How To Help ADHD Without Medication
ADHD medications can cause bothersome side effects. Learn more about ADHD treatment without medication to control symptoms without headaches, sleep problems, and dizziness.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes three types of symptoms: inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity. Inattention makes it difficult to stay focused, while hyperactivity causes excessive movement, restlessness, and/or excessive talking. People with symptoms in the impulsivity category may make decisions without thinking them through, interrupt others during conversations, or have trouble with self-control.
The symptoms of ADHD can interfere with personal relationships and make it difficult to achieve a high level of performance at work or school. Although medications are an option, many people are hesitant to take prescription drugs, as they can cause serious side effects. Keep reading to learn more about ADHD treatment without medication.
Common ADHD Treatments
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medications, behavior therapy and parent education are among the most common treatments for ADHD. For those interested in treating ADHD without drugs, behavior therapy and parent education are usually first-line treatments.
Parent training consists of helping the parents of children with ADHD better understand the disorder and learn how to promote positive behaviors. Depending on the child's age, parents may be advised to create routines, eliminate distractions, give clear directions, or create positive experiences. In some cases, a therapist may advise parents to limit the number of choices available to children with ADHD, as too many choices can be overwhelming for someone who struggles with making decisions. For example, instead of asking a child with ADHD to pick one of several outfits, a parent may be advised to provide just two options. "Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?" is more manageable than "Which outfit do you want to wear?"
ADHD Medication for Adults and Children
Several prescription medications are available for children and adults with ADHD. Stimulants speed up the body's functions, including the transmission of messages between the brain and other parts of the body. Immediate-release stimulants act quickly, but they must be taken every four hours; in contrast, extended-release stimulants control ADHD symptoms for longer periods of time. School-age children often take extended-release stimulants so they don't have to take medication during school hours.
Doctors may prescribe the following stimulants to help patients with ADHD:
- Adderall/Adderall XR
- Focalin/Focalin XR
- Quillivant XR
Nonstimulant medications also control the symptoms of ADHD, but they contain different ingredients. This type of medication is usually prescribed after someone has tried stimulants and discovered that they produce bothersome side effects or simply don't work to control their symptoms. Strattera, Kapvay, and Intuniv are nonstimulant medications used to treat ADHD.
Effects of Stimulants on ADHD vs Neurotypical Brains
According to researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, stimulant medications appear to minimize the alterations in brain structure and function responsible for producing ADHD symptoms. People without ADHD don't have these brain alterations, so they don't respond to stimulant medications in the same way.
When someone with ADHD takes a stimulant, the medication has a calming effect. It becomes easier to focus on tasks and think carefully before making decisions. Taking medication can also reduce the need to fidget or move around excessively throughout the day. When someone with a neurotypical brain takes a stimulant, the effects are completely different. The brain becomes flooded with dopamine, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, reducing the need for sleep, and suppressing the person's appetite. Someone with a neurotypical brain may even feel euphoric when a stimulant medication starts working, increasing the risk of addiction.
Psychostimulants: Pros and Cons
Taking stimulants has some advantages and disadvantages for people with ADHD, so it's important to weigh the potential benefits against the potential risks. The biggest advantage of stimulants is that they're highly effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% to 80% of children taking stimulants have fewer ADHD symptoms. Stimulant medications may also be covered by insurance, making it easier to afford treatment.
Despite these benefits, stimulants have some serious risks, making many parents and adults wonder how to deal with ADHD without medication. One of those risks is that a person with ADHD will misuse their stimulant medication, increasing the risk of harmful side effects. There's also a risk that children and teens with ADHD will share their stimulant medications with classmates and friends. Stimulants may also cause the following side effects:
- Increased blood pressure
- Dry mouth
- Upset stomach
- Unintended weight loss
Stimulants can even be dangerous for people who have ADHD along with another chronic medical condition. In fact, stimulant medications are contraindicated in people with the following:
- Severe anxiety
- Motor tics
- Tourette's syndrome
- Psychotic episodes
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
- Diseases of the heart and blood vessels
- Alcoholism or substance abuse
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
- Abnormal heart rhythms
ADHD Treatment Without Medication
Stimulants can have harmful side effects, especially in people who have heart problems and other chronic medical conditions, prompting many people to seek ways of managing ADHD without medication. Fortunately, there are many alternatives to ADHD medication, making it possible to control the symptoms of ADHD without turning to stimulants. These treatments include lifestyle changes, behavioral therapy, meditation, and electrostimulation.
Overcoming ADHD Without Medication: Exercise
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers involved in some of the brain's key functions, including memory, learning, attention, decision-making, and motivation. Although researchers don't know exactly how ADHD develops, they believe that the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine may play a role. That's why exercise is one of the most common natural remedies for ADHD in adults and children.
