By Dr. Mercola
About two-thirds of US children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) take some form of prescription medication to treat it. While ADHD makes it difficult for children to pay attention and control impulsive behavior, powerful stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall help to improve focus and self-control.
The drugs come at a price, however, since many of the side effects are worse than ADHD itself (think brain damage, personality changes, sudden death, and suicide…). This is particularly tragic since many of these children probably were not offered a far safer, natural solution that might help curb their symptoms: exercise.
As The Atlantic recently reported, new research suggests “exercise is ADHD medication,”1 and should be “prescribed” to any child who’s struggling to maintain focus and resist distractions at school (or elsewhere).
Exercise Is a Powerful Tool for Relieving ADHD Symptoms
Research published in the journal Pediatrics found that kids who engaged in a regular physical activity program had improved cognitive performance and brain function.2
Specifically, the kids showed an improvement in executive control, which includes inhibition (the ability to maintain focus), working memory, and cognitive flexibility (or switching between tasks). Executive functioning is often impaired in children with ADHD, which means exercise may directly help to improve symptoms.
The Atlantic posted a revealing photo from the study that showed striking differences between the brain activity of active versus non-active kids.3 (The red areas show increased activity whereas the blue areas do not.)
Exercise Boosts School Performance, Especially in Kids with ADHD
School performance often suffers in children with ADHD, and is a key reason why many parents consent to medications. Yet, exercise is well known to boost test scores and academic performance in children, and this association is particularly strong among kids with ADHD.
One recent study found, for instance, that a before- and after-school physical activity program reduced inattention and moodiness among young children at risk of ADHD, as well as improved math and reading test scores.4
Other research revealed that 26 minutes of physical activity each day helped to significantly reduce ADHD symptoms in grade-schoolers.5 In a TED talk from 2012, John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard suggested that exercise be viewed as medication for ADHD, as it triggers your brain to release dopamine and serotonin.
This improves mood and boosts cognitive performance. You can view that talk below, but unfortunately this simple intervention hasn’t caught on the way prescription meds have.
Even the researchers behind the exercise/ADHD studies are conservative in their recommendations to add physical activity to ADHD treatment strategies, which is ironic since it’s low-cost, safe, and only has positive “side effects” – quite the opposite of ADHD medications. As The Atlantic put it, quite sarcastically:6
“[Experts’ advice on exercise for AHDH has]… kind of [a] phenomenal degree of reservation compared to the haste with which millions of kids have been introduced to amphetamines and other stimulants to address said ADHD. The number of prescriptions increased from 34.8 to 48.4 million between 2007 and 2011 alone.
The pharmaceutical market around the disorder has grown to several billion dollars in recent years while school exercise initiatives have enjoyed no such spoils of entrepreneurialism. But, you know, once there is more research, it may potentially be advisable to consider possibly implementing more exercise opportunities for kids…”
Kids Were Designed to Move
Part of the reason why exercise works so well is that we all have a movement or non-exercise activity requirement. Most of us fail to appreciate that and damage our health by sitting 8-15 hours a day. There is no way an hour of exercise will compensate for this much sitting. Kids are no different. When you force them to sit down all day it should be absolutely no surprise that they will have brain impairment.
This is likely related to the fact they were never designed to sit that long. Certainly, exercise would be a useful and recommended strategy that this report and TED video above show -- it surely seems to help. Even better? Get the kids stand-up desks and don’t force them to sit down all day long. Combine that with an improved diet discussed below, and you could virtually eliminate most all the ADHD medications.
ADHD Drugs Send Thousands of Kids to the ER Every Year
If your child is suffering from behavioral, emotional, or mental difficulties, it may be tempting to try out medications, especially if they come at the recommendation of a mental health “expert.” But be sure you are informed, first.
According to data released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), ADHD drugs such as Ritalin, Vyvanse, Strattera, and Adderall (and their generic equivalents) were responsible for nearly 23,000 emergency room visits in 2011.7 Drugs prescribed for ADHD are not "mild" by any means. These are hard-core, "class 2" narcotics, regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a controlled substance because they can lead to dependence. The majority of kids diagnosed with ADHD will be prescribed these potentially dangerous drugs, the most common being Ritalin.
