5 Big Natural Remedies for ADHD: Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep & More
Whether they take medication or not, your child may benefit from these five natural remedies for ADHD: proper nutrition, brain-boosting supplements, physical exercise, adequate sleep, and limited screen time. Learn how to maximize the impact of these ADHD treatments and more.
No treatment plan for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is complete if it doesn’t harness the power of nutrition, exercise, and sleep to improve wellbeing. What we eat, our physical activity levels, our sleep habits, and lifestyle factors ranging from stress management to screen time have a tremendous effect on health – a fact that’s amplified for ADHD brains and bodies.
Regardless of whether your child’s treatment includes medication, maximizing exercise, sleep, and nutrition can effectively transform them into natural remedies for ADHD, and arguably establish the foundation upon which to build other interventions.
ADHD Natural Remedy: Nutrition
Mounting research suggests that eating well contributes positively to the performance and abilities of any child with ADHD.1
Watch Out for Blood Sugar Levels
When working to improve your child’s wellbeing, begin by considering the glycemic index (GI), or how fast the body converts carbohydrates into sugar.
All carbohydrates turn into sugar, but some are converted faster (high glycemic index) and some slower (low GI). These rates of conversion affect a child’s energy levels over the day; anything that causes blood sugar levels to quickly spike (like sugary, processed foods) means that the body will work hard to quickly drop that sugar, actually bringing it below normal levels. The result is often an irritable, fidgety, or nervous child who can’t focus as well.
To maintain steady, normal blood sugar levels, ensure that your child’s meals, especially at the start of the day, are balanced:
- Avoid processed carbs and sugars. That means no frozen waffles, pancakes, Pop Tarts, jelly, and other products that readily turn to sugar in the body. Go for low glycemic index foods, like steel cut oats, or true whole grain bread, to boost focus and performance. In one study, children who ate low GI breakfasts had better executive functioning, working memory, and attention compared to children who ate processed foods.2
- Opt for organic foods as much as possible. Some studies suggest that pesticides may play a role in the development of ADHD.3
- Opt for protein. Protein is filling and provides consistent energy through the day. Eggs and lean meats are great sources of protein.
- Some fat is OK. Fats are important – they work to decrease the absorption and processing of carbohydrates into sugar.
A significant percentage of children with ADHD are sensitive (not allergic) to some kind of food. In one study that placed children with ADHD on a restricted elimination meal plan, more than half of subjects saw a 40% improvement on ADHD rating scale performance.4 The same results appeared in an older study, where hyperactive children saw improvement in behavior after being placed on a “few foods” plan.5
In my practice, I estimate that about 30% to 50% of children I see do have some food sensitivity.
Not sure what food sensitives your child may have? Try this technique I use with my patients: eliminate a whole set of foods – dairy, wheat, corn, soy, eggs (common culprits) – for three weeks.
- If improvement is detected, start adding the foods back one by one for a couple of days (I usually recommend starting with gluten first). Give it three to four days to see if there are any developing behaviors associated with each food. The process should take six weeks in all.
- If no improvement detected, food sensitivities are likely not an issue for your child.
Eliminating foods, in my experience, tend to work on children who primarily present symptoms of hyperactivity rather than inattentiveness. This method also works on children who already have a history of allergies, eczema, gastrointestinal issues, and other allergic-type manifestations.
Several studies show that artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives tend to increase hyperactivity in a sizable portion of children, ADHD or not.6 In addition, studies suggest that a subset of children with ADHD are sensitive to food dyes, and may see symptoms worsen.7
Opt for whole foods to avoid synthetic dyes, and, as with food sensitivities, try to detect through a process of elimination if your child is sensitive to a particular dye.
ADHD Natural Remedy: Supplements
Fish Oil and Omega-3s for ADHD
This is the most common supplement used by patients with ADHD. Why? Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids (with high doses of EPA) are modestly effective in treating ADHD in children.8 Fish oil, which is associated with few/mild side effects, helps to increase levels of omega-3s that are often naturally lacking in children with ADHD, which in turn helps with brain functioning. Although dosing amounts are not established, I recommend 1000mg a day of combined EPA+DHA for children ages 5 to 8, 1500 mg a day for children ages 8 to 12, and 2000 mg a day for older children.
