Natural Treatments

Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep: Which Natural Treatments Help Kids with ADHD?

Natural treatments for ADHD include mindfulness, sleep, nutrition, and behavior training. But how do you determine which one(s) work best for your child? Start here with these tips from ADDitude editors.

Fruit and supplement bottles against a grey-blue background.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends treating ADHD in children with medication and behavioral therapy, however many families investigate and try natural treatments as well.

During a recent ADDitude webinar titled, “Lifestyle Changes with the Biggest Impact on Kids with ADHD,” we received hundreds of questions from parents interested in leveraging sleep, nutrition, exercise, and mindfulness to manage their kids’ ADHD. Here, ADDitude editors answer some of your most common questions and provide links to relative resources.

Q1: How can I help my child concentrate long enough to embrace mindfulness techniques?

Getting children with ADHD to slow down and sit quietly in the lotus position is neither easy nor necessary for an effective mindfulness practice. A calm and steady meditation routine need not happen in silence or while standing still. Consider the mindful “SEAT,” which includes a quick reflection on immediate sensations, emotions, actions, and thoughts. The “silent sigh” is a slow exhale that can be used at the verge of a meltdown and as an alternative to more demanding deep-breathing exercises. Once you’ve found an activity that appeals to your child’s ADHD brain, the next step is to encourage consistent practice.

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Q2: Do you have any suggestions for a child with ADHD who has trouble getting to sleep?

Losing just one hour of sleep a night can affect a child’s academic performance, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. To trick the ADHD brain into sleep mode, try to maintain the same bedtime for your child each night. Give them at least one hour to get ready for bed without access to electronics. Increased exercise during the day can help tire out both the mind and body, though it’s best to finish physical activity at least three hours before the lights go out. Some parents have found success with weighted blankets, white noise machines, and essential oils.

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Q3: Is long-term melatonin use safe? My 11-year-old cannot “turn off his brain” without it.

Melatonin is considered healthy, safe, and effective for most children and adults in small doses and with short-term use. Studies have not shown a link to dependency, but data is lacking on the safety of taking melatonin long-term. Talk to your doctor or pediatrician about potential side effects and to determine the best dosage for your child.

Q4: My 13-year-old son is obsessed with sugar. Is this normal with ADHD, and are we helping him if we limit his sugar intake?

ADHD brains are typically lacking in dopamine. It comes as no surprise, then, that children with ADHD crave the dopamine surge that sugar provides. Though research is ongoing, some studies suggest that more sugar can lead to increased hyperactivity and impulsivity. To test the effect of sugar on your child’s behavior, try the sugar test. Cut back their intake as much as possible for 10 days. On day 11, introduce a sugary snack or drink and see if this impacts their energy and focus.

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Q5: How do I implement the Nurtured Heart Approach when my 2e child finds it patronizing? I praise him for small things that he regularly fails to do.

If your child is rejecting attempts at the Nurtured Heart Approach to positive parenting, don’t get discouraged just yet. Continue to ignore negative behavior and energetically reward progress, and your efforts should eventually pay off. However, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to improving behavior. Dr. Robert Brooks suggests using “islands of competence” and contributory activities that incorporate a child’s strengths and interests. You might also consider Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, Daily Special Time, or this list of suggestions from readers.

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Q6: Are there natural ways to support children with both ADHD and anxiety?

Talk to your child’s pediatrician or qualified physician about inositol and theanine supplements, which are known for their calming effects on the brain. Inositol is part of the B-vitamin complex, and theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. Many essential oils, such as lavender and frankincense, are commonly used for relaxation. Consider these in addition to other forms of support such as cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, and spending time in nature.

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The content for this article was based on questions submitted by live attendees during the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Lifestyle Changes with the Biggest Impact on Kids with ADHD” [Video Replay & Podcast #414] with Sandy Newmark, M.D., which was broadcast live on August 4, 2022.


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