By definition, Ritalin stimulates your central nervous system and may certainly interfere with the delicate and complex workings of your brain and personality. Not to mention, in children the long-term effects of drugs are typically largely unknown. That being said, the side effects we do know about include:
Sudden death in people who have heart problems or heart defects Stroke and heart attack Increased blood pressure New or worse behavior and thought problems New or worse bipolar illness New or worse aggressive behavior or hostility New psychotic symptoms (such as hearing voices, believing things that are not true, are suspicious) New manic symptoms Increased heart rate Slowing of growth (height and weight) in children Seizures Eyesight changes or blurred vision
Is It Really ADHD?
The other consideration you must factor in is whether or not your child is truly “sick,” and if so, to what degree of severity? Diagnosing ADHD really comes down to a matter of opinion, as there is no physical test, like a brain scan, that can pinpoint the condition. At present, diagnosis is dependent on subjective evaluation and observations by parents, teachers, health care providers, and the child, and once a diagnosis is given, it is considered a life-long condition.
Only children who struggle with inattention and hyperactive or impulsive behaviors around the clock are deemed to have ADHD—or at least they should be. But according to a 2010 study, an estimated 20 percent of children are misdiagnosed with ADHD.8
According to some, the disorder may not even be a "real" disorder at all. Psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg, hailed as the "scientific father of ADHD," actually went on record saying that ADHD is "a prime example of a fictitious disease." He made this stunning confession in a 2012 interview with the German paper Der Spiegel, just seven months prior to his death at the age of 87.9 This is not to say that your child’s behavior problems are imaginary or being exaggerated. However, it suggests that some children’s acting out may still be within the confines of “normal” childhood behavior, or may be the result of lifestyle factors, and not a “disease” that requires powerful mind-altering medications.
Use Dietary Changes in Tandem with Exercise for ADHD
Physical activity is crucial for all children, just as it is for adults, but if your child is struggling with ADHD-like symptoms, you should absolutely give careful consideration to his or her diet. We know that the food choices of most children and adults today are incredibly poor, and often lack the basic nutrients necessary for healthy brain function and emotional health. In addition, food additives, pesticides, and genetically modified foods may also be playing a role. If your child struggles with behavioral difficulties, whether he or she has been diagnosed with ADHD or not, I strongly recommend addressing the following factors:
- Too much sugar. High sugar foods and starchy carbohydrates lead to excessive insulin release, which can lead to falling blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia, in turn, causes your brain to secrete glutamate in levels that can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Besides that, sugar promotes chronic inflammation in your body, and many studies have demonstrated the connection between a high-sugar diet and worsened mental health.
- Gluten sensitivity. The evidence suggesting that gluten sensitivity may be at the root of a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including ADHD, is quite compelling.
According to a 2011 study, celiac disease is "markedly overrepresented among patients presenting with ADHD,"10 and a gluten-free diet has been shown to significantly improve behavior in kids. The study went so far as to suggest celiac disease should be added to the ADHD symptom checklist.
- Too few beneficial bacteria. As explained by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a medical doctor with a postgraduate degree in neurology, toxicity in your gut can flow throughout your body and into your brain, where it can cause symptoms of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, depression, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders.
Reducing gut inflammation is imperative when addressing mental health issues, so optimizing your child's gut flora is a critical step (see below for more details).
- Animal-sourced omega-3 deficiency. Research has shown that kids low in omega-3 fats are significantly more likely to be hyperactive, struggle with learning disorders, and display behavioral problems. Omega-3 deficiencies have also been tied to dyslexia, violence, and depression.
A clinical study published in 2007 examined the effects of krill oil on adults diagnosed with ADHD.11 In that study, patients improved their ability to concentrate by an average of over 60 percent after taking a daily 500mg dose of krill oil for six months. They also reported a 50 percent improvement in planning skills, and close to 49 percent improvement in social skills.