Exercise increases the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, making it easier to pay attention and control some of the other symptoms of ADHD. When someone with ADHD exercises regularly, new receptors form in certain parts of the brain, resulting in an overall increase in a person's baseline dopamine and norepinephrine levels. In some people, exercise balances the amount of norepinephrine available in the arousal center of the brain, reducing irritability and making a person with ADHD less prone to overreacting to changing circumstances. For people living with ADHD without meds, exercise also helps by stimulating the growth of new nerve cells.
Anyone who wants to control their ADHD symptoms with exercise should focus on activities that keep the body and mind engaged. Running, gymnastics, mountain biking, and martial arts are just a few examples. For adults and children who are overweight or have chronic medical conditions that make it difficult to exercise, it's important to start slowly. Walking at a moderate pace is better than no exercise at all, so there's no need to overdo it.
Managing ADD Without Medication: Diet
Dietary changes can also help people with ADHD control their symptoms without medications. Eating balanced meals rich in protein and other nutrients can help minimize symptoms, as can reducing sugar consumption and avoiding artificial flavors and colors. The reason protein is so important is because the body uses it to make neurotransmitters. If the body doesn't get enough protein, it can't make enough dopamine and norepinephrine to keep ADHD symptoms under control. Lean meats, poultry, dairy products, nuts, and beans are all good sources of protein for someone looking to learn how to focus with ADD without medication.
In addition to protein, a balanced meal should include fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients, which are compounds that have a wide variety of health benefits. Although there are thousands of phytonutrients found in plant-based foods, there are six that are especially important for human health: beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, resveratrol, isoflavones, and anthocyanidins. Fruits and veggies also contain water and fiber, making them fairly filling when compared to their low number of calories. For kids who crave sweets, fruits are also a healthier alternative to candy, chocolate bars, and other junk foods.
Complex carbohydrates contain fiber, making them more filling and nutritious than simple carbohydrates. They also digest more slowly, preventing blood sugar spikes that can make ADHD symptoms worse. Adding complex carbohydrates to a meal is as easy as serving beans as a side dish or putting extra vegetables in a salad.
Children are often more interested in eating dinosaur chicken nuggets and drinking sugar-filled beverages than they are in following a nutritious diet, but there are some tasty foods and drinks that may help control ADHD symptoms. Here are some good foods for a child with ADHD:
- Fruit (fresh, frozen into fruit pops, or blended into smoothies)
- Peanut butter on celery sticks or whole-grain bread
- Trail mix with raisins and a variety of nuts
- Cut vegetables with low-fat dip
Natural ADD Medication: Supplements
Nutrient deficiencies can make ADHD symptoms worse, making it extremely important for adults and children with ADHD to get the right vitamins and minerals. Deficiencies of the following nutrients have been implicated in ADHD:
- Iron: In 2004, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article stating that researchers had identified a link between iron deficiency and ADHD in children. Children with the lowest iron levels had the most severe symptoms, while children with higher iron levels had milder symptoms.
- Magnesium: The human body relies on magnesium to carry out several important functions, such as maintaining normal heart rhythm and controlling blood pressure. In a study out of Poland, researchers discovered that children with magnesium deficiency may have more severe ADHD symptoms than children with normal magnesium levels. Correcting the deficiency resulted in much lower levels of hyperactivity, indicating that magnesium supplements are of interest to parents who need to know how to help a child with ADD without medication.
- Zinc: Zinc is a trace element involved in the production of melatonin, a substance used to regulate the function of dopamine. Without enough melatonin, the body is unable to regulate dopamine function correctly, which may contribute to the development of ADHD or increase the severity of ADHD symptoms.
- B Vitamins: B vitamins help the human body form red blood cells and derive energy from foods and beverages. This group of vitamins includes thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin, niacin, folic acid, B-6, and B-12. Researchers believe that some people with ADHD have naturally lower levels of B vitamins than people without ADHD. As a result, supplementing with B vitamins may help improve ADHD symptoms.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is classified as an antioxidant, or a substance that neutralizes free radicals, which are reactive molecules that can cause cellular damage. It also plays an important role in immune function and wound healing. In one study, researchers discovered that supplementing with vitamin C and flax oil resulted in a significant reduction in hyperactivity symptoms.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are heavily involved in brain development, so a deficiency of these important compounds may be responsible for causing ADHD or worsening an individual's ADHD symptoms. Dietary supplementation with fish oils containing DHA and EPA, two important omega-3 fatty acids, has been shown to make ADHD symptoms less severe.
But do supplements really work? No treatment works for every individual with ADHD, but researchers have demonstrated that vitamin and mineral supplements are capable of helping to control ADHD symptoms in many people.
