Back to School & Addressing Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

Article written by: Stephanie Grutz, ARNP, FNP-C

What is ADD/ADHD

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are two disorders defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, “a developmental disorder that is marked especially by persistent symptoms of inattention (such as distractibility, forgetfulness, or disorganization) or by symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity (such as fidgeting, speaking out of turn, or restlessness) or by symptoms of all three and that is not caused by any serious underlying physical or mental disorder”. The CDC reports approximately 11% of children 4-17 years of age (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with ADHD, as of 2011.  These numbers are on the rise, as the CDC reported only 7.8% of children were diagnosed in 2003.

Typical Medical Treatment

Children are typically placed on drugs like methylphenidate (Ritalin or Concerta), lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse), atomoxetine (Strattera) and others, for long periods of time to help decrease their symptoms and increase focus. Some short-term side effects of these ADHD medications include nervousness, appetite suppression, weight loss, insomnia and increases in blood pressure and heart rate. In the summer the children usually get a “drug holiday” where their dose is decreased until the start of the school year.

During clinicals as an NP student, I saw many parents come into the office when it was time for the kids to go back to school. A lot of them were hesitant about giving their children medications, but accepted it because it was a better alternative than seeing their child struggle in school or suffer with the symptoms associated with ADD/ADHD.

Natural Routes for Treating ADD/ADHD

As I started learning more about integrative medicine, the world of ADD/ADHD intrigued me. I knew that the foods and nutrition we put into our body could have a direct effect on our behavior, so I went on a search to figure out what could help these children (and adults) decrease their dependence on medications and treat their symptoms naturally. As always, before I dive into natural medicine, I will recommend you talk to your provider before going off any medications. If they are not open to trying natural approaches (which are studied by scientific literature), it might be a good idea to get a second opinion.

The basis of treating ADD/ADHD in a natural manner is shifted into recognizing that we don’t treat the disease, we treat the person. The goal of natural approaches are to empower the child, not control them. This takes looking at the bigger picture and using a multifactorial approach.

  1. Lifestyle: Is the child living in an environment that is filled with constant chaos? Do they fit in with their peers and teacher? Do they have enough time to ‘smell the fresh air’ and get outside to be a child? If there are issues with the environment, susceptible kids will have a hard time succeeding because they are unable to cope. Counseling would be a great benefit for the children and parents.
  2. Diet: To me, this is one of the most important factors in children with ADD/ADHD. Typically the kids wake up in the morning and eat a bowl of sugar and gluten filled cereal and milk (cocoa puffs, shredded wheat, cheerios, fruit loops, frosted flakes, etc.). Not only is this not nutritious, it’s filled with sugar which changes the glycemic load in the body. Poor glycemic control effects hormones including cortisol (the fight or flight hormone), which can cause hyperactivity, followed by a anger, aggression, “moodiness” and an eventual crash.
    • Foods such as, eggs with avocados and meat (sausage, bacon); overnight oats – a fun & easy change to the normal oatmeal; protein pancakes (spread with almond butter and topped with fruit); fruit smoothie shakes (fruit + spinach + a nut milk -cashew/almond/coconut milk); protein shakes; bean burritos; are some high protein breakfast ideas.  Refer to Pinterest for more great high protein breakfast foods.
    • Food sensitivities: A lot of children have a hard time breaking down gluten (found in wheat products) and casein/lactose (found in dairy products). Other children have multiple sensitivities including troubles with peanuts, preservatives and artificial colors. The best way to check for these sensitivities is by removing them from the child’s diet x3 weeks minimum. Add one item back into the diet at a time and monitor symptoms (behaviors, bowel movements, abdominal pain/gas/discomfort), if they react to it, take that item out for another 2 weeks and retest at a later date. Most of the above can be cumulatively damaging to the body over time, so removing preservatives (boxed foods, packaged meats, etc.) and artificial colors (pop, cookies, cake, boxed foods, etc.), with a paleo-type diet, can be very beneficial for the longevity and health of the child, long into adult years.
  3. Bowels: If children aren’t having regular bowel movements daily, they need to change their diet as noted in #2 and would highly benefit from taking magnesium and vitamin C to help their bowels regulate until the diet has improved. Bowels should move every 24 hours to help release toxins that are sitting in the intestines. If stool is in the intestines for days, the toxins have a greater ability to reabsorb into the system, and can make the child uncomfortable, agitated, anxious, etc. I love using “Move Eeez” powder with the children at my clinic. It has magnesium and vitamin C (no added fillers) and is easy to mix in organic apple juice or their favorite nutritional beverage.
  4. Labs: Check amino acids and nutrient levels in the body to see what deficiencies are present, and supplement accordingly until the child is eating consistent, healthy meals. If child has history of exposure to heavy metals or other toxins, testing these can be affordable and done via urine, making it easier on the child.
  5. Detoxing: Having the child take baths 2-3x/week filled with 1-2 cups epsom salt and 1/4 cup baking soda, which can help with anxiety as well as increase relaxation, which is especially useful before bed. Instead of soda or other high sugar drinks, use organic lemon/lime juice with water. This is a great way for their bodies to detox while enjoying some natural flavoring. Adding a few drops of liquid stevia in the water for more flavor can be done as needed.
  6. Alternative modalities: Use of herbs for relaxation, aromatherapy, yoga, chiropractic care, acupuncture and the use of an integrative medicine practitioner (insert shameless plug here), can all be great ways to help the child succeed in and out of school.

As the children get ready to go back to school, just remember there are always ways to improve health naturally. All the above tips can be utilized while children are still on their medications, with the goal of eventually weaning them off.

Please contact Stephanie at balancehealth.me@gmail.com to schedule an appointment or ask further questions.