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Alternative Treatments

Over the last two decades Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) has clearly been gaining in popularity and acceptance. Recently, a survey of over 30,000 Americans indicated that almost a third had used some sort of alternative medicine treatments from neurofeedback to herbal teas. There are no doubt as many reasons for this changing attitude as there are people who use these treatments but clearly astute healthcare professionals would do well to keep an open mind about the potential of CAM. After all, many of these treatments can be used to support and hopefully enhance more conventional treatment.This site offers abrief overview of the best known and respected alternative treatments used to treat ADHD.

Nutritional Therapy

There has been much research on therapies proposing nutritional deficiencies - especially fatty acids and amino acids - are a contributing factor to ADHD. Suggested diet modifications include everything from introducing elements like flax seed oil to limiting sugars, eating only organic foods, avoiding all processed foods, dairy products, corn, squash, chocolate, NutraSweet, processed meats, MSG, fried foods, and food colorings. Of course, it is advised to conduct these changes under the supervision of a physician and dietician to chart the efficacy of the changes.

There is no shortage of research on our poor U.S. diet and the increasing use of food additives. As a matter of fact the rise of the organic food movement from the farmer's markets in the 1970's to whole sections of organic produce in supermarkets today, speaks to the groundswell of consumer interest in this issue. Research has demonstrated that children diagnosed with ADHD display several similar characteristics vis-a-vis nutrition, regardless of their age. These include:

  • Severe sugar or carbohydrate addiction
  • Signs and symptoms of rapidly fluctuating blood sugar levels
  • Adrenal imbalance
  • Multiple food sensitivities

In the 1970s Benjamin Feingold, MD, popularized the concept that ADHD is caused and aggravated by intolerance to food additives and salicylates. The 'Feingold hypothesis" made a case for the negative effects of food additives and preservatives in diets of children with ADHD. Although these claims have been tested repeatedly with inconclusive results, a dialogue was opened that has led to treatments centered on an altered diet. While limiting sugar intake and determining food sensitivities may help with childhood ADHD, this approach has not been recognized as a viable stand-alone treatment.

Herbal and Vitamin Supplements

The use of herbal medicine and vitamin therapies in the treatment of ADHD is of interest to the many families looking for alternatives to drug therapy. Many of the herbs are stimulates and mimic the action of the prescribed drugs they are replacing.

The most commonly suggested herbal alternatives include: Ginkgo Biloba, Brahmi (Bacopa Monniera), Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus Senticosis), Gotu Kola (Centella Asiatica also Hydrocotyle Asiatica), and Green Oats (Avena Sativa). Ancient herbal remedies, the Indian medical practice of Ayurveda, and Chinese herbal medicinal approaches all are receiving more attention today than ever before.

One of the major herbs cited in most treatments is Ginkgo. For several years this herb has been touted as an effective aid to for sharpening memory because it supposedly increases blood flow to the brain. One study indicated that the combination of ginkgo and American ginseng might treat symptoms of ADHD in some children. This has as yet not been substantiated to any degree.

Another theory involving herbal treatments is that antioxidants prevent oxidative damage in the brain and nervous system that could cause ADHD. As a result, antioxidants from pine bark extract (Pycnogenol) and grape seed extract are recommended for ADHD. Although a small number of parents and adults with ADHD report effectiveness, there are no current research studies to substantiate this claim.

About 25 percent of children with ADHD seem to have lower serum levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These are considered essential fatty acids (EFA's) and must be ingested because our bodies do not make them. However, most studies have not found EFA supplements to be of special benefit. A recent study found that a combination of flaxseed oil and vitamin C improved restlessness, impulsivity, and behavior in a significant percentage of the children studied, but additional research is needed.

Many people feel that taking very large doses of vitamins or minerals is effective for treatment of ADHD. This is because some children and adults with ADHD have lower levels of minerals like zinc and magnesium, among other things. However, low zinc levels could be related to a poor response to traditional treatment with stimulant medications. There is little evidence supporting the theory that additional zinc will improve this response. There's equally little research on the supplemental use of magnesium. A recent study suggested that iron supplements might improve hyperactive symptoms in boys with ADHD, but too much iron can be toxic. Vitamin B6 was reported to be of some benefit in older studies, but those studies need to be duplicated using current diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

Clearly, while these herbs supplements may help with one shortfall or another, their efficacy in treating ADHD as a stand alone approach, or even in tandem with other therapies, has yet to be proven.

Sensory and Behavioral Therapies

There are a host of sensory related therapies based on the concept that ADHD is due to an imbalance or a deficiency of sensory perceptions. These therapies include:

Vision Therapy: Children with undiagnosed vision problems may have problems reading forextended periods, focusing and concentrating on school work, resulting in daydreaming andpoor academic skills. The treatment for this is testing and administration of the propercorrective device.

Auditory Stimulation: A method of helping children concentrate by having them listen to music while completing a task.

Interactive Metronome Training: Based on a study that found using a metronome improved achild's reading, writing and language skills by focusing concentration on the task at hand.

Cerebellar Treatment: Consists of eye, balance and sensory exercises.

Common behavioral treatments are best tried in the context of a psychotherapeutic course of treatment with a therapist or psychologist. The most common approaches to child ADHD include positive reinforcement, time out, response cost, token economy, and all various approaches of modifying behavior through punishment and reward systems.

Merln Hurd PhD; BCN, QEEGT

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