Natural Alternatives for Managing ADD/ADHD in Adults and Children

Synthetic drugs are not the only treatment for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There are natural options that can help with focus and concentration. Nutritional therapeutics can calm the mind and enhance tranquility, increase the ability to learn, bolster social engagement and mental resilience, and boost focus and concentration. When our children start to experience problems with school, and sometimes behavior as well, our own anxieties kick into high gear. Aside from trying to address it with synthetic drugs, we may feel like our options are completely limited. But they aren’t. There are better, natural ways to help children and adults overcome the challenges of Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD). The best place to start is with the right nutrients.

Calm the mind, and enhance focus:

It is important to realize that our diets contribute greatly to difficulties with focus and concentration. Sugar and processed carbs create an inflammatory and excitatory state that makes concentration more difficult. Combined with a lack of key nutrients, a sense of agitation and confusion is virtually guaranteed. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between food additives-sodium benzoate, artificial food coloring, flavor enhancers, and preservatives-and learning difficulties accompanied by behavioral disorders. Research has also shown a direct correlation between exposure to organophosphates (pesticides) and the incidence of ADHD. Children eating conventionally grown foods have an organophosphate level nine times higher than those eating organically grown foods. It’s also important to recognize the strong relationship that exists between food allergies and ADD/ADHD. An allergy to a particular food or food group can cause immediate disruptions in brain wave activity, sleep activity, and gastrointestinal function. Common allergens associated with ADD/ADHD include dairy, wheat/gluten, tree nuts, soy, and food additives.

The importance of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), especially when it comes to clear-headed thinking and skillful social behavior, can’t be overestimated. DHA makes up more than 90 percent of the fatty acids in the brain and is an essential component for building healthy brain cells and keeping brain signaling active and clear. DHA is also a precursor to a compound called synaptamide, which helps develop and protect brain cells, and positively affects mood. When it comes to learning and behavior, the earlier that omega-3s like DHA are incorporated the better. Clinical research with supplemental DHA shows it can make a big improvement. For example, a Dutch study found that higher DHA levels in children up to age 7 corresponded with better reading and spelling scores. Another clinical study of boys aged 8 to 10 showed DHA supplementation improves attention span and may help rewrite cortical attention networks in the brain in just eight weeks. Other clinical research with children ages 7-9 found that DHA supplementation improved reading scores for students in the lowest percentile. The parents of children in this study also noted an improvement in behavior overall. I think this shows how much of a dramatic difference a single nutrient can make. Closely related to healthy dietary fats are phospholipids, and one of the most critical for learning, memory, focus, and concentration is phosphatidylserine (PS). In the brain, this nutrient works in harmony with DHA. Unfortunately, like DHA, it is often lacking in the diet. Phosphatidylserine is easily absorbed and readily crosses the blood/brain barrier, so it is highly effective at preventing and reversing oxidative or inflammatory damage to the brain. It has also been shown to keep mental abilities sharp, even under pressure. For anyone looking to help improve their state of calm, ability to learn, and sense of resilience, it is an essential supplement.

Increase ability to learn:

Aside from DHA and phosphatidylserine, another nutrient that helps you enjoy a sense of calm and improves your ability to learn is dimethylaminoethanol, commonly known as DMAE. This precursor to choline helps the brain utilize acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter compound in the brain, and is essential for learning and memory. DMAE fights the effects of free radicals in the brain and nervous system – which some people may simply be more susceptible to than others. DMAE works well in tandem with an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant diet to reduce the excitatory impacts of processed foods that may have previously been a barrier to clear thinking and learning potential.

Bolster social engagement and mental resilience:

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is well-known as an herbal adaptogen. It has been clinically shown to boost concentration and focus, reduce fatigue (even for people on overnight shifts, when the mind and body are naturally prone to sleepiness), and promote resilience in the face of hectic schedules or social settings. For example, one well-known clinical study showed that rhodiola improved total mental performance in young physicians on night duty. Other work has shown the ability of rhodiola to improve test-taking and to help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Rhodiola appears to act on noradrenalin, dopamine, serotonin, and cholinergic receptors, so it has a direct, positive action on brain chemistry and the way it affects mood and focus. It also may boost the expression of neuropeptide-Y (NPY), a naturally occurring amino acid peptide that calms the central nervous system and is reported at higher levels in individuals with a great degree of self-confidence. And this points to the way that we’re all wired a bit differently. Some people simply have a stronger reaction to a social setback or academic challenge than others. It may take them longer to recover and rebuild a sense of confidence. In this case, rhodiola can strengthen a natural sense of energy, motivation, and ease.

Boost focus and concentration:

Each of the nutrients I’ve discussed so far can help with all aspects of calmness and concentration, but I’d like to mention one more – oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs) from French grape seed. Grape seed OPCs have been available for some time as nutritional supplements, but they haven’t always been effective, because they are often either highly adulterated (meaning a cheap ingredient like peanut skin is substituted for authentic grape seed) or their OPC content is not absorbable in the intestines, and thus ineffective, because the extract is high in tannins. That’s why I recommend French grape seed that has been scientifically studied and provides only small molecular weight OPCs for virtually complete absorption. While OPCs are well-known for heart-protective abilities, they are also potent cancer fighters and can also help reduce symptoms of ADHD. A placebo-controlled, double-blind study published in the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychology found that after just one month, OPCs boosted attention span, caused a significant reduction of hyperactivity, and improved motor coordination. The researchers noted that the symptoms returned one month after stopping the treatment, so OPCs would need to be part of an ongoing regimen. Grape seed extract OPCs have great potential to enhance focus and reduce behaviors associated with ADHD, in part, because of their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions that preserve glutathione and other natural compounds in the brain and nervous system. But again, I have to stress that OPCs need to be absorbed in order to be effective and must be from a trusted source. Look for French grape seed extract OPCs that are free of tannins and small enough to be absorbed.

Aside from the nutritional therapeutics mentioned above there are several other key nutrients that have been used in clinical practice and/or researched to provide effective support for ADD/ADHD.

  • Magnesium: Levels are low in adults and children with ADD/ADHD. There is a demonstrable change in behavior with supplementation.
  • Zinc: Levels are low in adults and children with ADD/ADHD. Supplementation has been shown to improve symptoms of hyperactivity.
  • Iron: Some children with ADD/ADHD have low iron, which can cause impairment of brain development. Before you supplement with iron always have your level assessed first with a blood test.
  • B vitamin family: Essential for proper brain and nervous system function, as well as metabolic activity.
  • L-theanine: This single amino acid derived from green tea can have a significate effect on hyperactivity, focus, sleep quality, and anxiety.
  • L-tyrosine, L-taurine, NAC (N-acetyl cysteine): Essential amino acids for neurotransmitter function and balance, especially dopamine which may be deficient or functionally impaired in someone with ADD/ADHD.

With the help of supportive family members and teachers, a healthy diet, and the nutrients I’ve outlined here for improving focus and attention, adults and children with this form of neurodivergence can lead a more relaxed, comfortable, and productive life. Stimulant medications such as Ritalin or Adderall can have significant side effects, such as sleep interference and growth retardation, so it is understandable if that is an option you’d rather not explore. If you’d prefer to avoid drugs altogether, or find alternatives there really is an effective option in nutritional therapeutics.


Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only, and should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this information. Individuals should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The statements made in this informational document have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any product discussed is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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