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Dr. Mark Hyman: 7 Ways to Address ADHD

Insights + Opinion

My child has been diagnosed with ADD. His doctors want to put him on stimulants like Ritalin. Is there anything we can do other than take medications?”

Attention deficit disorder (ADD), today referred to as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is not a Ritalin deficiency, yet the use of these drugs is skyrocketing. One in 10 American kids are on stimulant medications. In fact, the global use of ADHD medication rose 300 percent from 1993 to 2000.

One in 10 American kids are on stimulant medications. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Since when did this become a normal consequence of being a child? Back in the day (it wasn’t that long ago) we had maybe one troubled kid in the classroom. How did we go from that to one in ten kids with ADHD today?

The real question becomes what causes ADHD, and why is it so prevalent?

My book The UltraMind Solution focuses on the brain and mood. Several readers asked why I didn’t write any chapters on familiar diseases like depression, anxiety, autism or Alzheimer’s disease. Instead I have chapters on nutrition, hormones, inflammation, digestion, detoxification, energy and calming the mind.

The answer is simple: If diseases as we know them were a useful way to think about what is wrong with our brains, our moods, and our thinking, then I would have written a book about them. But they are not useful.

Instead, this book became an exploration of what is really wrong with our brains. It is about the real causes and solutions for our mental suffering and the epidemics of depression, anxiety, dementia, autism and ADHD we see in today’s world.

Everything we do affects the brain: What inflammatory foods we eat, how we think, how much we exercise, what environmental toxins we are around and even how you maintain your gut flora. Brain disorders are systemic disorders where the body affects the brain. Yes, there’s a mind-body connection, but there’s also a body-mind connection. 

Everybody is different. ADHD is just a name we give to people who share a collection of symptoms: They can’t focus or pay attention, they’re inattentive and they are hyperactive.

These are symptoms. What are the causes?

Clayton: A Case Study in the Body-Mind Effect

An exasperated professional woman finally found her way to my office with her 12-year-old son, Clayton. Labeled with a multitude of both psychological and physical diagnoses by a number of highly specialized physicians, Clayton seemed to be a walking embodiment of “bad luck—poor kid.”

In the realm of psychiatry, Clayton was “diagnosed” with ADHD. He could not focus in school, “zoned out,” and was disruptive. Like many other children labeled with ADHD or on the autism spectrum, Clayton’s writing was nearly illegible. On the other hand, he excelled in math.

Physically, Clayton was diagnosed with asthma, suffered from “environmental” allergies, sinus congestion, postnasal drip, sore throats, eczema, nausea, stomach pains, diarrhea, headaches, anal itching, canker sores, muscle aches, muscle cramps, hypersensitivity to noises and smells, sneezing, hives, itchy skin with bumps and frequent infections. He slept poorly and had trouble breathing when he did sleep. He also suffered from anxiety, fearfulness and carbohydrate cravings.

Specialists were treating these numerous symptoms with seven different medications prescribed by five different doctors. These included Ritalin for ADHD, allergy medicine, inhalers for his asthma and hives, acid-blocking medication for his stomach problems and painkillers for his headaches. This is quite a drug cocktail for a 12-year-old, yet he still didn’t experience much relief from his physical, mental or behavioral symptoms.

Unfortunately, this is how we approach things in medicine: Divide it all up into parts, farm them out, and pile on the pills. What a life for both Clayton and his family!

Most psychiatrists not only lack the training to address any physical issues but also feel these are irrelevant to the mental “diagnosis” at hand. I, however, believe these physical ailments are the most important findings and these clues provide the causes and appropriate treatment to repair disordered brain function.

Today, the list of medications and untested cocktails and combinations has grown to frightening proportions. Children with mental, behavioral, or emotional problems like the ones Clayton presented with now get antipsychotic medications, like Risperdal; anti-seizure medications, like Trileptal; and antidepressants, like Prozac; all on top of stimulant medications, like Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall.

As we dug below the surface, we found and treated the causes of Clayton’s symptoms. His story represents, to one degree or another, all of our stories. It illustrates both the despair and the delivery from our epidemic of broken brains. Let’s look at some of the essential keys affected in Clayton’s case.

