By Nonie DeLong, ROHP, CNP
I am writing because my nine-year-old son has problems with learning. He can not sit still or focus and is very disruptive in classes. I want to say it’s not because we are permissive parents because we are not and we have two other very well behaved kids. Teachers were always pushing to medicate him and I don’t believe that is the right thing to do! I am afraid of the long term effects, but I do want my son to be able to learn better. I don’t want to just ignore his problems learning but I also don’t want to medicate him if I can help it. I wish I could find something natural. Do you know if there is any data on natural treatments for ADHD? I imagine there are a lot of parents who need this information. Thank you again for your column!
There are few nutrition issues which get me more revved up – as the parent of someone who was diagnosed with ADHD (and more) by the time he was seven – so you have come to the right place with your query. But get yourself a cup of something and settle in, because it’s not a simple answer or a short one, as this is an important issue for many parents and I want to do it justice.
First off, in my opinion, ADHD/ADD is a nonsense diagnosis that serves nobody in society but the pharmaceutical cartel. How can I say that? Well, a few reasons.
In order to give a medical diagnosis there should be an abnormal tissue or blood analysis to verify the claim that pathology exists and guide and monitor the treatment. This is how doctors scientifically validate a diagnosis. And where symptoms are not explained by verifiable pathology, medical professionals are prompted to look deeper for the seat of dysfunction until they find evidence of the diseased /dysfunctional tissue/organ.
This is not the case with ADD/ADHD. There is no verifiable lab data – the diagnosis is entirely based on symptom checklists. And symptom checklists are not scientific: the answers for the same person vary, depending on who is being asked. For example, a teacher who wants to lead a student to medication to better manage his behaviour knows that a higher score will facilitate that. A parent who is resistant will be inclined to downplay behaviours. Thus the data is skewed, even if symptoms were reliable as a diagnostic tool in the first place, which they aren’t. The same symptoms can be due to many different root problems. Symptoms point to dysfunction, but that dysfunction then needs to be investigated for its root. Cancer cells can be seen on biopsy. Bacterial and viral infections can be seen in tissue samples. Deficiencies are found in blood and hair analyses. Bone problems are seen on x-rays. You get the picture.
Naming a symptom checklist a disease without objective data to verify it scientifically is dangerous. The name artificially validates the dysfunction as a bonafide medical disease/illness, which then perpetuates it. If ADD/ADHD were not accepted explanations of hyperactivity and lack of focus, distractibility, and related symptoms in children, the medical establishment would be responsible for searching for the cause of the symptoms – if enough cases were presented. But once a diagnosis (and treatment) is accepted (even on shoddy grounds), no deeper analysis into the cause of the condition is encouraged. Medicine is not served by this type of pseudoscience, which does nothing to help us understand what is going on in the organism to better help children who are suffering thus.
Just to be clear, I am not saying children are not impacted by hyperactivity, distractibility, lack of focus, impulsivity, and an inability to learn and that this entire cluster of symptoms isn’t a bonafide issue that demands medical attention and intervention. There are those in the natural health community who chalk ADD/ADHD up to lack of exercise or bad parenting or too much video gaming/TV but I am not one of them. In some cases it may be so, but I don’t believe that adequately explains the current prevalence of such issues. I lived with a child who had a disturbing set of symptoms that were most clearly not normal and not explained thus. I had to turn to psychiatry because it was clear my son’s mind and behaviour were hindering his development and happiness. But I struggle with psychiatry as scientific, because of the issues above. Many, many children are impacted by behavioural/mental health issues today. Denying some pathology is at play and dismissing it does not serve anyone. And blaming electronics and parenting is a gross oversimplification of a complex issue. But neither are we served as a society by naming and medicating it without even investigating the organ involved. That’s an asinine abuse of power, in my opinion. And certainly, it’s not scientific.
Let me give you an analogy. Imagine if Spring Fever were a medical illness we gave dangerous medications for. Of course, Spring Fever exists. We can observe that it does. It may even be disruptive – as in a lockdown, it may make it difficult to flatten the curve. But is it a medical disease?
And I realize it is the norm to throw pills at every symptom right now, because medicine today is about symptom management, but where children are involved, surely we can do better.
And, allowing this type of pseudoscience sets a very dangerous precedent where the medical establishment can pathologize any behaviour or set of symptoms they don’t accept or understand, with the power to forcibly medicate or harm people. This has happened throughout history and is the basis for organizations like MAD in America and The Antipsychiatry Coalition.
Did you know women were medically labelled with hysteria for a variety of normal hormonal symptoms and forcibly locked up and/or given forced hysterectomies as treatment as recently as 1952? Or that black slaves in America who attempted to run from their abusive captors were labelled with drapetomania – the racist conjecture that they attempted to flee because they were mentally ill? Or that homosexuality was listed in the psychiatric diagnostic manual as a mental disease until 1972 and in the WHO diagnostic ICD-10 until 1990. These are only some examples that show that “diseases/disorders” ought not to be accepted as medical fact until they are proven with verifiable, objective tissue pathology.
Perhaps originally we did not have the tools to examine the mind for disease of function, but that is no longer the case. SPECT analysis allows us to see not only the structure, but the function of the various areas of the brain now. Yet it is not used in mainstream medicine in validating psychiatric diagnosis to date. For a wonderfully inspiring video of a doctor who is trying to change this, watch here.
