By Dr. Mercola
Medicating children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a double-edged sword, not only because of the steep health risks posed by the medications themselves, but also because many kids labeled with "ADHD" actually do not have ADHD at all.
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.
There's only subjective evaluation, based on signs nearly every child will display at some point (fidgeting, easily distracted, difficulty waiting his or her turn, and so on).
But a recent report from the New York Times highlights an equally concerning, if not more so, practice that is endangering some low-income families: pediatricians using the ADHD diagnosis as "an excuse" to prescribe powerful drugs like Adderall to kids simply because they are struggling in school.
Mind-Altering Drugs to Boost Elementary School Grades?
One pediatrician told the New York Times that because society has decided not to modify a child's school environment to promote better learning, there is no choice left but to "modify the kid," which is done by prescribing drugs.
Adderall, which contains amphetamine (aka "speed") and dextroamphetamine, is a stimulant drug that is often prescribed to improve attention and focus and reduce impulsiveness and hyperactivity in patients with ADHD.
Because of its stimulant properties, it's become a black-market drug of choice for college kids looking to pull all-nighters to boost their grades. An estimated one in 10 college students abuse Adderall as a way to gain a competitive edge in their studies, often comparing it to athletes who use steroids.1 But the pills have a dark side, often quickly leading to addiction and causing other side effects like mood swings, insomnia, depression and panic attacks.
College students who use Adderall as a "study drug" is a large enough problem on its own, but for pediatricians to prescribe these drugs to children for the same purpose is shocking, and dangerous. Even more alarming is that one particular physician interviewed by the New York Times said he views the drugs as a tool for "evening the scales a little bit," to give poor children a leg up in their schooling...
Prescriptions for Adderall on the Rise
The use of psychotropic drugs in children has been on a steep upward trend for decades. Writing in the Huffington Post, Lawrence Diller, MD said:2
"Given the current CDC data, one can safely estimate (based on previously detailed distribution curves) that one of six 11-year-old white boys with medical insurance currently take a stimulant drug at least during the school week... we are the only society currently managing our under performing/misbehaving children with drugs to this degree."
Many of the children prescribed ADHD drugs do not have ADHD at all. One study determined that about 20 percent of children have likely been misdiagnosed.3 That's nearly 1 million children in the United States alone.
The study found that many of the youngest children in any given grade level are perceived as exhibiting "symptoms" of ADHD, such as fidgeting and inability to concentrate, simply because they're younger and being compared to their older, more mature classmates. In fact, the youngest students were 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest in the same grade. And when you take into account the maturity level, and in large part normal behavior of a 6- versus a 7-year old, you can easily see why.
Even if they did have ADHD, there are many superior alternatives for treatment than mind-altering drugs (which I'll get to shortly).
But it is especially appalling when a physician openly admits that the ADHD diagnosis is simply a ruse to give kids drugs for the purpose of boosting their academic performance. In some cases, three and four children from the same family are all put on the medications, usually along with a prescribed sleep aid, as the pills often cause insomnia – as well as a long list of other serious side effects.
The Downward Spiral of Psychotropic Drug Use
Drugs like Adderall are powerful, mind-altering medications linked to growth suppression, increased blood pressure and psychotic episodes. In children, the impacts of their long-term use are completely unknown, although given the drug's addictive nature, it's quite possible these kids could become life-long addicts.
The New York Times featured the case of one family whose four children (ranging in age from 9 to 12) were prescribed either Adderall or Risperdal (an antipsychotic drug) along with sleep aids. After taking Adderall for years, one of the boys began seeing people and hearing voices that weren't there – a known side effect of the drug. He became suicidal and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he was then taken off Adderall and put onto Risperdal – another mind-altering drug with serious side effects.
