How to Treat ADHD Without Drugs

Image Credit: unfolded / Flickr. This image has been modified.

How to Treat ADHD without Drugs

Every year in the United States, doctors write 20 million prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Every year the number of prescriptions rises, more so than any other drug class—another 800,000 added every year to that 20 million. That’s a lot of amphetamines for a lot of kids.

These drugs are thought to act by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain. Guess what else can increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels? Exercise. And it happens within minutes of getting on a bike—dopamine and norepinephrine levels shoot up. Medications take an hour to work; physical activity works almost immediately. But does it work for ADHD? According to the latest review, outlined in my video Treating ADHD Without Stimulants, there isn’t a lot of research out there. But the current evidence suggests that both acute and chronic physical activity can mitigate ADHD symptoms.

So while medications and exercise “both work to more adequately regulate dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain,” some of the new long-acting formulations of drugs can work for up to 12 hours, whereas the therapeutic effect of exercise may last for only an hour or so. But the drugs produce unwanted side effects and have the potential for abuse. Exercise has been shown to be effective in controlling ADHD symptoms and has essentially no side effects. However, the authors of the review conclude, that’s not really the full story, as “it should be noted that a major difference in the two treatment modalities is that medications have a defined effect on ADHD symptoms alone, whereas exercise produces physical, mental, and emotional advantages that are far-reaching.”

Exercise can strengthen cancer defenses (Exercise & Breast Cancer and Is It the Diet, the Exercise, or Both?), improve cognition (Reversing Cognitive Decline), and lengthen one’s lifespan (What Women Should Eat to Live Longer). So exercise does have side effects, but they’re all good.

This reminds me of other safe, natural, side-effect-free solutions like tap water gargling to prevent the common cold (Can Gargling Prevent the Common Cold?) and drinking water to improve scholastic performance in kids (Does a Drink of Water Make Children Smarter?). The fact that they are cost-free is both an advantage (they’re free!) and disadvantage (no corporate budget is driving their promotion so we never hear about this kind of research). If only corporations could find a way to stuff exercise into a pill bottle for their stockholders…

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


19 responses to “How to Treat ADHD without Drugs

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  1. Exercise is also extremely effective for treating depression; it’s as good as antidepressant medications and can be synergistic with them. There are various excuses that people use not to exercise but unless you are essentially bedbound with no use of your arms or legs for 24 hours per day, most of them remain that: excuses. I know full well because I’ve employed all of those excuses in the past! Off to the gym, now, for a date with my trainer…

    1. My husband will take walks on his break at work. For kids it usually recess. But the “free time” kids get in schools keeps getting cut back. We also walk after dinner and our kids ride bikes. The time is there if you look for it.

  2. A question and a comment…
    Q: Is it possible (testable?) that lack of exercise is a/the cause of ADHD?
    C: The drug companies may be guilty of largess but the real problem is not the dreaded profit motive. Rather it is the cultivation of ignorance around all things nutritional that we self-inflict. Like a smoker who says “this single ciggie is not the one that will give me cancer” so goes the logic of the SAD eaters. What are we teaching in public schools? WFPB?

    1. Lack of exercise causing adhd is the funniest thing I have heard in ages. People with adhd tend to never sit still and exercise way more than average. You know the H is for hyperactive……

  3. We found this article very interesting. We, as parents, made the decision not to medicate our son and found an alternative neurofeedback brain training program called Play Attention. We are over the moon with the results we are seeing. This program was part of a randomized clinically controlled study completed by Tufts School of Medicine in the Boston Public Schools published in the Journal of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics earlier this year. The results were impressive, to say the least and was confirmation of our decision. We do wish that this type of research and information (such as this article) would be more accessible to the public.

  4. I am a neuropsychologist who works in pediatrics. I have diagnosed and assisted in treating hundreds of children and adolescents who present with ADHD symptoms. Let me begin by stating the importance of making a correct diagnosis of ADHD. Many children today are treated without being evaluated, simply by asking teachers and parents if the child manifests behaviors that are consequent with having ADHD. Doctors today do not always take into consideration that these symptoms may be linked to other causes and prescribe medication to children who do not need it, thus the side effects associated with the drug and the potential fo abuse. If a child, or adult for that matter, goes through a rigourous evaluation process to make sure of a correct ADHD diagnosis, I very rarely see persistent side effects in children taking medication and almost never see addiction. It’s like someone who has an accident and takes morphine for the pain. Rarely will the have the hallucinatory effect of morphine and very rarely will they develop addiction if they are closely monitored to stop taking the drug when they no longer feel the pain. The same goes for stimulants. To say that they are all bad and should not be considered is the same as stating that glasses are not useful for people who have myopia. mind you, I am vegan, interested in suggesting my clients start by lifestyle changes before considering drugs, but it some cases I consider it necessary and very useful. It can give a child’s life back to him and boost self-esteem because for once they succeed, for once the teacher is not always on their back and they can learn just as easily as all their peers. This is my opinion, based on hundreds and even thousands of children and adolescents that I have helped….Thank you for reading.

