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Natural Therapies and Interventions for ADHD

Natural Therapies and Interventions for ADHD

Introduction to ADHD and treatment options

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder which usually presents itself during childhood. It may be characterised by symptoms of hyperactivity or inattentiveness, amongst others.  

ADHD is still being intensively researched and its causes and outcomes are not yet fully understood. The condition is thought to run in families, with research suggesting that a person with a parent or siblings who have ADHD may be more likely to have it themselves. 

Other potential risk factors include:

  • Premature birth (before 37 weeks)
  • Low birth weight
  • Drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy

According to the NHS, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can be divided into two types of behavioural problems:

  • Inattentive type
  • Hyperactive and impulsive type

Some patients will present with a combination of the above symptoms, sometimes referred to as combination type (which used to be referred to as ADD, although this is increasingly considered an outdated term). 

Inattentive type ADHD may manifest as a person:

  • appearing to constantly daydream
  • struggling to focus for long periods of time
  • being easily distracted

It can also cause issues with memory, organisation and motivation.

People with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD often show symptoms of:

  • restlessness
  • difficulty sitting still or waiting their turn
  • being extremely fidgety
  • acting without thinking
  • lacking a sense of consequence or danger
hyperactive-impulsive ADHD

Between 2 to 3 people out of 10 with ADHD struggle to focus or concentrate but do not suffer from hyperactivity. This poses challenges when it comes to making a diagnosis as symptoms may appear more subtle. It is thought that this also leads to an under-diagnosis of ADHD in girls, as they are more likely to suffer from inattentiveness and less likely to display disruptive behaviour.

Children receive a diagnosis of ADHD based on a strict set of criteria. For your child to be diagnosed with ADHD they need to display:

  • Six or more symptoms of inattentiveness
  • Six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsiveness

They must also have been showing symptoms:

  • Consistently for 6+ months
  • Since they were under the age of 12
  • In at least two settings (to rule out the chances of the behaviour being a reaction to school rules, home life, parenting etc.)
  • That make their academic, home or personal life more challenging
  • That cannot be diagnosed as another mental disorder or developmental phase

Diagnosing ADHD in adults can be more challenging. During your adult assessment for ADHD, you will be asked questions about your present symptoms and how they affect your life. To get an ADHD diagnosis, the symptoms you describe need to be having a negative impact on your life, such as:

  • Making work life or relationships problematic
  • Causing you to fail or underachieve at school
  • Acting in an unsafe way, such as driving dangerously

The treatment suggested by the NHS for ADHD includes medication and therapy. A combination of the two is usually the best course of action. Treatment is usually overseen by your GP and arranged by a specialist such as a paediatrician or psychiatrist. 

Currently, there are only five types of medicine licensed to treat ADHD. These are:

  • Methylphenidate
  • Lisdexamfetamine
  • Dexamphetamine
  • Atomoxetine
  • Guanfacine

Most ADHD medicines are stimulants. They work by increasing activity in the brain, especially to the parts that control:

  • Behaviour
  • Impulsivity
  • Decision-making

Atomoxetine works differently to other ADHD meds. It is a selective noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) which increases the amount of a chemical, called noradrenaline, which passes messages between cells in the brain. 

In addition to medication, sometimes people with ADHD find going to therapy helpful. The main types of therapy that can help are talking therapy (also called psychotherapy) and psychoeducation.

Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help with ADHD symptoms. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps people to reorganise and reframe their thoughts towards an issue or problem in their life. It has even been shown to be effective in managing pain associated with physical conditions. 

A talking therapy may help someone with ADHD to:

  • Talk about their symptoms
  • Set goals
  • Create a routine
  • Learn to be more organised
  • Avoid negative thought cycles
  • Improve self-esteem

Psychoeducation – this is said to help children and teens to understand their condition and learn to navigate life with it by encouraging them to talk about their symptoms and challenges.

Some people prefer to explore natural ways to treat ADHD. It is important to note that research into the efficacy of natural remedies and supplements is ongoing and more conclusive data is required to assess the efficacy of herbal supplements and aromatherapy in treating ADHD.

Other natural approaches, such as exercise, diet and lifestyle changes play a more obvious role in the outcomes of ADHD patients.

Psychoeducation for ADHD

Natural therapies: Overview and rationale

Medication can help manage the symptoms of ADHD. However, it is not always effective and can come with a range of side effects. Due to this, some people like to try alternative treatments and therapies. 

Side effects of ADHD medication include:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Stomach pain
  • Headaches
  • Tension
  • Loss of appetite
  • Drowsiness

Some people do not want to deal with the unpleasant side effects associated with ADHD medication, whilst others may be resistant to medicating young children. This may lead to them wanting to try a more natural route to manage ADHD symptoms.

Additionally, some natural therapies and interventions can be used alongside more traditional medicine to improve outcomes for people with ADHD as well as improve overall health and wellbeing. This may lead people to try new ways to manage their condition that don’t involve so many chemicals, such as self-help techniques, herbal teas and remedies.

Dietary and nutritional approaches

Eating a balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and healthy fats is beneficial to everyone, as is avoiding processed foods, too much sugar or foods that are high in cholesterol and saturated fat.  

If you notice a particular food acts as a ‘trigger’ for your ADHD symptoms, you should try to eliminate it from your diet as far as possible. Some people with ADHD find going to see a dietician helpful as they can provide expert advice on getting a balanced and healthy diet.

It is also thought that some natural supplements such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and zinc might help to alleviate the symptoms of ADHD, particularly if your diet is lacking in them. Iron plays an important part in brain function and not having enough iron in your diet can cause tiredness and affect motivation. Iron exists naturally in red meat, leafy greens and legumes; it can also be taken as a supplement in liquid or tablet form.