Can’t get your sensory-sensitive child to take fish oil supplements? Click here for tips.
Iron and ADHD
Many children with ADHD are relatively iron (serum ferretin) deficient9, which may explain irregular dopamine regulation in the brain10. One small study showed that children with ADHD who took iron supplements saw an improvement in ADHD symptoms compared to children who took a placebo.11 Have your child’s doctor measure their serum ferritin levels to see if an iron supplement is necessary. For non-anemic patients, I recommend up to 40 mg of chelated iron a day. (The chelated form is associated with fewer gastrointestinal side effects.)
- Vitamin D: Studies suggest that children with ADHD have lower vitamin D levels compared to neurotypical children, and that supplementation may reduce ADHD symptoms.12 13
- Zinc: As with other minerals, low zinc levels appear to correlate to greater severity of ADHD symptoms. Zinc supplementation may improve ADHD symptoms.14
- Magnesium: Levels of this mineral tend to be normal in most children. In my experience, magnesium supplements may have a calming effect on some children – helpful for those who struggle to sleep or are rebounding from medication.
Talk to your child’s doctor before starting any supplement.
ADHD Natural Remedy: Exercise
Multiple research studies shows that many children with ADHD clearly benefit from exercise.15 Even a single, 20-minute bout of aerobic exercise improves attention and academic performance in this group, according to one study.16 Another small study of children with ADHD found that acute exercise normalizes arousal and alertness levels, based on findings from EEG readings.17
Exercise can be so therapeutic for ADHD symptoms that I recommend against sacrificing exercise time for tutoring or because of poor grades. In fact, research seems to indicate that exercise improves academic scores perhaps better than spending the equivalent amount in class or study time.18
What Is the Recommended Amount of Physical Activity for Children?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends at least one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise a day for children and adolescents.19 I recommend five days a week of exercise for my patients. (Physical education in school can count, so long as it increases heart rate and works up a sweat.) Interestingly, how much exercise helps any particular person may depend on genetics, with brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) playing a major role in the relationship.20
Some children with ADHD may prefer individual sports, like swimming, tennis, or cycling, as opposed to team sports. Some studies show that martial arts, especially taekwondo, benefit children with ADHD.21
If your child resists exercise, consider tying it to something virtually all children want: screen time. They can have an hour of tablet time, for example, only if they’re on a stationary bike or treadmill during that time. Some adolescents may benefit from working with a personal trainer to keep them accountable and motivated.
Unstructured Play Matters
Unstructured play is not the same as exercise, but it is just as important for all children. Unstructured, creative play is crucial for normal development, as it is where young children learn to work things out independently and forge social relationships23 — important skills for children with ADHD especially. So, let your child ride their bike, run around, or play outside with other children if it is safe to do so. Leave them be if they are on a play date. Find programs that emphasize and maximize independent play.
ADHD Natural Remedy: Sleep
Adequate sleep is crucial for children with ADHD, who are already at a higher risk for a variety of sleep disturbances, like difficulty falling asleep, compared to children without ADHD.24 Inadequate sleep affects ADHD symptoms and overall functioning.
How Much Sleep Do Kids Need?
- Preschool-age: 10 to 13 hours, including naps
- School-age: 9 to 12 hours, including naps
- Teens: 8 to 10 hours
Helpful Sleep Strategies for Children
- Limit screen time before bed. Light from screens disrupts sleep.28 A good rule of thumb is to turn off screens at least 45 minutes before sleep time.
- Implement a bedtime ritual. A 15- to 20-minute routine can prep the body for sleep.
- Try calming activities, like reading, white noise, or guided audio meditation.
- Herbs like valerian and chamomile are popular natural sleep aids for their proposed soothing properties.29
- Avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime so as not to awaken the body.
- Avoid overly hot baths close to bedtime. While research shows that a warm bath before bed can help with sleep by lowering the body’s temperature30, a bath that is too hot may have the opposite effect.
- Consider melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and can be helpful when administered as a supplement (especially if ADHD medications are causing sleep-related side effects). A low liquid dose (easier to control) of up to half a milligram) helps most children sleep, based on my observations. Talk to your child’s doctor about whether melatonin is right for your child.