Despite the child's psychotic reaction, the parents continued to use the drugs in their other children, even though they acknowledged some of them did not have ADHD and were using Adderall "merely to help their grades." Perhaps they are not aware, as many aren't, that Adderall can cause potentially life-threatening side effects – the risks of which simply can't be justified when used only to boost grades. Among them:4
Aggressive behavior or hostility Bipolar illness Worse behavior or thought problems Psychotic symptoms (hearing voices, believing things that are not true) or manic symptoms Sudden death in patients who have heart problems or heart defects Stroke or heart attack Increased blood pressure and heart rate Seizures and eyesight changes Slowing of growth in children
Does Adderall Steal Your Ability to Enjoy Life?
Many who start taking Adderall in high school or college as a way to boost their success find it does help them to excel in school and, later, in the job market. But the easy path to success comes at a price...
Former addicts explain the feeling that the drug took over their lives, allowing them to work and concentrate with a robot-like efficiency, but causing them to ignore the physical, emotional and social aspects of life, as well as their former creative passions.5 If they're lucky, those affected are able to break free from Adderall's spell – a process one former addict described as a "horrible, horrible process"6 – but what becomes of the child who started Adderall at the age of 8 or 9, during some of his or her key formative years?
Do these children grow up never knowing who they really are? What passions they may have had if not under the drug's influence? And will they be able to quit when they are older, or will they be turned into life-long addicts? The answers to these questions are unknown.
Dr. William Graf, a pediatrician and child neurologist, told the New York Times he's concerned the rising use of stimulant drugs may impact "the authenticity of development:"
"These children are still in the developmental phase, and we still don't know how these drugs biologically affect the developing brain. There's an obligation for parents, doctors and teachers to respect the authenticity issue, and I'm not sure that's always happening."
If You Have a "Hyper" Child You Want to Help Excel at School...
Before resorting to drugs, please understand that behavioral problems in children – including what might appear to be serious mental disorders – are very frequently related to improper diet, emotional upset and exposure to toxins.
Increasingly, scientific evidence shows that nourishing your gut flora with the beneficial bacteria found in traditionally fermented foods (or a probiotic supplement) is extremely important for proper brain function, and that includes psychological well-being and mood control. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride has successfully demonstrated the power and effectiveness of this theory. In her Cambridge, England clinic, she treats children and adults with a range of conditions, including autism, ADD/ADHD, neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders, immune disorders, and digestive problems using the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Nutritional Program, which she developed.
Her GAPS theory – which is fully explained in her excellent book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome – is an elegant description of how such conditions can develop as a direct result of gastrointestinal toxicity. Another helpful tool is my three-part interview with renowned children's health expert, the late Dr. Lendon Smith, on Non-Drug Treatment of ADD/ADHD.
Advice from a World-Class Expert
Dr. Lendon Smith was one of the pioneer physicians in the treatment of ADHD. He had been effectively using nutrition and dietary interventions to help relieve the symptoms of ADHD for decades. He realized that drugs like Ritalin were not the answer for ADHD right from the start. Over ten years ago I did an extensive interview with him on this topic and I would encourage you to review it if you have an interest in this area. He stated in the interview:
"It is too bad psychiatrists have failed to recognize that if a stimulant acts as a calming agent, then they must shore up the flagging enzyme that is under-producing. This all fits with the damage that we have done to the top soil. It is washing and blowing away and with it, the magnesium. The psychiatrists have made ADD/ADHD a disease, like pneumonia.
It is actually a syndrome due to a defect in the screening device of the brain. I understand that since they had made it a disease they can be compensated for treating it. Another rule they have used: 'If the Ritalin works, they need it.' Sort of like a Ritalin deficiency."
According to Dr. Smith, stimulant drugs like Ritalin have a calming effect in children with ADHD because there is not enough norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter, in their limbic system, the part of the brain that is supposed to filter out unimportant stimuli. Because of this, one common denominator that Dr. Smith often used as a diagnostic criterion for ADHD was being extremely ticklish. In other words, they were unable to disregard unimportant stimuli.
Dietary and Lifestyle Interventions to Help Relieve ADHD Symptoms Naturally
As mentioned, dietary interventions can be incredibly effective in helping alleviate the symptoms of ADHD. Dr. Smith also said in our interview:
"When I became familiar with nutrition, I found that if a stimulant drug had a calming effect [as is the case with ADHD], it meant that the child did not have enough norepinephrine (a stimulant) in his limbic system, and that I could help with a good diet and some supplements which should shore up the enzymes in his brain that make that neurotransmitter.
