At a glance
Whether or not your child is taking ADHD medication, you may wonder what else might help reduce symptoms. Medication remains the most effective treatment for roughly 80 percent of kids with ADHD (also known as ADD). Behavior therapy can also be helpful. But there are alternative treatments you can try in addition to or instead of medication or behavior therapy.
Some of these options are backed by research as being effective to some extent. Others you may hear about aren’t. It’s important to check with your child’s doctor before starting any alternative treatment.
Learn more about these different alternative treatments and activities that may help with ADHD symptoms.
ADHD alternative treatments that may be effective
Some alternative approaches have been backed by research. Studies have shown them to be somewhat effective in relieving ADHD symptoms. These include:
Exercise: You’ve likely heard that exercise releases hormones that can improve mood. For kids with ADHD, it can also boost attention. These brain chemicals that exercises induce include dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA.
Kids with ADHD are often low on these brain chemicals. Your child doesn’t need a formal program to benefit — 20 minutes of jumping jacks, running up and down the stairs, or going for a brisk walk may help. The research found that a 30-minute exercise session improved tasks like planning and prioritizing.
Going outside: When kids are doing homework or cleaning their room, they’re using their “voluntary” attention. In other words, focusing takes effort.
Kids with ADHD have a hard time sustaining attention. Spending time outside, especially in a natural setting, allows them to shift to “involuntary” attention and get a much-needed break.
This kind of attention is involved in automatic tasks. Those include things like breathing or getting out of the way of falling objects. Kids don’t have to consciously think of anything in particular. After giving their voluntary attention a break, they may be better able to complete tasks that require them to focus.
Omega supplements: Some kids with ADHD may have lower amounts of omega fatty acids in their blood. These fatty acids help neurons in the brain communicate more effectively. A lack of communication can result in ADHD-like symptoms. These include impulsivity and trouble with focus.
Foods like fish, nuts, flaxseed, and certain vegetables are high in omega fatty acids. They’re also available in supplements. Research found that kids with ADHD who took these supplements had a small improvement in their ADHD symptoms.
The supplements can have side effects, however. And not all kids with ADHD are low in omega fatty acids. Don’t give your child these supplements without talking to your child’s doctor.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a practice that encourages focusing on the present moment. Learning to be mindful doesn’t mean having to sit still, however — a plus for kids with ADHD. Kids learn different techniques to stay in the moment, such as deep breathing.
Learning to focus on the present helps kids let go of what’s already happened, which can reduce negative feelings. And avoiding thoughts about what’s going to happen in the future can reduce anxiety.
Changes in diet: Kids with ADHD are more likely to have allergies and food sensitivities. When kids eat food that doesn’t make them feel good, it can affect their behavior and worsen their ADHD symptoms. Some parents may try food and nutrition therapy to see if diet changes can help.
First, kids can get tested for allergies, which can pinpoint which foods are causing the symptoms. A child can test negative for an allergy but still have food sensitivity.
Identifying food sensitivity usually involves restricting a group of foods and gradually adding them back, one by one. It’s important to consult with your child’s doctor or a dietitian before restricting your child’s diet.
Another strategy (which doesn’t require a doctor’s consult) is to cut out refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, food with dyes and other processed foods. Even if you don’t see a reduction in hyperactive behavior as a result, a healthy diet benefits everyone in the family. Read what a doctor says about ADHD and sugar.
ADHD alternative treatments not supported by research
There are other treatments you may have heard about that haven’t been found to be effective by research. These include:
Vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements: You may hear that zinc, magnesium, iron, and other kinds of supplements can improve behavior and reduce ADHD symptoms. There’s no research to support this, however. Plus, supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA. Don’t give your child any kind of supplement without consulting his doctor.
Melatonin: Kids with ADHD often have trouble falling asleep. Over-the-counter melatonin is often billed as a natural solution, and it’s not uncommon for parents to see if it might help their child wind down and fall asleep. Still, it’s important to know that OTC melatonin isn’t regulated by the FDA. And it hasn’t been found to help with insomnia.
“Train the brain” games: Proponents claim that these games improve memory, attention, and other skills. But there is no research that supports this claim. Kids may get good at playing the game, but studies have consistently found no generalized improvements. That means no improvement to a child’s overall memory, attention, intelligence, or other cognitive abilities. Read more on what experts say about “train the brain games” for kids with ADHD.
Chiropractic care: Some chiropractors believe that if the skull isn’t aligned correctly, it can cause uneven pressure on the brain, leading to ADHD symptoms. They claim adjustments through chiropractic care can correct this imbalance, reducing ADHD symptoms. There is no research that supports this claim.
Lavender and other scents: You may have heard that using certain scents can help with ADHD symptoms. But there’s no research that supports aromatherapy as an effective treatment for ADHD. Read more about ADHD and essential oils.
If you’re considering an alternative treatment, be sure to discuss it with your child’s doctor before starting. If your child was recently diagnosed with ADHD, find out what to do next. Learn about different professionals who can help you find an effective ADHD treatment plan. And discover strategies you can try at home to help your child with ADHD.
Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.
If you’re considering an alternative treatment, discuss it with your child’s doctor before starting.
Some ADHD alternative treatments, like exercise or mindfulness, may help relieve ADHD symptoms.
Supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Never give your child a supplement without consulting your doctor.
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About the author
About the author
Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.
Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD is an ADHD/ASD expert and a best-selling author.