Behavioral Treatments for ADHD
Healthy Diet and Exercise: Natural ADHD Therapies
A healthy diet and regular exercise should be part of every child’s upbringing. Diet and exercise may not take the place of medications in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but some studies show they can work as natural ADHD treatments to supplement and boost the effectiveness of medications and reduce symptoms.
Exercise for ADHD: How It Boosts the Brain
Moderate exercise — 30 to 40 minutes per day, four or five days a week — can stimulate the same neurochemicals that impact the ability to pay attention, just as common medications for ADHD do, experts say.
L. Eugene Arnold, MD, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Ohio State University in Columbus, explains that most ADHD medications target two chemicals, norepinephrine and especially dopamine, that help regulate the attention system of the brain. Many experts believe that ADHD results from a deficiency of these neurotransmitters. When a person walks, runs, bikes, or swims, for example, the levels of these chemicals are naturally increased in the bloodstream, and they may also increase in the brain, Dr. Arnold says. How long the benefits last after exercise is still unknown.
The best types of exercise for ADHD.While aerobic exercise increases the circulating levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, more complex exercises that require balance, hand-eye coordination, and timing — such as basketball, volleyball, juggling, and acrobatics — also have a positive impact on a part of the brain called the cerebellum, which coordinates sensory input, behavioral patterning, and motor skills. On average, the cerebellum is 10 percent smaller in children with ADHD compared with children who don’t have the disorder, Arnold explains. Any games that involve a lot of running, such as hide-and-seek and Red Rover, can also be helpful.
Find activities your child likes.While a combination of aerobics and complex exercises may be ideal, John Wilson, MD, a psychiatrist with the Fairfax County Community Services Board in Fairfax, Virginia, says it’s important to find and encourage activities a child enjoys. “If they don’t like it, it’s not going to benefit anyone,” Dr. Wilson says.
He adds that exercise also gives children a chance to run, shout, and burn off energy, in contrast with the school day, where they sit and focus.
A Healthy Diet for ADHD
A study published in the peer-reviewed journalPLoSfound significant associations between ADHD and the typical Western diet, which is high in saturated and total fat and refined sugar.
Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and program manager in the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio, advises everyone, including children with ADHD, to incorporate the following foods into their daily diet: Fresh fruits and vegetables; low-fat organic dairy products; whole grains; and healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocados, and salmon. These foods are often associated with the well-studied Mediterranean diet.
Another guideline in putting together a nutritious diet for ADHD is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s program, which recommends daily servings of:
- Fresh, canned, or frozen fruits and 100 percent fruit juice
- Fresh, frozen, raw, cooked, or canned vegetables
- Cereals, bread, pasta, tortillas, and other foods made of whole wheat, rice, oats, and other grains; at least half of the grains eaten each day should be whole grains
- Lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, soy, nuts, seeds, and other low-fat proteins
- Milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy foods
Starting the day right.In addition to a balanced overall diet, Jamieson-Petonic recommends including a lean protein source at breakfast, an essential nutrient that promotes healthy brain function. Eating protein in the morning tends to help children with ADHD with tasks that require cognitive skills such as reasoning and concentration, she says. Examples of lean protein for breakfast include eggs, protein-fortified cereals, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts, and peanut butter.
Serve up omega-3s.A study published in the journalNeurologyfound that low levels of omega-3s, a type of “good” fat, are associated with smaller brain volumes and poorer performance on mental tests. Omega-3s are found in fatty coldwater fish, such as salmon, and also in some nuts and seeds, including walnuts and chia seeds.
Debates on the Best Diet for ADHD
A review article published in the journalPediatricscites one study that found children with ADHD who were given fatty acid supplements fared better in reading and spelling compared with children given a placebo, although other studies failed to show a benefit.
The review also evaluated other diets that could possibly benefit children with ADHD, notably the Feingold Diet. First appearing in the 1970s, the Feingold Diet requires a six-week elimination of several foods and additives including artificial colors and flavors, the preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ, and synthetic sweeteners. According to the review article, even though the diet didn't meet expectations in controlled studies, it still may be useful for preschool children who have trouble with additives and preservatives.
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