Drug Free Approach to ADHD

When working with young children, I often find that a number of the adults in their lives are ready to label them with ADHD. I have been historically steadfast in my reticence to do so. The question is why? If this disorder is so prevalent now, and so many children are simply medicated for it, and with striking results in terms of a quick turnaround in externalizing behaviors and hyperactivity–why not just go with the pill and call it a day?

Medicines prescribed for ADHD have a variety of serious effects that rarely are discussed. Allow me to buck that trend by offering a few specifics. In spite of their seemingly ubiquitous presence, drugs used to treat ADHD are not at all similar to the caffeine in coffee or energy drinks, as is often argued. These are powerful pharmaceuticals that carry a long list of potentially serious risks, particularly in young people with still-developing brains. Adverse drug reactions in stimulant formulas include impaired growth (Swanson, et al., 2007), insomnia, agitation, hypomania, mania, seizures, physical withdrawal, rebound effects, dependence (Breggin, 1999a, 1999b), and even psychosis (Breggin, 2000). Non-stimulant formulas also present safety problems, and their manufacturers were recently ordered by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include a “black box” warning regarding the potential for increased suicidal ideation in adolescents (Carey, 2005). The black box was also subsequently ordered by the FDA for some popular stimulant formulas given an increased risk of sudden death (Pettypiece & Blum, 2006).

So, rather than exposing our children to these risks, why not give a few other options a try?

Researchers at UCLA have found that ADHD symptoms can be significantly decreased through the use of mindfulness meditation (Zilowska, et. al, 2007). Additionally, Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation has also been implicated in both attention and mood. The trick is in the ratio of EPA to DHA. One formulation that has been studied is made by OmegaBrite (http://tinyurl.com/omegabrite ). A Canadian company called TrueHope (http://www.truehope.com/ ) has also been aggressively studying the impact of micronutrient formulas on both mood and attention, and with surprising success.

One might ask, how will you meditate with a “squirrelly” 6 or 7 year-old? The answer lies in making it age and developmentally appropriate–and fun. HeartMath is my preferred method. The company sells rigorously studied and widely used biofeedback systems that have been shown to be effective in improving symptoms commonly associated with anxeity, depression and, yes, ADHD.

I am also a huge fan of a couple of books for children: Moody Cow Meditates and Peaceful Piggy Meditates by Kerry Lee Maclean. For the adults, I recommend “The Mindful Child” by Susan Kaiser Greenland. All three of these books entail a family activity that is fun to do together, and which will help to foster a meditation habit that will only result in greater ability regulate the body, healthy emotional balance, the ability to be flexible in responding to others, greater ability to attune and connect with others in an empathic way, higher intuition, and a more keenly honed sense of one’s inner moral compass.

Those are some side effects I can live with. What about you?


Breggin, P. R. (1999a). Psychostimulants in the treatment of children diagnosed with ADHD: Part 1–Acute risks and psychological effects. Ethical Human Sciences and Services, 1(1), 13-33.

Breggin, P. R. (1999b). Psychostimulants in the treatment of children diagnosed with ADHD: Part II–Adverse effects on brain and behavior. Ethical Human Sciences and Services, 1(3), 213-242.

Breggin, P. R. (2000). Confirming the hazards of stimulant drug treatment. Ethical Human Sciences and Services, 2(3), 203-204.

Carey, B. (2005). F.D.A. orders new warning on Attention-Deficit drug. The New York Times.com. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/30/health/30drug.html?ex=1157169600&en=a11a780cbe726cd4&ei=5070

Swanson, J. M., et al. (2006). Efficacy and safety of immediate-release methylphenidate treatment for preschoolers with ADHD. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 45(11), 1284-1293.

Pettypiece, S., & Blum, J. (2006). Glaxo, Shire stengthen risk warnings on ADHD drugs. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601085&sid=alBMR22v6xpI&refer=europe

Swanson, J. M., Elliott, G., Greenhill, L. L., Wigal, T., Arnold, L. E., Vitiello, B., et al. (2007). Effects of stimulant medication on growth rates across three years in the MTA follow-up. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 46(8), 1015-1027.

Zylowska, L., Ackerman, D., Yang, M. H., Futrell, J. L., Horton, N. L., Hale, T. S., et al. (2007). Mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11(0nline First), 1-10.

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