Updated: Nov 26, 2019
I work with a LOT of kids with ADHD. From the inattentive, quiet types, to the hyperactive, always distracted types. This work has given me perspective and experience in finding the root cause(s) and putting together plans and strategies to bring these children back to balance. By doing so I have helped parents either avoid, reduce, or eliminate the ADHD medications. That's right, it is entirely possible to treat ADHD without things like Ritalin, Focalin, or Adderall. All healing starts with understanding the causes and exacerbating factors, so let's start there:
This might be the most overlooked cause of ADHD. The common belief in our society is that: unless you get a concussion, that fall and smack to the head is no big deal. Wrong! So wrong! Even small bumps to the head can have lasting effects. Especially when there are more than one. Of course the more severe the injury, the worse the symptoms that develop, but it doesn't take a lot to trigger processes of degeneration and compensation that result in symptoms of ADHD. This can be the primary cause of changes in brain anatomy and function that lead to lower activity in the areas of the brain that control attention and energy levels.
Solution - healing head injuries takes a multi-factorial approach. I am fortunate to have neurofeedback as a tool to push the brain to learn new ways of doing things, thus repairing and overcoming the old damage. However, it is not a panacea. There are often other lifestyle factors that need to change, which play a major role in the propagation of ADHD syndromes. I will discuss all of these at the end of this post.
Sometimes kids are way smarter than their piers. Parents love to chalk this up to their "good genes" and "superior methods for child rearing," but very often precocious children are just a sign of increased catecholamines in the brain. Catecholamines are the brain neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These neuro-chemicals play a major role in focus, attention, memory, and learning. There can be genetic mutations that lead to higher concentrations and thus naturally smarter children develop. Sounds great, however, these chemicals also build to excess and lead to higher rates of anxiety and hyperactivity. It quickly becomes impossible for someone to be focused and attentive if they are always anxious and restless from an overstimulated brain. In that sense, precocious children can be a sign of ADHD to come. Furthermore, when a child starts off smarter than their piers, it becomes really hard to stay attentive and focused on what seem like mundane, easy tasks. So, if your child starts off ahead of all the other kids in their class, see if their issues with attention are due to lack of challenge. The solution may be to get them into more challenging programs. Also be on the look out for future anxiety and hyperactivity as they may need help with lowering catecholamines in the brain.
Beyond catecholamines, we must also consider serotonin and GABA. Serotonin and GABA are major neurotransmitters used for calming and relaxing the brain. A child with ADHD may have normal catecholamine levels but a low level of these calming chemicals. The result is very similar to what I described above, though these children don't tend to be precocious, they just end up wracked with uncontrolled anxiety, irritability, and hyperactivity.
Lastly, we must consider histamine. Histamine is an excitatory neuro-chemical and in excess can be behind hyperactive children who can't sit and focus. Usually this kids also have high intelligence and have already discovered they are allergic to something. Whenever they are exposed to their allergen it stimulates the brain and leads to symptoms. Discovering your child's allergies are essential to controlling behavior.
How do we determine the issue? There are some questionnaires designed to discover which neurotransmitters are lacking, but I find these unreliable. There are also urine laboratory tests that can give us an idea as to how much of these neurotransmitters are being used in the body. It's not a spectacular test, but it can give you a place to start. There is also genetic testing for COMT, MAO, and Methylation enzymes in the body, all of which play a major role in controlling levels of these neurotransmitters, which I think is one of the best routes to go for lab testing. With results from testing, very safe supplements can be prescribed to build up the missing neurotransmitters. Or, herbal compounds can be used to regulate the enzymes that control neurotransmitters. It gets complicated so you should definitely work with a doctor if you want to investigate neurotransmitter imbalances.
Unfortunately, when a mother is pregnant with child, the body will dump many of its toxins into the fetus. We used to think the placenta created a fantastic barrier against all toxins, but have since learned this is not the case. Especially mothers who use nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs, as these have all be researched to damage the developing brain and can lead to ADHD. Even heavy metal exposures like lead, mercury, or aluminum can be passed down to the fetus and start a child's life with potent neurotoxins that keep the brain from developing the way it is supposed to. The health of a mother plays a massive role in how a child's brain health will be for much of their life! Keep this in mind if you're a parent who wants to have another child but is not sure because of how difficult their first child(ren) have been. It may be you need to do some serious health work, including detoxification, prior to getting pregnant again.