- If he had ever had ear infections, I stopped his dairy products, and added calcium – 1,000 mg – usually at bedtime. (Note that while I think removing the milk is a great idea, adding the calcium is not. Adding magnesium typically is far more effective)
- If he was ticklish, I added magnesium – 500 mg is usually safe for a child or adult.
- If he was a 'Jekyll and Hyde' type of person (severe mood swings), he had intermittent low blood sugar and he needed to nibble all day to keep his blood sugar up. Or at least eat some additional protein and fewer carbohydrates for better maintenance of blood sugar levels. No sugar or white-flour junk food.
- If he could not remember his dreams, he needed vitamin B6 – 50 mg is about right.
- If he ever had eczema or dry scaly skin, he is to take the essential fatty acids [omega-3 fats like krill oil].
- If he had dark circles under his eyes, he was eating something to which he is sensitive. Milk, wheat, corn, chocolate, eggs, citrus. Usually it is his favorite food."
Here are a few additional guidelines to help you address underlying toxins in your child, without, or at least BEFORE, you agree to any kind of drug therapy:
- Severely limit or eliminate fructose from your child's diet as sugar/fructose has been linked to mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia.
- Avoid giving your child ANY processed foods, especially those containing artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. This includes lunch meats and hot dogs, which are common food staples in many households.
- Replace soft drinks, fruit juices, and pasteurized milk with pure water. This is HUGE since high fructose corn syrup is a primary source of calories in children.
- Make sure your child is getting large regular doses of healthy bacteria, either with high-quality fermented organic foods and/or high quality probiotic supplements.
- Give your child plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats like krill oil. Also, make sure to balance your child's intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, by simultaneously limiting their intake of vegetable oils.
- Include as many whole organic foods as possible in your child's diet, both to reduce chemical exposure and increase nutrient content of each meal.
- Also reduce or eliminate grains from your child's diet, especially wheat. Beyond the fact that even healthy organic whole grains can cause problems as they too break down into sugars, gluten-containing grains have pharmacologically active peptides that can cause cognitive and behavioral issues in susceptible children.7
Additionally, whole and even sprouted wheat contains high amounts of wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), which can have adverse effects on mental health due to its neurotoxic actions. Wheat also inhibits production of serotonin, the largest concentration of which can, again, be found in your intestines, not your brain. Try eliminating them first for 1-2 weeks and see if you don't notice a radical and amazing improvement in your child's behavior.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners and colors of all kinds.
- Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise and outdoor playtime.
- Get them out into the sun to help maintain optimal vitamin D levels. Scientists are now beginning to realize vitamin D is involved in maintaining the health of your brain, as they've recently discovered vitamin D receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and central nervous system. There's even evidence indicating vitamin D improves your brain's detoxification process. For children and pregnant women, getting enough vitamin D is especially crucial, as it may play a major role in protecting infants from autism.
If natural sun exposure is not feasible, for whatever reason, you can use either a safe tanning bed or an oral vitamin D3 supplement. For more details on how to safely optimize your and your child's vitamin D levels, please see this previous article.
- Give your child a way to address his or her emotions. Even children can benefit from the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which you or an EFT practitioner can teach them to use.
Be sure you are also providing positive praise to your child. Dr. Smith believed parents should be able to say nice things to their child twice as often as they give commands or ask questions. If you are shouting and scolding more than you are complimenting and rewarding your child, it could be contributing to psychiatric problems.
- Prevent exposure to toxic metals and chemical by replacing personal care products, detergents and household cleaners with all natural varieties. Metals like aluminum, cadmium, lead and mercury are commonly found in thousands of different food products, household products, personal products and untold numbers of industrial products and chemicals. The presence of toxic metals in your child's body is highly significant for they are capable of causing serious health problems by interfering with normal biological functioning. The health effects range from minor physical ailments to chronic diseases, and altered mood and behavior.