By Dr. Mercola
According to a 2010 US government survey, 1 in 10 American children now has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a 22 percent increase from 2003. ADHD makes it hard for children to pay attention and control impulsive behavior.
About two-thirds of the children diagnosed with ADHD are on some form of prescription medication, and according to data recently 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.
This is a more than 400 percent increase in ER visits due to adverse reactions to such drugs in a mere six years! According to the featured article in Forbes Magazine1:
“The population group studied was 18-34, but the rise was most dramatic among 18- to 25-year-olds, Federal officials say.
The report, which was published August 8th in The DAWN Report2, a SAMSA publication, also warned that heart and blood vessel damage has been linked with 'nonmedical' use of the stimulant drugs, based on a 2012 study reported in Brain and Behavior3.”
This, I think, should demand the attention of politicians like Senator Durbin, who claims to be oh-so-concerned about the dangers posed by supplements. But no, hypocritical to a fault, Durbin is nowhere to be found when the issue of dangerous drugs come to the fore.
Misuse of Behavior-Modification Drugs Is Rising Dramatically
The DAWN report highlights the growing trend of prescription drug abuse, and reveals that more than half of these youngsters—primarily college-aged—obtained the drug either from a friend or relative, free of charge. Seventeen percent purchased them from someone they knew.
Other reports also show a dramatic spike in ADHD drug abuse.
“Data from I.M.S. Health4 found that 48.4 million prescriptions for ADHD stimulants were written in 2011, a 39 percent jump from 2007. More importantly, close to 14,000 new monthly prescriptions were written for ADHD stimulants, up from 5.6 million in 2007,” the featured article states.
Far from being recognized for their potential health hazards, these kinds of stimulants have gained a reputation as “cognition enhancers” among students and young professionals seeking to gain an edge.
Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly easy to fake ADHD symptoms in order to secure a prescription, and as noted in a 2008 study published in the Journal of American College Health5:
“Of the study participants, 34 percent reported the illegal use of ADHD stimulants. Most illegal users reported using ADHD stimulants primarily in periods of high academic stress and found them to reduce fatigue while increasing reading comprehension, interest, cognition, and memory.
Furthermore, most had little information about the drug and found procurement to be both easy and stigmafree.”
Meanwhile, the potential side effects of ADHD drugs are actually quite serious. Certainly, no one should take them without being under a competent doctor’s care:
In related news6, US health officials have launched a federal probe into the use of antipsychotic drugs on children in the Medicaid system. According to a study of data from 2004, kids using Medicaid were prescribed antipsychotic medications four times more often than those with private insurance. In 2008, more than 19,000 children under the age of five received Medicaid prescriptions for antipsychotics. Most shocking of all, the study also found that Medicaid prescriptions for antipsychotics were issued to children younger than one year old!
It’s exceedingly difficult to fathom a situation that would actually warrant giving a toddler an antipsychotic drug... After all, medications cannot address the underlying cause of aberrant behavior.
What Is ADHD, and What Causes It?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) involves a cluster of symptoms that include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behaviors. Often, children with the conditions may struggle in school and with relationships, and suffer from low self-esteem. The similar term attention deficit disorder (ADD) has largely been replaced with ADHD, as it describes two of the most common symptoms of the condition, inattention and hyperactive-impulsive behavior. Most children display a combination of these two traits, along with the following symptoms7:
|Frequent fidgeting or squirming
||Has difficulty playing quietly
||Always seems on the go
|Feels restless or often runs and climbs excessively, or leaves his or her seat in the classroom when not appropriate
||Talks excessively, interrupts often, and may blurt out answers to questions at inappropriate times
||Has difficulty waiting his or her turn
||Frequently has problems organizing tasks or activities
||Difficulty following through on instructions and apparently not listening
As you can see, many of these “symptoms” could describe virtually any child, or most children, at one time or another. As such, those who display these symptoms at school but not at home or with friends are not considered to have ADHD. Ditto for children who display symptoms at home but not at school. Only children who struggle with inattention and hyperactive or impulsive behaviors around the clock are deemed to have ADHD—although a 2010 study published in the Journal of Health Economics8 determined that about 20 percent of children are likely to have been misdiagnosed...
