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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the leading childhood psychiatric diagnosis in North America, is a hot topic when it comes to childhood behaviour.

ADHD: These are initials everyone has heard, but many don’t completely understand. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the leading childhood psychiatric diagnosis in North America, is a hot topic when it comes to childhood behaviour. What exactly is this disorder, and what is the natural approach to treating it?

According to the US National Institutes of Health, “ADHD is a neurobehavioural disorder that interferes with a person’s ability to stay on a task and to exercise age-appropriate inhibition (cognitive alone or both cognitive and behavioural).”

Someone diagnosed with ADHD may exhibit inappropriate levels of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These behaviours appear at school, at home, and in social situations while studying, performing tasks, or listening to people talk.

Currently, it is estimated that the rate of ADHD in school-aged children ranges from 5 to 12 percent, with males outnumbering females approximately three to one.

Natural approaches

There are several natural approaches to ADHD that have been researched and shown to be successful.

Supplement with omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 is an essential fat that is critical to normal and healthy brain function. It is found in food sources such as cold-water fish, fish oils, flaxseed oil, walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, and fortified foods such as yogourt, eggs, and bread.

Several research studies support the role of omega-3 in the treatment of ADHD. In a cross-sectional study of six- to 12-year-old boys, for example, 53 subjects with ADHD had significantly lower proportions of key fatty acids in the blood than did 43 control subjects.

Another study found that children with hyperactivity behaviour have symptoms consistent with essential fatty acid deficiency which include extreme tiredness (fatigue), poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.

For children with ADHD, fish oils are now available in capsule form or in a variety of tasty flavours that can be added to a morning smoothie or juice.

Limit television viewing: Since television and computer screen time is becoming an increasing presence in our young children’s lives, we need to be aware of the effects this may be having on their long-term development.

A research study, published in 2004, demonstrated that for every hour of television watched, 10 percent of the one- and three-year-old children studied demonstrated increased attentional problems (behaviour associated with ADHD) by the age of seven.

While this research may not be definitive, it makes sense for parents to use caution when deciding how much screen time children should be allowed to access or be exposed to.

Watch sugar intake: Consuming highly sugared and processed foods causes blood sugar to fluctuate and in turn affects behaviour and energy. Instead of foods with added sugar, opt for natural sweetness in the form of fruit, homemade popsicles made from natural fruit juices, and smoothies.

Avoid food dyes: Last year the Center for Science in the Public Interest called on the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban artificial colouring in all foods, based on a claim that artificial colouring can exacerbate behavioural problems such as those linked to ADHD.

A 2007 British study, reported in The Lancet, found that common food additives and preservatives increase levels of hyperactivity in children and toddlers. The study involved 153 three-year-olds and 144 children aged eight or nine. The toddlers and children, split into one of three groups, received one of the following:

  • Mix A which contained artificial food colouring
  • Mix B which contained the preservative sodium benzoate (a preservative) and artificial food colouring
  • Placebo, a chemical-free drink

The researchers found that, among the three-year-old children, mix A had a significantly adverse effect on hyperactivity compared with placebo. The effects for mix B were varied compared to placebo in this group. Among the eight- and nine-year-old children, a significantly adverse effect was reported when given mix A or mix B.

Although the precise behavioural trigger could not be clearly identified, the impact on a child’s attention, mood, and focus is abundantly clear.

Try yoga: Many new studies are focusing on behavioural interventions to help children diagnosed with ADHD. For example, some interesting studies are focusing on the use of yoga and other relaxation methods to help reduce hyperactivity associated with ADHD.

Getting the help you need

If your child appears to have symptoms consistent with ADHD, talk to your doctor. I also recommend visiting a natural health practitioner to discuss the dietary, supplement, and lifestyle changes that will benefit your child.


ADHD symptoms typically appear in childhood, although teenage and adult ADHD does exist. ADHD symptoms may be difficult to diagnose because most young children (specifically boys) are highly energetic, easily distractible, and impulsive. There are three primary subtypes of ADHD, each associated with different symptoms.

1: ADHD—primarily inattentive type

  • fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes
  • has difficulty sustaining attention
  • does not appear to listen
  • struggles to follow through on instructions
  • has difficulty with organization
  • avoids or dislikes tasks requiring sustained mental effort
  • is easily distracted
  • is forgetful in daily activities

2: ADHD—primarily hyperactive/ impulsive type

  • fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in chair
  • has difficulty remaining seated
  • runs around or climbs excessively
  • has difficulty engaging in activities quietly
  • acts as if driven by a motor
  • talks excessively
  • blurts out answers before questions have been completed
  • has difficulty waiting or taking turns
  • interrupts or intrudes upon others

3: ADHD—combined type

meets both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive criteria


A diagnosis of ADHD can be made by school or private psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, and other medical doctors. Only medical doctors can prescribe medication if it is needed.

There are no physical findings for ADHD (no blood tests or scans to diagnose it) as of yet. Diagnosis is made according to criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.


The specific causes of ADHD are unknown, although there does appear to be a hereditary (genetic) factor. Other potential causes (that have not been confirmed by research) may include:

  • alcohol consumption or cigarette smoking during pregnancy
  • brain injury
  • neurological disorder
  • sugar (though many studies have failed to prove this link)
  • food additives, refined foods
  • exposure to lead (plumbing fixtures and paint in old buildings)
  • lack of essential fatty acids or magnesium
  • television viewing
  • premature or traumatic birth

It is important to note that problems in parenting or life situations may affect ADHD, but they do not cause the disorder.


Typical treatment approaches to ADHD are multi-modal and include:

  • medical-—stimulant medication
  • educational
  • behavioural interventions
  • psychological interventions

Medical treatment: The medications prescribed to treat ADHD, typically available in short-acting (4 hours) and long-acting (6 to 8 hours or 10 to 12 hours) preparations, are common psychostimulants including: methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, Focalin)amphetamine products (Adderall, Adderall XR) dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, Dextrostat).

As with any medications, there are potential side effects which can range from reduction in appetite and difficulty sleeping to transient weight loss, irritability, depression, and motor tics.

Whether to medicate your child or not is an extremely personal choice. However, parents should be aware of natural approaches that are available and free of side effects.

Flavourful and additive-free

Because we don’t know exactly how much is safe, here are a few tips to help reduce your child’s toxic load.

  • Go organic!
  • Eliminate processed and boxed foods; opt for nature’s basics—fruit, vegetables, whole grain breads, muffins, and cookies.
  • Remove pop and sugary, coloured juices from the diet.
  • Become a devout label reader—chances are if you cannot pronounce it, it does not belong in your child’s body.
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