If you have ADHD, you should also be careful with caffeine. We all know that caffeine can make us feel more awake, energised and focused, but consuming too much will have detrimental effects and might even make your ADHD symptoms worse.

Mindfulness, yoga and exercise for ADHD

Mindfulness, yoga and exercise

Regular exercise has been proven to help our wellbeing. It boosts endorphins, improves blood flow and increases circulation. Many people use exercise to help them to manage stress, improve their mood (due to the release of feel-good endorphins) and help with sleep; both reducing stress and getting better quality sleep can reduce ADHD symptoms. 

Attending a regular exercise class can also help you to stay motivated and stick to a routine. You are more likely to continue long term with an exercise plan so think about what you would enjoy the most. This could be something structured like:

  • Spin class
  • Martial arts
  • Dance class

Or something less organised like:

  • A run in the park
  • Rock climbing with friends
  • A workout in front of the TV

Yoga is a gentler alternative to a high impact activity. Yoga is an ancient art that began in India as a spiritual practice, but is now widely practised to help with flexibility, posture and relaxation. 

Yoga involves a series of movements, poses, meditations and breath work and is beneficial for focusing the mind, improving mood and helping to aid sleep. Yoga is especially effective for people with ADHD when practised alongside other mindfulness techniques. 

Meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably although they are not exactly the same. Both practices may benefit sufferers of ADHD. Meditation involves sitting quietly and clearing or focusing the mind based on a particular mantra, word or intention. It is usually accompanied by deep breathing techniques. 

Meditation can help to:

  • Make you relax
  • Become more focused
  • Calm your senses
  • Set intentions and get motivated
  • Explore your creative side

Mindfulness often goes hand in hand with meditation but not always. Mindfulness is a special way to mental focus where you are hyper aware of the present moment and what is going on around you. It is based on the idea of being aware of the present but not reacting to it or feeling overwhelmed by it. 

You do not have to meditate alone to experience mindfulness; you can take a mindful walk in the park, for example, where you might pause to appreciate the colour of the sky or the sounds of leaves as they rustle in the wind. Being mindful can help reduce unhelpful and intrusive or disruptive thoughts. 

Mindfulness can also help with:

  • Reducing stress and anxiety
  • Relaxation
  • Promoting inner peace

ADHD is often characterised by hyperactivity, impulsiveness and chaotic thinking – learning to harness the power of mindfulness may help you to calm your thoughts and learn to be more organised.

Spending time outside for ADHD

Spending time outside

Spending time outdoors, having access to green spaces and being out in nature is often cited as a safe and natural treatment to help anyone struggling with stress or mild depression. 

Studies have shown that green spaces can reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone), reduce anxiety and improve overall wellbeing. We can logically infer that spending time outside in nature can act as a natural therapy and will be beneficial to people with ADHD.

With the increased urbanisation of many parts of the world, both mental health charities and some psychologists are calling for the incorporation of green areas in planning proposals, due to the potential impact on people’s mental wellbeing.

Some research suggests that being outside in nature and getting fresh air is beneficial to children in particular. A 2011 study of 421 children found that children with ADHD who played regularly in green spaces showed milder symptoms than children who played mainly indoors or in built-up settings.

Herbal remedies and supplements

Data from studies into the effects of herbal remedies and supplements that may help ease symptoms of ADHD is limited. More research needs to be done in this area to obtain conclusive results. 

Some preliminary findings suggest that some herbal medicines may help to improve brain function and potentially manage ADHD symptoms. These remedies include:

  • Ginseng
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Lion’s mane

Supplements can usually be found in health food stores in tablet or capsule form. Herbal remedies and supplements are not usually recommended for children. 

Some people also report that aromatherapy has a role to play in treating ADHD. Aromatherapy involves using certain essential oils to help with things like sleep or focus. Inhaling the strong scents of essential oils is thought to be enough to stimulate the limbic system (a part of the brain that is involved with memory, concentration, emotional response and behaviour). 

Oils such as lavender, frankincense or chamomile are thought to aid in relaxation, stress reduction or concentration. Peppermint oil has a strong, fresh scent that may improve focus and concentration. 

Essential oils can be:

  • Diffused into the air using a diffuser or oil burner
  • Diluted into a carrier oil (such as almond or coconut) and applied onto the skin
  • Infused into a bath or sink full of hot water to be inhaled
  • Placed onto a pillow before sleep (lavender is especially popular to use in this way)

Remember, you should only ever use essential oils as directed as some (such as tea tree oil) can be poisonous if ingested.

Caveats and considerations

You should talk to your healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your:

  • Diet
  • Lifestyle
  • Medication
  • Treatment

Natural therapies can often be used to complement other management techniques for ADHD. Natural supplements and self-care practices are best used in conjunction with regular medication or talking therapies. 

It is important to remember that natural does not always mean safe. You should use any natural remedy or intervention as directed and discontinue its use if you feel unwell or have an adverse reaction.

Nurturing holistic wellbeing

Explore a personalised approach to managing your ADHD symptoms. What works for one individual may not work for the next and it may take some time to get the right balance for you. 

To nurture holistic wellbeing, you need to be self-aware but not self-conscious. Trying a more natural therapy to manage your symptoms might mean stepping out of your comfort zone, taking action and doing something that you have never done before. This might look like:

  • Booking an exercise class
  • Making time for quiet meditation and mindfulness
  • Finding a yoga video on YouTube
  • Seeing a dietician
  • Changing your eating habits
  • Visiting a health food store

There are a number of different therapy options available to people with ADHD. You may benefit the most from a multi-faceted approach that combines science with natural remedies, self-care and therapy. Approaching each option with an open mind is key to finding the right combination that works best for you and your body.

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.

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