Behavioral Therapy for ADHD
Behavioral therapy focuses on helping people with ADHD learn to control problematic behaviors. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most common types of therapy used for this purpose. The CBT approach was developed based on the idea that people have negative thinking patterns that affect the way they behave. Each CBT session focuses on helping the person with ADHD adjust their negative thought patterns, which may reduce the severity of ADHD symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is highly effective for adults with ADHD, as negative thought patterns can impact an adult's overall executive function, making it difficult to finish work projects, determine how long a task will take to complete, control impulses, and make long-term plans. Poor executive function frequently affects others, such as when someone with ADHD is late for a date or misses an important deadline at work, making it difficult to maintain employment or have fulfilling personal relationships. Adults with ADHD also have an increased risk of depression and other mental health conditions, many of which can be treated with CBT.
Non-Medical Treatment for ADHD: Meditation
Meditation helps people with ADHD manage stress, which can help prevent overstimulation. During a meditation session, the individual takes deep breaths and commits to focusing on the moment. The goal isn't to completely quiet the mind but to learn how to ignore mental distractions, which is helpful for controlling ADHD symptoms. In an article published in the Journal of Managed Care, researchers reported that mindfulness meditation is a promising treatment for people with ADHD, as it helps improve symptoms related to executive functioning and the ability to regulate emotions.
For people who don't benefit from lifestyle changes, supplements, or natural stimulants for ADHD, electrostimulation is another treatment option. Electrostimulation, also called neurostimulation, involves stimulation of the areas of the brain that are known to cause ADHD symptoms.
How to Treat ADHD Without Medication in Adults: TMS and CES
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) are both used to treat ADHD symptoms. TMS is a noninvasive treatment that involves using magnetic fields to stimulate the nerve cells in the brain. During a TMS session, the patient wears an electromagnetic coil on his or her forehead. This coil delivers painless magnetic pulses to the target areas of the brain, activating those areas and helping the individual better manage ADHD symptoms. Deep TMS has been shown to be safe and effective, making it a good alternative to using stimulant medications.
Cranial electrotherapy stimulation stimulates the brain with a weak current that most people can't even feel. The current is delivered by a device that's approximately the size of a mobile phone. This device has been FDA-cleared for use in CES treatment; since then, there have been no serious side effects. One study even showed that treatment with CES helped improve attention and sleep quality in people with ADHD, demonstrating that it's possible to treat ADHD without turning to stimulants.
Other Conditions Treatable Without Medication
TMS and CES are also used to treat other conditions, helping thousands of people control their symptoms without having to endure the harmful side effects of prescription medications. These conditions are typically associated with changes in the brain's structure and function, which is why electrostimulation is so helpful. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression, and traumatic brain injuries are just a few of the conditions that may improve with the use of electrostimulation devices.
Takeaways and Conclusion
Although thousands of people take prescription medications for ADHD, medication isn't always the best option, as it can cause serious side effects. For people who want to control their ADHD without taking a pill each day, lifestyle changes and electrostimulation are two of the most effective options. Electrostimulation therapies have been shown to be safe and effective, allowing people to treat ADHD and other conditions without stimulant or nonstimulant medications.
- National Institute of Mental Health: Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Treatment of ADHD
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Common ADHD Medications & Treatments for Children
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Effect of Psychostimulants on Brain Structure and Function in ADHD: A Qualitative Literature Review of MRI-Based Neuroimaging Studies
- National Institute on Drug Abuse: Prescription Stimulants Affect People with ADHD Differently
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Prescription Stimulants in Individuals with and without Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Misuse, Cognitive Impact and Adverse Effects
- Cleveland Clinic: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Stimulant Therapy
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: ADHD & the Brain
- ADDitude Magazine: The ADHD Exercise Solutions
- Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: The Exercise Prescription
- ADDitude Magazine: Why Sugar Is Kryptonite: ADHD Diet Truths
- ADDitude Magazine: Food Therapy: The Right Nutrition for ADHD Symptoms
- Produce for a Better Health Foundation: What Are Phytonutrients?
- MedlinePlus: Complex Carbohydrates
- Journal of the American Medical Association: Iron Deficiency in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: The Effects of Magnesium Physiological Supplementation on Hyperactivity in Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Nature Scientific Reports: Zinc Status in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies
- MedlinePlus: B Vitamins
- ADDitude Magazine: New Research Points to Early B-Vitamin Therapy for ADHD Patients
- Harvard School of Public Health: Vitamin C
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Supplementation with Flax Oil and Vitamin C Improves the Outcome of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Omega-3 Fatty Acids in ADHD and Related Neurodevelopmental Disorders
- Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
- American Journal of Managed Care: Study Shows Efficacy of Mindfulness Meditation in Treating Adults with ADHD
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Neurostimulation in Treating ADHD
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation in Treatment of Adolescent Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Narrative Review of Literature
- BrainsWay: Study Finds BrainsWay Deep TMS Safe and Effective for the Treatment of ADHD
- ResearchGate: Evaluating the Effect of Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation on Attention and Sleep in ADHD: A Pilot Study