Alternative Treatments for ADHD

Are there any alternative treatments for ADHD instead of Ritalin or Concerta? My son has been on one or the other since he was 7, and now he’s 17. Some days it seems to work, and others it doesn’t. I have been searching for alternatives for years with no success. Can you suggest anything?
–R. via e-mail

Keville responds: There’s not really one alternative for ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), but there are several things you can try. Most parents find a multidisciplinary program works best. Using herbs and aromatherapy may involve some trial and error and usually doesn’t offer a complete solution, so you’ll also want to look into diet and nutritional supplements. It may be difficult to take your son off his medication at this point, but aromatherapy can be safely used in combination with these drugs.

Let your son choose from a number of relaxing scents, such as lavender, chamomile, lemon and orange. He can use just one scent or combine several together. Reinforce the aromatherapy action by asking him to sniff the oil or blend at times when he’s feeling relaxed and centered — perhaps when he’s listening to his favorite music, falling asleep or petting the dog. Then, he can carry that scent with him, or at least have it around the house to sniff as a calming agent.

Teenagers often prefer putting the scent on a key chain, woven bracelet or carrying a few drops in a fancy vial. For young children, dab the scent on a small stuffed animal or get a relaxing massage oil made with these oils and rub it on their feet in the evening, before bed.

Using medicinal herbs for ADHD is safe when they’re used properly, although it can be tricky to discover the right combination for each individual. I suggest further investigating the properties and appropriate use of each herb before adopting an herbal program. Relaxing herbal teas, such as chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and catnip (Nepeta cataria), make a tasty hot tea or a cool summertime tea when combined with peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita).

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has reduced aggression, restlessness and anxiety in children with ADHD. Due to its strong taste, the herb is best taken in capsules or as a tincture. A tincture of wild oats (Avena sativa), motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) or the Ayurvedic herb ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) is helpful to calm the nervous system.

Nutritional supplements that typically help are those that calm and balance the nervous system, such as calcium, magnesium and B vitamins. For some people, choline improves the attention span.

You may be aware that there’s a long list of foods that can promote ADHD. Refined sugar and food additives, especially food preservatives, artificial colors and monosodium glutamate, are high on the list. The well-known Feingold Diet for ADHD also eliminates herbs and foods that contain salicylates. Removing these substances from the diet obviously takes effort, since they are found in so many foods (including apples, jams and raisins).

You can’t expect to see results overnight. However, dietary changes can eventually make a big difference. The journal Pediatrics reported a study showing that more than half of the ADHD children put on a restricted diet had fewer behavior problems and less trouble sleeping. Books you can read for more ideas and support are Why Your Child is Hyperactive (Random House, 1985) by Dr. Benjamin Feingold and ADHD Alternatives (Storey, 2000) by Aviva and Tracy Romm. Both books discuss the Feingold alternative diet plan.

Khalsa responds: ADHD certainly can be a very frustrating condition for the individual and for the family. I have dealt with many cases with good success. It takes a very diligent and broad lifestyle approach, including addressing the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.

Although there is no proven direct substitute for attention-oriented drugs, some authorities have suggested that perhaps caffeine- or ephedrine-containing herbs can sharpen attention in ADD/ADHD kids. Use these under the guidance of a health-care professional.

The main Chinese herbs for enhancing mental function are acorus root (Acorus calamus), polygala root (Polygala tenuifolia), turmeric root (Curcuma longa) and alpinia root (Alpinia galanga). The Chinese term for alpinia, yizhiren, translates as “the seed that benefits intelligence.”

Several Chinese studies confirm these herbs’ effectiveness. In one study, 30 children with ADD were treated with an herbal mixture that included alpinia, acorus and turmeric for two to four months. The positive outcome was that 22 of them (73 percent) showed improvements. Another high-dosage program, containing peony root, turmeric, polygala and acorus, each ingredient at 6 to 12 grams per day, was given to 68 children with ADD. This combination was said to improve the condition of 64 of the 68 children (61 were declared “cured”). Overall, the Chinese research shows good results: 70 percent to 100 percent of cases were said to be improved or cured.

Many of these formulas also included medicines with high mineral (calcium and magnesium) content, at high doses. Perhaps these would be better taken as conventional supplements. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) show promise in treating ADHD. These oily, vitamin-like nutrients are crucial for prenatal and postnatal early brain development. One reliable symptom of EFA deficiency is excessive thirst, without matching excess urination. Children with hyperactivity are significantly thirstier than children who aren’t hyperactive. Hyperactive children have significantly lower concentrations of EFAs, and omega-3 EFA deficiencies are correlated with learning disabilities. Evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis) and similar supplements are sources of EFAs.

The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association ( and author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books, including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs. A licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild, he specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and North American healing traditions.

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