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Nutritional Deficiencies

Like most kids, and especially those on the spectrum of ADHD and autism, Clayton lived on and craved junk food. His typical diet included trans fats, food additives, and an overload of carbohydrates and refined sugar associated with ADHD. 

Blood tests confirmed significant deficiencies in many important nutrients. Here are a few:

  • Omega-3 fats, eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanenoic acid (DHA), are essential for brain function. In fact, 60 percent of the brain consists of DHA. A lack of these fats is strongly associated with ADHD, as well as eczema and immune deficiency.

  • Tryptophan is an amino acid (building block of protein) needed to make serotonin, the chemical in the brain for a relaxed and happy mood, and melatonin, the chemical for sleep.

  • Vitamin B6 is crucial to converting tryptophan into serotonin. Clayton’s unstable mood, sleep disturbance, and ADHD were clues to a B6 deficiency. Some of his prescription medications were actually further depleting his B6 supply

  • A clear indication of low vitamin A and omega-3 fat deficiency were “bumps” on the back of Clayton’s arms called hyperkeratosis pilaris

  • Deficiencies of other vitamins such as vitamin E and beta-carotene indicated he ate a diet high in junk food and low in vegetables and whole grains.

  • Low levels of zinc are associated with lowered immunity, poor heavy metal detoxification, and ADHD. This was consistent with Clayton’s frequent infections, eczema, and allergies, as well as the hyperactivity symptoms.

  • Low-magnesium levels lead to headaches; anxiety; insomnia, muscle spasms, cramps, and aches; and hypersensitivity to noises. 

Immune and Inflammatory Imbalances

All of Clayton’s symptoms signified immune and inflammatory imbalances. They should not be thought of as separate conditions, but rather one immune system highly annoyed by one or more triggers such as food or environmental allergens, molds, toxins, chronic low-grade infections, or perhaps a combination of these factors.

Special testing for delayed, low-grade food allergies (IgG food sensitivity) showed Clayton’s immune system (and likely his brain) was reacting to 18 foods, including dairy, peanuts, yeast, citrus and especially gluten, all of which created more inflammation

Gluten can trigger a low-grade, chronic immune response that inflames the brain and many other systems. Canker sores were just another clue pointing to celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Indeed, his IgG anti-gliadin antibodies were elevated, indicating an autoimmune reaction to gluten found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt and oats.

Digestive Imbalances

Nausea, diarrhea, stomachaches, anal itching, and sensitive stomach were clear symptoms of Clayton’s digestive imbalances. The use of frequent antibiotics for the many infections led to a yeast overgrowth and abnormal gut flora.

This resulted in a leaky gut (also called intestinal permeability). This condition gives way to the above-mentioned food allergies, systemic allergies and inflammation. So we can see why his immune system was so angry.

Detoxification Imbalance

Metal toxicity indicates poor detoxification. Tests showed that Clayton had high levels of mercury and lead. His exposure was probably similar to other children of his age; however, he nutritionally and/or genetically could not eliminate the metals from his body and stored them in his tissues.

Mercury has been associated with myriad gastrointestinal as well as autoimmune and cognitive problems.

Lead toxicity has been associated with cognitive and behavioral problems in children. In a recent groundbreaking study, lead toxicity and environmental toxins were clearly linked to ADHD.

By living in a polluted world, playing with toys made in China and coated with lead paint, and crawling around on the floor where shoes drag in the lead pollution from the outside, Clayton was exposed to the dangers of the industrial revolution. He may also have suffered from other environmental toxins like mold toxins from the black mold in his house and food additives we could not measure.

Clearly, Clayton’s problem was not a Ritalin deficiency or bad parenting! The cause of all these problems lay in the dietary and environmental pollutants that throw the seven underlying systems in our body out of balance.

The Simplicity of Treatment

Clayton’s treatment was disarmingly simple. By deliberately and carefully working to find the cause or source of the irritation to his system (nutritional deficiencies, toxic foods, food allergies, gluten, environmental toxins, food additives, yeast overgrowth) and identifying the missing ingredients needed to restore normal physiological function (a multivitamin, omega-3 fats, vitamin B6, zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, healthy gut bacteria, and 5-hydroxytryptophan for sleep and anxiety), Clayton’s health and brain function could finally start to normalize.