Furthermore, toxins can accumulate in early childhood. It is not rare for kids to start crawling around and pulling themselves up on floors and window sills that have lead dust (old paint and old glass can create lead dust). Imagine your baby starting to pull itself up by the low hanging window sill, only to hang out there and inhale a bunch of lead. Other routes of exposure: chewing on an old rocking chair that no one knew had lead paint (this happened to a friend of mine), chewing on trinkets and jewelry from countries without lead regulations (babies put everything in their mouth), or maybe you have been trying to be healthy and are cooking more with powdered turmeric and ginger (can be contaminated with lead from the milling process). There are many routes to exposure and it should be standard to test all children for lead. However, if the child is grown up and now has ADHD, it's likely you will not see lead or other heavy metals on standard testing, as these only show you recent exposures. Talk to your doctor about provoked heavy metal testing to see if old heavy metal accumulation in the brain is behind your child's symptoms.
Note: there are genetics associated with ADHD, however, a family history of the problem does not necessarily indicate a genetic issue. It is common to see both children and adults diagnosed with this condition at the same time. In these cases, it could have been missed in the adult for many years, or it could be that everyone in the family was exposed to the same toxin and have now developed ADHD! Don't assume it is genetic.
Things that make ADHD worse:
These items may not be the direct cause of ADHD, but they often worsen the symptoms and make it harder for everyone involved:
High sugar and carbohydrate diets - too much sugar all at once leads to a spike in blood sugar, which gives people a lot of energy. If your child gets hyper after eating, this could be exacerbating the problem. Furthermore, about 1-2 hours after this "sugar high" will come a crash. This crash can look like irritability, lethargy, and certainly a lack of focus and attention. If teachers at school are saying your kid really struggles to focus in the afternoon (after lunch) blood sugar management and diet might be making their symptoms far worse.
Food sensitivities/allergies/additives - for many, foods can trigger inflammation in the body. This inflammation is stimulating to the brain, particularly from allergens as allergens release histamine. Histamine is very excitatory to brain tissues and can aggravate hyperactivity significantly. Again, pay attention to how your child is after eating. Look for patterns in foods they consume that result in them having a more difficult time. You may want to consider an elimination diet to see what foods are making life more difficult.
Screen time - I often have to coach parents to get their kids off of smart phones, tablets, and computers. It is common that I see kids with ADHD addicted to their screens (like crying and screaming when you take it away). I get it, your kid is difficult and you want to pacify them. Unfortunately, the screens are only making things worse. I pick on video games especially, as they are designed to hook you and be addictive. They do this by setting up a series of easily attainable, gradual goals, and lots of flashy lights, points, and advancement to award you. This is training instant gratification and short attention spans. Research is clear that the more screen time a child has, the more problems the have with attention in real life (as well as other neuro-psychiatric disorders like depression). Do everyone a favor, get off the screens and get your child using their imagination again. If they're coming at you with "I'm bored" again and again, and they have a history of screen use, it's likely you have inadvertently trained them right into being dissatisfied with reality. Stop this trap immediately and get them engaged in other activities!
Lack of time outside - kids need to play, and play, and play. Research has shown that they actually need about 4-6 hours of time outside, every day. EVERY DAY! We don't do that in our society. Not even close. Natural environments and exploration, however, play a massive role in brain development. A lack of this type of exploration is a major risk for developing ADHD and other brain disorders. What's the solution when you take away the screen and they say, "I'm bored?" Send them outside to play! Wow, what a concept...
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that play into a person's ability to be able to focus and pay attention to things. We certainly need to reconsider what we expect of our children as well. Society demands kids sit in classrooms doing things like math, rather than playing outside. Who in their right mind wants to do math instead of playing??? Research even shows that playing does far more for brain development than sitting at a desk concentrating. So, to some degree, we need to re-frame our expectations on kids focusing on tasks. Maybe we are expecting the wrong things out of them. Maybe they are being robbed of what they really need, time outside playing. Of course, some kids will have very severe disability around learning and these cases should be investigated with a doctor. But, as you can see, there is a whole lot you can do from home to improve the development of your child's brain and improve their attention and focus, without medical intervention.
Want to learn more about how to heal brain health issues like ADHD? Check out Dr. Schull's new book. He is giving away the most important chapter in order to get people feeling and functioning better as soon as tomorrow. Just fill out name and email and it will be delivered to your inbox.