The cause of ADHD remains elusive, and according to psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg, who was hailed as the “scientific father of ADHD,” the disorder is “a prime example of a fictitious disease.” Eisenberg made this confession in a 2012 interview with the German paper Der Spiegel, just seven months prior to his death9 at the age of 87.
Still, behavioral problems, just like emotional problems, do exist. The question is, why does it seem to affect so many these days?
One plausible theory places the blame, at least in part, on exposure to environmental toxins. For example, a 2006 study10 found that a mother's use of cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs during pregnancy could increase the risk for ADHD. The study also suggested that exposure to lead and/or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can cause ADHD symptoms. Pesticide exposure has also been linked with ADHD.
Unfortunately, few are focusing on basic nutrition, which I believe is a key factor. We know that the food choices of most children and adults today are incredibly poor, and how can you possibly expect a child to have normal behavior if he is fed refined grains, sugars, and processed foods loaded with chemicals and largely devoid of natural nutrients? Four dietary factors of particular concern are:
- Too much sugar
- Gluten sensitivity
- Too few beneficial bacteria
- Omega-3 deficiency
Too Much Sugar and Gluten Can Trigger ADHD Symptoms
The number of children being harmed, perhaps for life, by unnecessary drugging is truly heartbreaking. Especially when there are so many simple and safe, not to mention healthier, alternatives. Many are reluctant to adopt unproven strategies, but the great news is that many of these non-drug alternatives are indeed supported by science. Besides, why would you opt for a drug that is similar to cocaine as the first-line of treatment for your child—or for yourself?!
The two most oft-cited dietary villains that can trigger ADHD symptoms are sugar and gluten. This automatically makes grains of all kinds a primary food to avoid, as most grains not only contain gluten, but also turn into sugar in your body. There is evidence11,12 suggesting that gluten sensitivity may be at the root of a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including ADHD, is quite compelling. As stated in one 2011 study13:
“Celiac disease is markedly overrepresented among patients presenting with ADHD. A gluten-free diet significantly improved ADHD symptoms in patients with celiac disease in this study. The results further suggest that celiac disease should be included in the ADHD symptom checklist.”
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. In those with celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune reaction that damages the small intestine and prevents absorption of nutrients. People with gluten sensitivity, which may comprise 10 percent of the US population or more, experience many of the same symptoms that celiac disease causes, including headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, gas and more.
Scientists now recognize the deep interconnectedness between your gut and your brain, and there’s little doubt that chronic inflammation in your body can wreak havoc on your brain function. Hence, reducing inflammation in your gut is imperative when addressing mental health issues,14 and it’s quite common for people to experience a wide variety of mental and emotional health improvements once they eliminate gluten from their diet.
Behavioral Problems Are Closely Linked to Poor Gut Health
The gut-brain connection is well recognized as a basic tenet of physiology and medicine, and there’s a wealth of evidence showing gastrointestinal involvement in a variety of neurological diseases, not just ADHD. Your gut and your brain are actually created out of the same type of tissue. During fetal development, one part turns into your central nervous system while the other develops into your enteric nervous system. These two systems are connected via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem down to your abdomen. So in a very real sense you have two brains, one inside your skull and one in your gut, and each needs its own vital nourishment.
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.
Total Video Length: 1:13:21
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She believes the epidemic of autism and other learning disorders originate in the gut, and manifest as a condition known as Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS). GAPS may manifest as a conglomerate of symptoms that can fit the diagnosis of either autism, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD) without hyperactivity, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, just to name a few possibilities... Fortunately, it is possible to identify GAPS within the first weeks of your baby's life. (This can also help you make better informed decisions about vaccinations, as if your child has the metabolic characteristics of GAPS, he or she should NOT be immunized until that is reversed.)
How to Optimize Your Gut Flora
To reseed your gut with the healthy bacteria (probiotics) necessary for optimal gut health, I recommend the following strategies:
- Avoid processed, refined foods in your diet.