- Food additives and GMO ingredients. A number of food additives are thought to worsen ADHD, and many have subsequently been banned in Europe. Potential culprits to avoid include Blue #1 and #2 food coloring; Green #3; Orange B; Red #3 and #40; Yellow #5 and #6; and sodium benzoate, a preservative.
Recent research also shows that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, used in large quantities on genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops, limits your body's ability to detoxify foreign chemical compounds. As a result, the damaging effects of those chemicals and environmental toxins are magnified, and may result in a wide variety of diseases, including brain disorders that can affect behavior.
3 Steps for Restoring Your Child’s Gut Health
The link between gut health, brain health and mood disorders is well established. To reseed your child's gut with the beneficial bacteria (probiotics) necessary for optimal physical, mental, and emotional health, I recommend the following strategies:
- Avoid processed, refined foods as they promote the growth of pathogenic bacteria, yeast, and fungus in the gut. Most processed foods are also high in sugar and fructose, grains (gluten), artificial additives, and genetically engineered ingredients (which tend to be more heavily contaminated with glyphosate)—all the top items that tend to aggravate ADHD symptoms.
Also, replace sweetened beverages (whether diet and regular), including fruit juices and pasteurized milk, with pure non-fluoridated water.
- Eat traditionally fermented, unpasteurized foods: Fermented foods are one of the best routes to optimal digestive health, as long as you eat the traditionally made, unpasteurized versions. Some of the beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods are also excellent chelators of heavy metals and pesticides, which will also have a beneficial health effect by reducing your toxic load.
Fermented vegetables are perhaps among the most palatable fermented foods, although many kids enjoy fermented dairy products like kefir, especially if you blend them into healthy smoothies.
- Use a high-quality probiotic supplement. If you cannot get your child to eat fermented foods on a regular basis, a high-quality probiotic supplement may be highly beneficial in correcting abnormal gut flora that contributes to brain dysfunction.
Additional Factors to Help Relieve ADHD Symptoms
Besides addressing your child's nutrition, as described in the two sections above, I also recommend implementing the following strategies:
- Clear your house of dangerous pesticides and other commercial chemicals.
- EMF. Limit exposure to radiofrequency microwave radiation, cell and portable phones, and electro-pollution. This is especially true for the sleeping environment where rest and repair occurs. It should be as electrically neutral as possible.
- Avoid commercial washing detergents and cleaning products used on clothes, and replace them with naturally derived cleaning products free of added perfumes, softeners, etc.
- Spend more time in nature. Researchers have found that exposing ADHD children to nature is an affordable, healthy way of controlling symptoms.
- Investigate sensory therapy and emotional wellness tools. Instead of looking for a quick fix, encourage ADHD sufferers to talk, and find out what emotions are causing issues. You may also want to consider energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to improve emotional coping and healing.
- Other toxic exposures. Avoid all known toxins, like MSG and artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, mercury from "silver" amalgam fillings, fluoride in the water supply, and any others you can think of.
Are You Having Trouble Getting Your Child to Exercise?
The key is to keep it fun. Kids shouldn’t need organized fitness classes, per se… they need ample opportunity to run outdoors, play tag with their friends, tromp through forest preserves, and even help out around your backyard (raking leaves, pulling weeds, or planting flowers, for instance).
Encourage your children to engage in activities that are naturally interesting to them, such as playing on the monkey bars, rollerblading, skateboarding, dancing, playing basketball with friends, or walking your dog.
Organized sports are great, but so are spontaneous romps through mud puddles, climbing trees, and making snow angels. Resist the urge to overly structure your child’s “exercise time,” instead encouraging natural active play. Toward this end, allow your kids to exercise in bursts throughout the day -- a game of tag here, a bike ride there -- so they don't feel pressured or like they're being "punished."
Family activities like walking together are great too, as it's imperative that you act as a role model by staying active yourself. If your kids see you embracing exercise in a positive way, they will naturally follow suit.