Complementary and Alternative Treatments for Childhood ADHD

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 16, 2023
6 min read

You may wonder if there’s something besides medicine or behavior therapy you can do to help your child with ADHD. Can unconventional treatments work?

Alternative treatments for ADHD include elimination diets, omega-3 supplements, parent training, exercise, yoga, meditation, neurofeedback, and memory training. Here's what may work and what’s unproven.

There’s a lot of controversy about sugar and ADHD symptoms. Does it lead to hyperactivity?

There is no proof that sugar causes ADHD.

Then why do kids seem so hyper if they eat a lot of sugar? Research does show that refined sugar and carbohydrates can affect your child's activity level. Kids can feel a rush because refined sugar quickly enters the bloodstream. That boosts blood sugar fast. When blood sugar spikes, your child may become much more active. The burst of energy is from an adrenaline rush caused by the rise in blood sugar.

So what can you do? Nutritionists say to add more fiber to your child's diet to help keep blood sugar levels even. High-fiber foods include berries and other fruits, whole grains, and oatmeal.

Years ago, Ben Feingold, MD, an allergist, created a popular elimination diet designed to treat hyperactivity. With elimination diets for ADHD, you take certain foods out of your child's diet to see if they affect your child's behavior.

The Feingold Diet cuts out artificial colorings, flavorings, and preservatives to decrease hyperactivity. While most scientific studies have disproved Feingold's theory, some parents who have tried it say they noticed an improvement in their child's behavior.

But some experts don’t think it’s the changes in what the children eat that makes a difference. A popular theory is that the child's behavior improves because the parents treat their child differently when they’re on the special diet.

If you decide to try an elimination diet for ADHD, be careful. You don’t want to hurt your child’s overall nutrition and have them miss out on important vitamins or minerals. Don’t be too restrictive.

It’s best to talk with your child's doctor before trying any ADHD treatment. They can help you make a healthy eating plan for your child. Or they can refer you to a registered dietitian who can help you with a meal plan and snack ideas. It’s important to consider what your child will be able to eat when they are away from home, like at school, a birthday party, summer camp, or a friend’s house. This can make a restrictive diet harder to follow. Also, consider whether the whole family, including siblings, will follow the same restrictions.

Research has shown that children with ADHD have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood than the typical child. Some doctors recommend that they take omega-3 supplements. In one study, children with ADHD who were given omega-3s showed a small improvement in how severe their symptoms were, compared with children who took a placebo.

If your child has trouble sleeping, melatonin supplements may help for a short time. Talk to your doctor if you find that you need to use them often.

There’s no proof that other supplements like ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, or pycnogenol treat ADHD symptoms.

The FDA has given approval for the marketing of a game-based digital therapeutic device to improve attention function in children ages 8 to 12 years old with ADHD. EndeavorRx is a game-based program that creates sensory stimuli and motor challenges to help train the brain and ease the symptoms of ADHD.

The program is prescription only and can be downloaded to your mobile device for the child to use.

Research has shown that children as young as preschool-age can benefit from behavior programs. Programs that involve parents have the best success.

For parents, this means creating small, manageable goals for their child, such as sitting for 10 minutes at the dinner table, and then giving rewards for achieving them. It's also helpful for the teacher to send home a daily "report card," letting the parents know whether the child met their behavior goals at school that day.

Getting enough shut-eye can be a game-changer for kids with ADHD. Research shows that just an extra half-hour of sleep can help with restlessness and impulsivity. 

One of the most common sleep issues for kids with ADHD is that they can't settle down and fall asleep; then their exhaustion the next day makes their symptoms worse. While some doctors recommend sleep aids such as melatonin, you should start by practicing good sleep habits:

  • Have a consistent bedtime, even on the weekend.
  • Keep the bedroom cool and dark.
  • Create a soothing winding-down ritual.

That also means no screens of any kind before bedtime. Take computers, TVs, phones, and video games out of the bedroom so your child isn't distracted or tempted.

Exercise isn’t just good for the body; it’s good for the mind. Moderate to intense activity makes your brain release more chemicals called neurotransmitters, which can boost alertness and focus.

Activities that work the brain as well as the body, like martial arts, gymnastics, ballet, or ice skating, seem to be more helpful for kids who have ADHD than simple aerobic exercises like running. And outdoor exercise may have even more of an effect than indoor kinds.

Make sure your child has plenty of opportunities to run and play (at appropriate times). Some recent studies found that after about 30 minutes of exercise, kids with ADHD can focus and organize their thoughts better.

Research shows that mindfulness can also lead to helpful brain changes. In children and teens with ADHD, it may ease stress and improve attention.

Yoga could ease ADHD symptoms, too. It focuses on meditation as well as breathing and body posture. It’s generally safe, but look for a teacher who has experience working with children with ADHD. They may need to modify or skip certain poses.

Some chiropractors believe that chiropractic medicine can treat ADHD. But no research has been done to see if it works. Many ADHD doctors do not support it.

One theory is that an imbalance in muscle tone causes an imbalance in brain activity. According to this theory, when chiropractors adjust the ADHD patient's spine, balance is restored in the brain. The children are also exposed to different light and sound frequencies.

Applied kinesiology, or neural organization technique, is another theory some chiropractors use with people who have ADHD. It's based on the thought that the bones of the skull can become misaligned, causing unequal pressure on different parts of the brain. They say this causes the brain to work improperly.

To treat it, the chiropractor does adjustments that put the skull bones back to their proper position. But most doctors believe the bones of the skull do not move so they cannot be misaligned.

Neurofeedback teaches a person with ADHD how to change brain waves to focus better. Scientists can study these to look for patterns. There are four waves the brain makes: alpha (medium), beta (fast), theta (slow), and delta (deep sleep).

Neurofeedback is based on findings that people with ADHD have more theta waves than other people. They also have fewer beta waves. Supporters believe that training the brain to increase the fast beta waves and decrease the slow theta waves can lower ADHD symptoms.

To train them, a medical professional watches the brain waves of the person with ADHD. When their brain waves reach the right frequency, the health professional lets them know. Through training and practice, they can ultimately learn how to change brain waves on their own.

While there has been some promising research in this area, more research is needed to see how well neurofeedback works on ADHD symptoms. A big drawback is the high cost of the treatment.

Working memory training (Cogmed). Many people with ADHD have trouble with working memory. That’s remembering information and doing things with it over a short amount of time. Using computer programs to do brain training seems to help people improve their ability to concentrate, control impulsive behaviors, and improve problem-solving skills. Several studies seem to point to some programs making a difference over the short term. But other studies suggest that maybe only visual memory skills can be improved.