If sleep problems persist, consult with your child’s medical providers. They may be able to run a sleep study to test for disorders. Behavioral professional psychologists and counselors can also help with implementing healthy sleep routines. Ask the pediatrician to check your child’s serum ferritin levels, as low levels are associated with restless sleep.31
ADHD Natural Remedy: Manage Screen Time
By far, screen time/digital media use is the most difficult and argument-producing problem among the many families I help. Many studies link excessive screen time to issues like poor sleep quality, poor mental health, emotional dysregulation, lower academic achievement, lower levels of physical activity, and even developmental delays in children and teens.32 33
Studies correlate increased screen time with symptoms of ADHD. According to a study of preschool-age children, those who had more than two hours of screen time a day were more likely to exhibit clinically significant symptoms of inattention compared to children with less than 30 minutes of screen time per day.34 Another study found that higher frequency of digital media use was associated with subsequent symptoms of ADHD in adolescents after a two-year follow-up.35 Note, however, that research does not establish a causal link between screen time and ADHD.
There also appears to be a subset of children with ADHD whose symptoms are worsened by even small amounts of screen time.36
How to Limit Screen Time
For children 2 to 5 years of age, the AAP recommends one hour a day at most of co-viewed high-quality programming.37 For older children, it recommends a personalized media use plan that considers the individual child’s age, health, temperament, and developmental stage.38 Additional recommendations include the following:
- Turn off televisions and other devices around the household when not in use.
- Keep bedrooms, mealtimes, and parent-child playtimes screen-free.
- Designate media-free times and media-free locations in the home.
- No screen time in the hour before bedtime; remove devices (TVs, computers, smartphones) from bedrooms before bedtime.
- Discourage children from using entertainment media while doing homework.
- Develop a family media plan that includes consistent limits on media use (hours per day) and types of media used, as well as appropriate media behaviors.
- Have ongoing conversations about online citizenship and safety.
- Problem-solve screen use issues, like setting limits, with pediatricians.
In addition to the above guidance, I also encourage families to think of the following for managing screen time:
- What is the effect of screen time on your child? How does it affect their mood and attention?
- What is your child doing with their screen time? (There is a difference, I believe, in building cities in Minecraft with friends versus playing a violent video game alone versus scrolling through TikTok videos for hours on end.)
- What is your child not doing because of screen time? Are they missing out on homework? Sleep? Physical activity?
- Could your child benefit from a reset? I frequently recommend Reset Your Child’s Brain by Victoria Dunkley, M.D., — a book that outlines a four-week digital detox plan.
More Natural Ways to Manage ADHD in Children
- Consider behavioral parent training or to help improve your child’s behavior and self-control. (Look for therapists who specialize in the Nurtured Heart Approach, my definitive favorite positive parenting approach.)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be an effective treatment for some teens with ADHD.39
Stress is a natural part of life. But some children with ADHD, in my experience, are very sensitive to stress. Part of it is that these children – more than neurotypical children – can be exposed to a great deal of negative feedback on a regular basis which affects self-esteem and wellbeing.40 Use the following strategies to mitigate your child’s stress:
- Focus on strengths. Make sure your child has time to do what they are good at.
- Ensure a positive family relationship. Recognize and encourage what your child does right as frequently as possible. Follow an authoritative parenting approach.
- Don’t overload schedules.
- Monitor the type of feedback your child receives from school. Studies show that children with ADHD experience poorer student-teacher relationships compared to neurotypical peers, which may influence school performance and self-esteem.41
Natural Remedies for ADHD: Next Steps
- Get This eBook: The ADDitude Guide to Treating ADHD Naturally
- Free Download: What to Eat (and Avoid) for Improved ADHD Symptoms
- Free Download: Too Much Screen Time? How to Regulate Your Teen’s Devices
- Free Download: Sleep Solutions for Kids with ADHD
- Resource Hub: Natural Remedies for ADHD
The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinars “How Nutrition, Sleep, Exercise & Behavioral Interventions Can Reduce ADHD Symptoms” and “Lifestyle Changes with the Biggest Impact on Kids with ADHD,” with Sanford Newmark, M.D., which were broadcast live on April 24, 2018 and August 4, 2022, respectively.
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