One thing I hope you’ll check out is Clayton’s before and after homework in my accompanying video. You’re going to become amazed at the transformation in his handwriting over just two months! You can see the before-and-after and hear me talk more about Clayton here.

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The Result of Clayton’s Treatment

Clayton and his mother were diligent and determined to make changes. At his two-month follow-up visit, Clayton had discontinued all medications, including Ritalin, antihistamines (Zyrtec and Tagamet), bronchodilators, steroid inhaler, Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil (ibuprofen). 

His mood and behavior returned to that of a typical 12-year-old. His attention improved, his disruptiveness at home and in school disappeared, and his irritability and anxiety vanished completely.

Clayton found himself free from all his chronic symptoms for the first time in his life. His hives, asthma, chronic runny nose, anal itching, stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, muscle cramps, and sensitivity to loud noises all completely resolved. He was also able to finally fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

Clayton also began to succeed in school socially and academically as he never had before.

I want to give you the tools you need to apply this Functional Medicine approach to your own life so you don’t have to wait 20 years for medical practices and the scientific community to catch up with what we already know today.

The question that remains is how to treat these underlying causes, so you can rebalance your health and empower your brain.

While some severe cases of ADD do require medications, for most kids some simple dietary and lifestyle changes can make enormous differences that have a profound impact to cure ADHD without medications.

7 Strategies to Address ADHD and Broken Brains

1. Eat a real, whole foods diet. It should be free of additives, sugar, trans fats, and processed foods. There is a close connection between the obesity epidemic we are seeing and the epidemic of ADHD and behavior problems in children.

2. Remove food sensitivities. While testing can reveal specific sensitivities (remember Clayton was allergic to 18 foods), two big offenders are gluten and dairy. Partially digested dairy and wheat particles (called caseomorphins and gliadomorphins) are found in the urine of severely depressed patients (as well as children with autism and ADHD). I recommend a complete 100 percent elimination of all gluten and dairy foods for a full six weeks.

3. Address nutrient deficiencies. A host of nutrient deficiencies, including magnesium, zinc, selenium, tyrosine, and fatty acids, play significant roles in the development of ADHD. Many of these nutrients work synergistically. A Functional Medicine practitioner can custom-design a nutrient plan, and you can find all these supplements in my store.

4. Fix your gut. Over my years in practice, I have found the gut to be the source of inestimable suffering. And I have found remarkable discoveries and cures that hold the promise of getting relief from common “functional” gastrointestinal symptoms (and most allergic and autoimmune diseases that originate in the gut), but also from everything from depression to autism, to OCD, to ADHD, to dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

5. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Inflammation has been linked to almost all brain problems such as autism, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and depression. These and other diseases are all related to elevated levels of cytokines and systemic inflammation. They can cause problems in every organ, in every part of the body. Besides supplementing with fatty acids, you will want to eat an anti-inflammatory diet rich in wild-caught fish and plant foods like flaxseed.

6. Consume plenty of antioxidants. Oxidative stress and glutathione deficiency have been connected to dementia, depression, Parkinson’s, autism, and ADHD. An antioxidant-rich diet includes plenty of colorful plant foods.

7. Detoxify. An overload of heavy metals in children who are genetically susceptible to their effects is one of the root causes of ADHD and broken brains. Each person responds differently to toxins. Some are great detoxifiers; others, like those with ADHD, are often not.

Remember, every child with behavior problems—whether it is ADHD, autism or something else—is unique. Each has to find his or her own path with a trained doctor. But the gates are open and the wide road of healing is in front of you. You simply have to take the first step.

Please note: Getting off medications can be difficult, come with certain risks, and must be done under a physician’s supervision. I don’t recommend anyone stop using their medications suddenly.

At the same time, following the plan to optimize brain function and address the underlying causes of mood disorders and brain dysfunction in The UltraMind Solution, many people can get off their medications with their physician’s help and feel better and healthier than ever. 

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