- 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. Healthy choices include:
- Fermented vegetables
- Lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner)
- Fermented milk, such as kefir
- Natto (fermented soy)
Ideally, you want to eat a variety of fermented foods to maximize the variety of bacteria you’re consuming. Fermented vegetables, which are one of my new passions, are an excellent way to supply beneficial bacteria back into your gut. And, unlike some other fermented foods, they tend to be palatable, if not downright delicious, to most people.
As an added bonus, they can also be a great source of vitamin K2 if you ferment your own using the proper starter culture. We tested samples of high-quality fermented organic vegetables made with our specific starter culture, and a typical serving (about two to three ounces) contained not only 10 trillion beneficial bacteria, it also had 500 mcg of vitamin K2, which we now know is a vital co-nutrient to both vitamin D and calcium.
Most high-quality probiotic supplements will only supply you with a fraction of the beneficial bacteria found in such homemade fermented vegetables, so it’s your most economical route to optimal gut health as well. We hope to have the starter culture that will make high amounts of K2 in the near future. In the meantime, you can use our Complete Probiotics, two capsules per quart, until the new one comes out.
- Take a high-quality probiotic supplement. Although I'm not a major proponent of taking many supplements (as I believe the majority of your nutrients need to come from food), probiotics are an exception if you don’t eat fermented foods on a regular basis
The Importance of Omega-3
Our modern diet contains an overabundance of highly processed, damaged omega-6 fats while being deficient in omega-3s. As mentioned earlier, this too may be a contributing factor in ADHD, and taking a high-quality animal-based omega-3 fat, such as fish oil, or better yet, krill oil, may help to reverse such symptoms.
For example, research by the University of Adelaide in Australia found that fish oil improves the symptoms of ADHD more effectively than drugs like Ritalin and Concerta. They gave daily fish oil capsules to 130 children diagnosed with ADHD, ages 7-12. Within three months, the children’s behavior improved dramatically. They also found that:
- After seven months, the children were not as restless and showed improvements at school
- Improvements in concentration and attention improved by one-third
- After 15 weeks, 30-40 percent of the children taking fish oil had improvements
- After 30 weeks, 40-50 percent improved
- Children taking placebo capsules were later switched to fish oil and subsequently also experienced improved behavior
Improvements were still being seen after the study ended, which suggests that fish oils may have long-term effects. Another clinical study of children with ADHD showed that they significantly improved both their clinical scores and identified EEG patterns when krill oil was added to their diet for a period of 13 weeks.
I first started hearing about the benefits of krill oil for ADHD back in 2006. The following year, in 2007, a clinical study15 examining the effects of krill oil on adults diagnosed with ADHD also showed positive results. 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.
Key Dietary Changes for ADHD
It is my sincere hope that people will begin to realize that drug therapy, if necessary, should be a very last resort, after all other options have been exhausted. Instead, I advise using the following dietary changes as the first route of treatment for attention and behavioral problems associated with ADHD. For more comprehensive details on what makes for a healthful diet, please see my optimized nutrition plan:
- Eliminate most grains and sugars, including fructose. Grains and sugars both tend to cause allergies in sensitive individuals. Even organic, whole, sprouted grains can cause problems in many children so it would be wise to give them a “grain holiday” and see if their behavior improves.
- Replace sweetened beverages (diet and regular), including fruit juices and also pasteurized milk, with pure non-fluoridated water.
- Avoid all processed foods, especially those containing fructose, trans fats, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, which may trigger or worsen symptoms. Gluten is also commonly hidden in processed foods like ready-made soups, soy sauce, candies, cold cuts, and various low- and no-fat products, as well as refined grain products like bread, pizza crust, pasta, cookies and pastries.
- Increase omega-3 fats by taking a high-quality animal-based omega-3 oil. In my view, krill oil is the best option for this. It contains essential EPA and DHA in a double-chain phospholipid structure that makes it far more absorbable than the omega-3s in fish oil.
- Eat traditionally fermented, unpasteurized foods, as described above, or take a high-quality probiotics supplement
Additional Strategies to Relieve ADHD Symptoms
Besides addressing your or your child’s nutrition, I also recommend implementing the following strategies:
- Clear your house of dangerous pesticides and other commercial chemicals.
- 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 Techniques (EFT) to improve emotional coping and healing.