I haven’t even touched on the dangers of long term use of stimulant drugs in children’s developing minds and bodies. Most drugs prescribed for children are not tested in children, and studies often do not follow people for decades or more, so it’s very hard to say for sure what the long term impacts are. As such, we cannot limit our investigation of the issue to published data. I have read data that they are safe, but some disturbing conflicting data exists and we must be aware that the large majority of data on these drugs is funded and distributed by the very companies who stand to profit (often obscenely) from the drugs. As such, I will direct readers to some data on suspected dangers to analyze for themselves:
The effects of long-term medication on growth in children and adolescents with ADHD: an observational study of a large cohort of real-life patients
In addition, there are numerous blogs written from people who have taken stimulant and psychotropic meds for ADD/ADHD with debilitating and lasting impacts into adulthood. I invite readers to also search for these to better understand potential long term impacts. And readers can always research user-documented side effects at RxISK – a website devoted to collecting and disseminating information on drug side effects as subjectively experienced.
I find it interesting that we as a society tell our children that drugs are dangerous and bad for their health, but omit prescription drugs from that equation. On the issue of whether to medicate for ADHD/ADD symptom sets, we as parents must weigh the issue very carefully, not only because side effects of medications vary widely, can be long term, and are not always disclosed fully up front by medical professionals, but also because children/youth can be very inarticulate about their experiences. We must go seeking information and be watchful and prayerful/conscientious in our decisions. And we must push medical professionals to look deeper when we are dissatisfied with the solutions we are given. Through my experiences I staunchly believe it is a child’s right to have access to the safest, least invasive, most natural treatments available before being given mind-altering drugs. And that the makers of garbage, hyper processed food taking over our grocery store isles should be taxed to pay for third party, unbiased research into this issue. Their products are most certainly correlated in large part to the explosion of mental illness in our society. To claim otherwise is naive at best.
Now to look at a holistic approach to ADD/ADHD. Let’s do a deep dive.
There are several things that can come together to create ADD/ADHD, from a holistic perspective. Some practitioners divide ADHD into several types, as Dr. Amen does. In my practice, regardless of the specific type/manifestation of attention deficit, I see several factors playing a role. They are:
Chronic inflammation: This can be driven by malnutrition, malabsorption, allergies, gut dysbiosis, toxins, or an infection of some kind – or any combo of these. Remove them and add a natural, anti-inflammatory, nourishing omnivore diet.
- Poor detoxification: The body is unable to fully clear toxins it comes into contact with. When intermediates of toxins are not broken down quickly enough by the second phase of the liver’s detoxification process we get extremely toxic substances circulating in the blood. These can even seem to intoxicate the child’s brain. Parents who have seen this describe the child as acting as if he were drunk or high after meals or snacks.
- Food intolerances: Some studies show ADHD and ODD are more frequent in those with food allergies, and in particular, gluten sensitivity seems related. Some studies have shown high rates of success in treating kids through restrictive diets. In particular violent and morbid behaviour seems related to this. I have seen incredible, unimaginable differences in children once food intolerances are identified and removed, including my son. I offer this in my clinic, but do not rely on IgG blood testing, which is discouraged in one of the studies and used by most practitioners for sensitivity testing. It’s unreliable in my experience. I guide parents to use more sensitive, reliable testing and validate results with elimination and provocation.
- Chemical Intolerances: These are due to exposure and a compromised ability to neutralize the toxins because of compromised liver function. We know that the children of chemically sensitive mothers are 2-3x more likely than others to have Autism or ADHD. Household, environmental, and cosmetic chemicals play a huge role in this and we are benefitted by removing them from our homes and lives. There are many natural products to choose from for every household/ garden/ cosmetic need.
- Gut biome integrity issues: This contributes to chronic malabsorption, food intolerances, strong cravings and addictions that drive malnutrition, difficulty detoxifying, and inflammation. It’s been shown that kids with ADHD are more prone to bowel problems and gut biome problems have been well documented in childhood behavioural issues by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. I believe they can be said to be the root of most ADD/ADHD issues, if I had to identify one thing. This is where a nutritionist can do for you what no MD can do. We study gut biome extensively and there are certain things that must be done to rebalance it once there is dysbiosis.
- Early stages of insulin resistance: This is not well documented to date, but I see it clinically all the time. It can manifest as ADD with moodiness, constant cravings, food rages, and periods of mania or psychosis. These kids may get a diagnosis of bipolar with ADHD. They are often given antipsychotics. Flattening insulin spikes gives incredible results. Ditto with addiction behaviour.
- Head injuries and trauma: These impact the brain incredibly and obviously demand a different approach than do purely physical drivers of the behaviours. However, they still require biochemical interventions because this type of stress requires greater than usual amounts of stress related vitamins like the B’s and magnesium. Supplementing in addition to an anti-inflammatory diet is imperative. Removing any toxins and getting rehabilitation support will facilitate quicker healing.
In support of a nutritional approach to ADD/ADHD, current SPECT imaging studies discredit the use of pharmaceuticals as effective on their own and support the use of nutrition and nutritional supplements as part of treatment to effectively address and correct brain health problems. Imaging shows re-growth of brain structure and normalization of brain function with the use of nutritional and bio-psycho social therapies in tandem with medication used only as needed to help with symptom management until underlying imbalances are corrected.
As with everything else, when all else fails and no therapy seems to correct underlying problems, be they emotional, behavioural, or physical in nature, homeopathy is what I recommend. I know it’s much maligned in today’s culture, but clinically there is nothing nearly as powerful or deeply corrective.
Isabella, thank you for that important question. I hope this helps you find treatment for your son that you feel good about. As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Feel free to reach out through the Ask a Nutritionist page. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website and sign up for my free newsletter at nonienutritionista.com. I provide comprehensive health coaching and several group classes, all available online for safety and convenience. If you are similarly seeking help for ADD/ADHD, I invite you to reach out.
This video is also worth watching.The most important lesson from 83000 brain scans – Daniel Amen