hyperactivity and distractibility and is on a school break or summer vacation, skip the medication and see what happens. However, if you plan an activity that requires sitting and paying attention, medication might be needed for just those times. Maybe you can tolerate your son’s hyperactivity at home and he can do his homework standing up. But this activity level might lead to a crisis at Sunday school or a scout meeting.

Remember, too, to rethink this decision for each stage of development and for each change in expectations. A first or second grader with distractibility might be able to do brief homework without medication, but by third grade he might need medication to tackle increased homework demands. Transition to middle school, with seven classes and seven teachers, might create such stress that medication becomes essential for a child who didn’t need it previously. The adult who finds a career that fits her ADHD may be so successful that she is promoted to middle management. Suddenly, she may need medication to be able to sit at a desk all day and handle increased paperwork.

There are exceptions. If you’re pregnant or nursing, it’s prudent to stop taking medication, period. For women who need medication to function normally, stopping might precipitate a crisis. If that’s the case, explain the problem to all involved – partners, family, employers. Let those close to you know that you do not mean to interrupt or jump from topic to topic. Ask for accommodations that may not have been necessary before. Don’t be afraid to ask for increased understanding and compassion.

Finally, be willing to admit that eliminating medication may be unwise. Don’t set up unrealistic expectations and don’t be hard on yourself or your child. Having ADHD is nobody’s fault, and needing medication is not a crime.

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