You started to notice that your child isn’t like the other kids. Your child can’t seem to sit still. Your child can’t focus on schoolwork or chores. Your child can’t even focus on what you say to them. Your child is overly boisterous, running and climbing when they need to be standing still. Your child is easily distracted, just like a dog with a squirrel. And your child is starting to fall behind in school. So you visited the doctor. And after some questionnaires and some conversations with your child’s teacher, your child was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
But what does that diagnosis mean? All it means is your child has problems focusing and sitting still. And you already knew that. The diagnosis of ADHD is just a label. It is just a box to put your child in so that you can just say he or she has ADHD rather than saying he or she can’t sit still, doesn’t listen, can’t focus, doesn’t complete chores, is easily distracted, and is overly rambunctious. The diagnosis of ADHD is not a solution, nor is it even the problem.
Wait, what? ADHD is not the problem?
Nope. ADHD, or rather the behavior implied by that label, is a symptom. It is the result of a problem—a problem that has yet to be discovered for your child.
So if we don’t know what the problem is, how can we figure out the solution? Very good question. And the answer is we can’t. We can’t figure out the solution if we don’t understand the problem. If we don’t understand what is going on with your child’s biochemistry and physiology, we can’t fix their behavior. So once you have the diagnosis of ADHD, all that really means is the detective work is just beginning.
Maybe you are confused right now. Maybe you thought that a diagnosis was the answer to all that ails you. Sometimes a diagnosis may provide insights into your health; insights that can help you address the underlying problem. But, as in the case of ADHD, the diagnosis is just a descriptive term used to describe the symptoms, the child’s behavior. The diagnosis of ADHD doesn’t imply much about what is going on in your child’s body. Science has yet to fully understand what ADHD actually is.
ADHD is a mystery. A mystery that research has been trying to unsuccessfully solve. Research has shown that various areas of the brain may function differently in patients with ADHD1,2,3,, that certain areas of the brain in patients with ADHD may be formed differently4, and that imbalances in neurotransmitters such as dopamine may be present in ADHD patients5. But we still don’t have a clear, consistent understanding of what is actually going on with ADHD. All we really know is that these children (and adults) behave differently.
When we don’t have a clear understanding of a disease process, to me, that indicates that it may not, in fact, be one distinct disease. More than likely, there are different factors and different combinations of factors that create the same or similar behavioral issues in different people. This means that each child diagnosed with ADHD requires a different approach, a different treatment specific to his or her health. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to ADHD.
Factors to Consider in the Treatment of ADHD
Studies have found that if you have been diagnosed with ADHD, there is a very high likelihood that your children will as well6. But this does not mean there is an ADHD gene and if you have the gene, you have ADHD. Genetics is rarely that simple. Researchers have found that mutations in various genes for proteins related to vitamins and neurotransmitters play a role in developing ADHD6. These mutations are inherited and they result in enzymes that don’t function well. Thankfully, we can do a lot to address this. With targeted nutrient supplement and supportive lifestyle recommendations, we can support these dysfunctional enzymes and restore balance in the body.
Diet can have a profound effect on ADHD for a number of reasons. First of all, diets lacking sufficient vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are often nutrient poor, lacking the vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes the body needs to function optimally. For instance, chronic deficiencies in zinc, iron, magnesium, iodine, folate, and omega-3 fatty acids have a significant impact on the development and severity of ADHD7. Second of all, diets high in processed and packaged foods that contain food dyes and food preservatives also contribute to ADHD symptoms7. Third, sugar and carbohydrate consumption may also play a role in ADHD. Researchers have found that eating foods lower on the glycemic index can be beneficial in reducing behavioral symptoms7. Another consideration when it comes to diet and ADHD is celiac disease. There is a strong correlation between celiac disease and ADHD8. Therefore it is strongly recommended that children with ADHD be evaluated for celiac disease before initiating any treatment. If celiac disease is present, a gluten-free diet can dramatically improve symptoms of ADHD8.
