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Complementary and Alternative Treatments for ADHD

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on March 19, 2021

Doctors can prescribe medication to treat your ADHD symptoms. It’s the primary treatment for adults with ADHD. Behavioral therapy also is an essential tool for managing your disorder.

But you may also be curious about what complementary or natural remedies might be helpful too. It’s important to know what actually works, what doesn’t, and what could possibly even be harmful. Always check with your doctor before you try new therapies.

Exercise. You can’t take it in pill form, but physical activity as part of your daily schedule can help sharpen your overall focus. A recent study shows that even as little as 30 minutes a day of heart-pumping aerobic exercise boosts mood and cuts back on ADHD symptoms in kids. There aren’t many studies yet on adults, but several have shown that exercise can help boost motivation and impulse control and lessen emotional symptoms such as worry, confusion, and depression.

Diet. Research hasn’t proved that cutting back on sugar or certain foods or taking vitamins and extra nutrients can improve symptoms of ADHD. That said, if you think that something in your diet may worsen your disorder, you can try eliminating those items to see if you notice improvements. The best diet for most people with ADHD is the same as for almost anyone: lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, and unsaturated fats.

Saffron. Small studies in their early stages show that this golden yellow spice in capsule form may make ADHD symptoms in kids better. But research still has a long way to go before the medical community can consider it a working treatment. It can even have negative effects on certain health conditions if you take too much of it, so don’t try it unless you talk to your doctor first.

Caffeine. In adults, a little bit of caffeine may help with working memory and concentration. But experts say to be careful: Too much caffeine can have the opposite effect. It can also cause icky side effects like jitters, upset stomach, and headaches. Caffeine on top of ADHD medication can also cause an out-of-control feeling. Talk to your doctor about your caffeine intake to see whether it helps or hurts your ADHD.

Fish oil supplements. When it comes to treating ADHD, experts give fish oil, or omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid, mixed reviews. Some research says it can help a small amount with symptoms. Other studies say there’s not enough evidence that it makes any difference. Both omega-3 and omega-6 have other benefits, including boosting heart health, so your doctor may OK it for you to try. Learn More: Your Guide to the Best Vitamins and Supplements for Managing ADHD Symptoms

Biofeedback. Biofeedback, also called neurofeedback, is a method that tries to retrain the activity levels in your brain. A technician puts electrodes on your head to monitor your brain waves. Through a series of exercises, you get positive feedback when your brain works in the way it should to help with ADHD symptoms. There isn’t enough evidence yet that biofeedback can treat ADHD, but scientists continue to study it.

Mind-body practices. Research suggests that yoga and other aerobic exercises may help lessen core ADHD symptoms, such as attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. But the evidence is weak that mediation helps.

Minerals. If you’re low in zinc, iron, or magnesium, there’s a slight chance you could see some improvement in your ADHD after you take supplements. But if you’re not, they won’t help.

Melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone you already have in your body that helps you sleep. You can also buy it over the counter as a sleep aid supplement. Though it may help you get better rest, there’s no proof that it treats ADHD symptoms.

Essential oils. Essential oils are concentrated extracts from plants. Though there are claims that lavender oil, vetiver oil, coconut oil, and cedarwood oil can help treat ADHD symptoms, there’s no scientific proof to back it up.

CBD oil. This is also called cannabidiol oil. It’s made from the marijuana plant, but without the THC that makes you high. CBD oil also can be extracted from the industrial hemp plant. In addition to oils, you can buy cannabidiol to vape, as a lotion, gummies, and other edibles. One small study of 30 adults found a slight improvement in ADHD symptoms among those who took cannabinoid/CBD medication. But the results were not significant enough to prove that they help.

Herbs. Researchers have looked at several herbs to test their ability to treat ADHD. But studies on French maritime pine bark, ginkgo biloba, and St. John’s wort all showed they weren’t much better than a placebo for managing ADHD symptoms.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Child Mind Institute: “ADHD and Exercise.”

Pediatrics: “Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function.”

CHADD: “Colorful Spice Shows Promise for ADHD Treatment in Research,” “Q&A: What About Caffeine for ADHD?” “Fish Oil Supplements and ADHD,” “Neurofeedback (EEG Biofeedback),” “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy,” “CBD Oil for ADHD? What the Research Says.”

Understood.org: “ADHD and Essential Oils: What You Need to Know.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine: “ADHD and Complementary Health Approaches: What the Science Says.”

American Journal of Managed Care: “CBT for Adult ADHD: Getting Patients to Do What They Know They Need to Do.”

Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America: “Nutritional Supplements for the Treatment of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”

The Journal of Neural Transmission: “Sweat it out? The effects of physical exercise on cognition and behavior in children and adults with ADHD: a systematic literature review.”

CDC: “What is ADHD?”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Diet and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

PLoS One: “Diet and ADHD, Reviewing the Evidence: A Systematic Review of Meta-Analyses of Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trials Evaluating the Efficacy of Diet Interventions on the Behavior of Children with ADHD.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “ADHD and Complementary Health Approaches: What the Science Says.”

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