  5. Thanks for a useful reminder about the value of exercise in rebalancing body and mind.

    What I did not expect find here, though, was the usual emphasis on ADHD in children. You’re reinforcing the assumption that it affects only children, which as you know is far from true. ADHD does not just go away when one turns 18 or 21.

    Because this assumption has persisted among the general population (and not a few physicians), millions of adults have only in the past decade or two come to the awareness that their ADHD did not fade away. Understanding how it has affected their work, temperament, relationships, family life, and especially (as more and more researchers are concluding) motivation has changed untold numbers of lives.

    What about doing a parallel piece that specifically addresses the adult ADHD population and any differential recommendations for treatment with exercise that may apply to that cohort?

  6. Oops. Forgot to congratulate you on the book deal!

    No doubt all your regular readers join me in those congratulations, while wondering how the devil you’ll fit writing a book in with already heavy writing, research and speaking schedules.

    If you were to do a post giving some of the strategies you’ve developed (or will develop in the coming months!) for integrating such a project, I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one to find it interesting and useful. Sane time management, after all, also has health implications for vegans/vegetarians.

    Thanks.

  7. Did you know that over half of those diagnosed with ADD/ADHD have sensory processing disorders impacting learning, attention and behavior? Did you know that they have a visual sensory processing disorder that is caused by detected or undetected light sensitivity esp to artificial or fluorescent lighting and a drug free remedy are Irlen spectral filters worn like glasses with either RX or no RX plano lenses or contacts? See http://www.irlenvlcmd.com for more info on this technology which is remedied in one or two testing session in most cases.

  8. Brain Gym exercises and breathing exercises are very helpful to increase focus and attention and self regulation. Creating a sensory smart environment can also help many symptoms of ADD/HD. See http://www.aotss.com for more info in the links section on Brain Gym and other sensory processing interventions that are drug free.

  9. I have ADHD. Exercise helps, but it isn’t enough by itself. For me the medication has made a big difference to my life. I haven’t had problems with side effects. I’m in the UK and there is no monetary reason for doctors here to prescribe drugs that are not needed, quite the opposite, the NHS still thinks that stimulants should be the appropriate treatment. They work. Somehow its ok to suggest we shouldn’t need them. I have no idea why people think this. I don’t abuse my medication, it helps me, why is everyone so judgemental?

  10. This is the first nutritionfacts.org snippet I am disappointed in as not well researched. (I have watched many and thank you for your time and not charging to make this free to everyone. You have repeatedly been a good source of sound advice.) HOWEVER, sadly this one isn’t so.

    Check our Russell Barkley’s videos on ADHD on YouTube. You need to better understand what ADHD is—not just say essentially a jog a day keeps amphetamines at bay. Exercise ought be part of the treatment, but that is a small piece considering the nature of the problem.

    1. Fair enough comment. But this article is 5 years old. I am sure Dr Greger will be making his rounds and get back to update this topic in the not too distant future.

    1. Hello! ADD is a type of ADHD, but the terms are typically used interchangeably. Therefore, treatments for ADHD should apply to ADD as well. Some dietary tips for treating ADD/ADHD include: avoiding processed foods that contain additives such as artificial colors (https://nutritionfacts.org/video/artificial-food-colors-and-adhd/), avoiding chicken (which contains phthalates that have also been associated with increased odds of ADHD) (https://nutritionfacts.org/video/chicken-consumption-and-the-feminization-of-male-genitalia/), and reducing exposure to heavy metals like mercury (https://nutritionfacts.org/video/mercury-vs-omega-3s-for-brain-development/) and lead (https://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-effects-of-low-level-lead-exposure-in-adults/) – this can be achieved by eating a more plant-based diet and avoiding fish in particular (https://nutritionfacts.org/video/how-to-lower-heavy-metal-levels-with-diet/). It also doesn’t hurt to choose organic whole plant foods when possible as there has been a link found between high levels of pesticides in the body and increased risk of attention problems (https://nutritionfacts.org/video/are-organic-foods-safer/). For more related content, check out the ADHD topic page: https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/adhd/.

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