- Environmental Toxins
We live in a toxic world. Every day, we are exposed to toxins in our food, in our water, in our air. And we have to understand all the health consequences of these toxins. But we do know that many of these toxins do affect the nervous system. One study found that children with higher levels of exposure to organophosphates, which are widely used in pesticides, were more likely to have a diagnosis of ADHD9. There are also links to bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in many plastics, and ADHD9. Exposure to heavy metals such as lead can also increase the risk of ADHD9. To reduce your child’s toxic burden, switch to an organic diet to avoid pesticides, limit the use of plastics, and identify and eliminate heavy metal exposures. It may be necessary to use detoxification protocols to eliminate accumulated toxins from your child’s body.
The conventional approach to ADHD focuses on using medications that increase dopamine in the brain. This treatment can be highly effective for some children but has a few drawbacks. First, in 35% of children, it is not effective9. Second, these medications are associated with many side effects, such as disrupting sleep and appetite9, which actually worsen your child’s symptoms. Third, this approach does not address the cause of your child’s symptoms. It addresses the symptoms itself, the dopamine imbalance and resulting abnormal brain activity, but not the cause of the dopamine imbalance.
There are many more factors that could be causing or contributing to your child’s ADHD symptoms. A holistic approach that evaluates your child’s whole health and whole body is the best approach to use if you want to address underlying factors and figure out the root cause. In some cases, pharmaceuticals may be the best option for your child and your family but it important to understand all your options so you can choose the option that is best for your child and your family and that best fits your family’s values and lifestyle.
Dr. Carly Polland is a Naturopathic Doctor who is passionate about teaching people how to transform their health to live a life full of strength, energy, and vitality. She combines modern science and ancient natural wisdom to help people overcome chronic disease and reclaim vibrant health. She specializes in autoimmune disease, digestive disorders, women’s health, and mental health. To learn about her private practice, visit www.bioadaptivemedicine.com.
- Kooistra L, van der Meere JJ, Edwards JD, Kaplan BJ, Crawford S, Goodyear BG. Preliminary fMRI findings on the effects of event rate in adults with ADHD. J Neural Transm. 2010 Feb 16.
- Cherkasova MV, Hechtman L. Neuroimaging in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: beyond the frontostriatal circuitry. Can J Psychiatry. 2009 Oct. 54(10):651-64.
- Yang P, Wu MT, Dung SS, Ko CW. Short-TE proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy investigation in adolescents with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2010 Feb 10.
- Sobel LJ, Bansal R, Maia TV, Sanchez J, Mazzone L, Durkin K, et al. Basal Ganglia surface morphology and the effects of stimulant medications in youth with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2010 Aug. 167(8):977-86.
- Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Newcorn J, Telang F, Solanto MV, Fowler JS, et al. Depressed dopamine activity in caudate and preliminary evidence of limbic involvement in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 Aug. 64(8):932-40.
- Khadka, S., Pearlson, G. D., Calhoun, V. D., Liu, J., Gelernter, J., Bessette, K. L., & Stevens, M. C. (2016). Multivariate Imaging Genetics Study of MRI Gray Matter Volume and SNPs Reveals Biological Pathways Correlated with Brain Structural Differences in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry Front. Psychiatry, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00128
- Konikowska K1, Regulska-Ilow B, Rózańska D. The influence of components of diet on the symptoms of ADHD in children. J Neural Trans. 2016 Jul 11. [Epub ahead of print]
- Niederhofer, H. (2011). Association of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Celiac Disease. The Primary Care Companion For CNS Disorders Prim. Care Companion CNS Disord. doi:10.4088/pcc.10br01104
- Esparham, A., Evans, R., Wagner, L., & Drisko, J. (2014). Pediatric Integrative Medicine Approaches to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Children, 1(2), 186-207. doi:10.3390/children1020186