The Holistic Approach to ADHD: Herbal Remedies for ADHD
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an increasingly common diagnosis for school-age children. While the number of children identified as having ADHD has skyrocketed since the 1990s, with estimates ranging from three to five percent in the US, and six percent in Canada, pinning down the exact number is challenging as physicians are not required to report diagnoses to a central health agency. With Ritalin production seeing a dramatic 700 percent increase since the 1990s, researchers are still uncovering why ADHD diagnoses are on the rise and are looking at possible causes such as toxins in food, water, and the environment. In addition, overburdened school systems that are unable to accommodate highly active kids may be contributing to the rise in diagnoses, even if the child doesn’t truly have the condition.
While the exact cause of ADHD is still being studied, what we do know for certain is that ADHD is complex and driven by a constellation of factors including genetics, nutrition, lifestyle, underlying conditions, and natural variations in learning style, meaning that a homogenized pharmaceutical approach will have limited benefit. Taking the complexity of driving factors into account with a holistic, individualized treatment plan, along with lifestyle counseling and mind-body care, including beneficial herbal medicines is the ideal way to support those with ADHD and propel them to optimum wellness.
ABCs of ADHD
To be diagnosed with ADHD, children must exhibit a trinity of symptoms: difficulty with self-control, short attention span, and hyperactivity. Associated behaviours might include excessive fidgeting, impulsivity, failure to complete homework, daydreaming, disrespectful attitude, or feeling easily hurt. It is worth noting that children with ADHD are likely to display high creative function. Boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.
Ritalin, or methylphenidate, is a stimulant medication and the first line treatment for ADHD. Though the exact mechanism for ADHD is unclear, it appears that Ritalin blocks the re-uptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, while increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain involved in planning and focus. Although Ritalin effectively calms, or as some would describe, “numbs”, the child, there are a range of adverse effects, including stomach upset, anxiety, insomnia, and agitation.
More than the Sum of A+D+H+D
A thorough evaluation of the child and their lifestyle is essential to a holistic diagnosis and it’s important when seeking care for your child that you find a healthcare provider who addresses environmental factors along with the mind, body, and spirit. Some elements that are carefully considered once a child is diagnosed with ADHD:
• What is your child’s emotional support system and what daily stressors do they face?
• What is their diet like? Are they eating whole foods that support balanced blood sugar and a robust microbiome?
• Do they have any undiagnosed environmental or food allergies?
• Are there underlying conditions, such as anxiety, anemia, diabetes, or asthma that need to be addressed?
• Do they have access to academic accommodation?
• Each day, are they involved in physical activity and do they have contact with nature?
• Is their screen time limited?
• Do they often engage in creative, tactile activities, like painting, pottery, and crafts?
• Are they getting enough healthy, restorative sleep?
• Is exposure to environmental toxins, like food additives, pesticide residue, heavy metals, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals being limited?
PLANTING A HEALTHY SOLUTION
Herbal medicine philosophy emphasizes care that takes the whole child into account. Once these factors have been considered, your child has been evaluated, and a lifestyle treatment plan has been introduced, herbal medicine is then useful. This isn’t to say that pharmaceuticals may not still be necessary, however Ritalin and other stimulants should ideally be a last resort. When taken appropriately, botanicals have a long track record of safety, with centuries of use by traditional cultures. Scientific studies support the safety and guide the dosing of commonly used herbs but consult with an experienced herbalist familiar with traditional use and current science to find the right approach. And always purchase herbs from companies with organic and sustainable agricultural practices.
Herbal treatments for ADHD focus on calming anxiety and balancing inflammation, supporting optimal neurotransmitter balance and function. Neuro-inflammation from toxins may be a driving factor behind focus problems, impulsivity, and hyperactive states. Botanicals that target neuro-inflammation will improve mental clarity, calm irritability, and counter the effects of oxidative free radicals.
Healthy harvest: As an added benefit, exposure to herbal medicine can inspire kids to connect with the environment, especially for those with attention deficit as they often crave engagement at a higher level. Learning about herbs encourages curiosity about traditional cultures, habitat restoration, and organic agriculture. Encourage kids to get involved, and pick up a local field guide, or visit a nearby botanical garden.
By adding herbs containing polyphenols to your child’s daily routine, you can take advantage of the anti-inflammatory benefits, eradicate free radicals, and support healing in the brain and nervous system. A few cups of green tea (Camellia sinensis), which is rich in the polyphenol catechin, or a half cup of resveratrol-abundant raspberries and blueberries are simple (and delicious) places to start!
Other herbs with beneficial polyphenols include turmeric (Curcuma longa), pine bark extract, (pycnogenol), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri). Like ashwagandha, bacopa comes from Ayurvedic medicine and boosts brain power, focus, and learning. A recent study in India found bacopa was highly effective for children, reducing 75–90 percent of ADHD symptoms, along with the added benefits of improved self-esteem and overall quality of life. Similarly, pycnogenol also proved highly effective in a 2006 European study, where children experienced vast improvements in a variety of ADHD markers over a four-week period.
Herbals in the House
When using herbal medicine, extracts containing most of the plant constituents work best. Teas are a gentle water extract that are taken two to three times per day. Tinctures use alcohol and water as a solvent and draw out more of the active compounds. They fit into backpacks and lunchboxes, and have a long shelf life, making them a convenient, effective option. Glycerites are the way to go for young children as they use plant sugars as a solvent and taste great!
Calming herbal elixirs
There are a variety of commonplace herbs available to help alleviate some of the racing thoughts, nervousness, irritability, and physiological stress that children suffer with ADHD, while supporting a natural state of ease. Known as anxiolytics, this class of herbs works by balancing neurotransmitters and stress hormones.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) enhances GABA, lowers excess cortisol, and improves memory, learning, and cognition, and is backed by centuries of use in Ayurvedic medicine.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) works well for anxious children, settling the stomach along with balancing stress hormones. Studies strongly support chamomile’s efficacy for mild to moderate anxiety. As tea, chamomile with lavender is especially effective. For a stronger extract, try chamomile glycerite mixed with chamomile tincture in equal parts, taking two dropperfuls in four ounces of water, three times per day.
Hawthorne (Crataegus spp.) is a warming, gentle heart tonic that promotes healthy emotional balance.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) increases the calming neurotransmitter GABA in the synapse, raising deficient levels. Diffusing lavender essential oil in the bedroom can help get those night owls to bed!
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) makes a pleasant, warming tea and can also be taken as a tincture. Best to avoid if there’s a history of low thyroid function.
Milky oats (Avena sativa) supports the adrenals and features a mild, warm flavor. The tincture is harvested from ripe oat seeds. Oatmeal porridge will also calm the nerves.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is a safe and gentle nervous system tonic with a long history of use for chronic anxiety.
Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum), or holy basil, is a time-tested herb from Ayurvedic medicine that encourages healthy circulation to the brain, improved memory, and cortisol balance. Best taken as two cups of tea or liquid phytocaps for older kids, once or twice daily.
ADHD has also been linked to the microbiome. Learn how probiotics may help.