ADHD: The Functional Medicine Approach

ADHD-functional-medicine-approach
Learn the functional medicine approach to ADHD treatment and how to minimize symptoms through lifestyle change and supplementation.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a prevalent condition in the US. It is considered one of the most common childhood disorders and can even linger throughout both adolescence and adulthood. Let’s look a bit closer at ADHD, traditional treatments, and the functional medicine approach to managing ADHD.

ADHD: Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

ADHD is common, affecting around 15% of children and 8% of adults each year

Symptoms include a pattern of some or all of the following, including:

  • Impulsivity and difficulty controlling behavior
  • Hyperactivity and inability to be still
  • Inattention and trouble staying focused

For individuals with ADHD, these symptoms are chronic and impair the person’s functioning. Often times these symptoms emerge in childhood during school age years, when teachers notice a child is not able to concentrate or stay focused as well as their peers. The child may present with symptoms such as: 

  • Avoiding tasks that require longer periods of thinking
  • Difficulty following through on duties and becoming easily sidetracked
  • Fidgeting and restlessness
  • Excessive talking

As the individual ages, symptoms can change over time and each individual’s presentation is different.

So what causes it? Researchers aren’t sure, but genetics seem to play a big role. It likely comes from a combination of factors including genetics and environmental factors. Studies show that it often occurs along with other conditions like learning disabilities, conduct disorder, and anxiety disorder. 

Traditional Medicine Treatment of ADHD

The traditional method of treating ADHD is through medication and psychotherapy. 

Medication

Conventional medicine often uses medications called stimulants to improve symptoms. Common stimulants include adderall or ritalin. While stimulants can be effective, they have the potential for addiction and abuse, especially if a person has a substance abuse history. So they are not always the best treatment for everyone.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is another aspect of traditional ADHD treatment. This type of therapy helps to manage symptoms and improve functioning. While therapy can include just the individual, it’s equally important to incorporate family therapy sessions. This helps the family unit manage symptoms and play an active role in treatment.

ADHD Treatment: The Functional Medicine Approach

Functional medicine takes a more well-rounded, holistic approach to ADHD treatment than traditional medicine does. In functional medicine, the focus of ADHD treatment is on lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep, exercise, stress management, and supplementation, in addition to psychotherapy and other therapy options, instead of focusing primarily on medications.  

Nutrition

Not only is a well-balanced, anti-inflammatory diet essential for overall well being, it’s also important for brain health and minimizing ADHD symptoms. With a highly processed diet, brain health can suffer. Interestingly enough, when given artificial food additives and colors, both children with and without ADHD were found to have increased hyperactivity! In addition, other common food allergens and sensitivities like sugar, gluten and/or dairy may also contribute.  So diet plays more of a role than we think!

When eating for optimal brain health, focus on:

  • Lowering sugars
  • Reducing artificial food colorings
  • Replacing processed foods with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats
  • Consider going on a food elimination diet for a short period of time to determine if food allergies and/or sensitivities are contributing
  • Limiting alcohol intake 

A great foundation to build on to support ADHD symptoms is to eat an anti-inflammatory diet with little to no processed foods.

Sleep

This is huge! Individuals with ADHD often have sleep problems. Researchers have even hypothesized that lack of sleep may play a role in the development of ADHD

A healthy sleep routine is essential. Things like getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night, going to bed at the same time each night, avoid going to sleep with a full stomach, and limit screen time a full hour before hitting the pillow. Melatonin supplementation can also help regulate sleep cycles and improve sleep when taken consistently. Here’s a great one to start.  In addition, magnesium can be really helpful to promote relaxation as well. 

Exercise

Studies show exercise has potential benefits for individuals with ADHD, including stress management and a boost in mood. Getting moving has always been a key part of physical health – but it also plays a huge part in mental health! Aim to increase your weekly exercise and make small steps to create change.  The goal is to get at least 150 min per week of moderate intensity exercise. 

Stress Management

Managing stress levels helps to balance the autonomic nervous system and supports brain health. Many individuals with ADHD notice their symptoms get worse when they’re stressed. Whether it’s mindfulness, meditation, yoga, breathing, or other therapies, managing your stress levels plays a role in mental health and ADHD. 

One form of therapy that can be helpful for ADHD is biofeedback therapy, also referred to as EEG biofeedback. This treatment helps with sleep, stress, mood, and focus by training the brain how to function in a more optimal way. When done consistently, neurofeedback can provide significant improvements in ADHD, including both cognitive and behavioral aspects.

Nutritional Supplements

The brain needs vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to do its job. Those with ADHD tend to have higher rates of some mineral and nutrient deficiencies. This makes a healthy diet and targeted supplementation very important. Let’s look at some common nutritional supplements used in ADHD management.

Iron tends to be lower in individuals with ADHD. One study showed ADHD symptoms improved in children with anemia when taking an iron supplement. Another study of women with ADHD found that iron deficiency anemia is higher in individuals with adult ADHD than in the general population. Vitamin D is a similar story, often being lower in children with ADHD. Iron and vitamin D can be great supplements to take for ADHD, if your blood work shows they are low (or less than optimal).

Magnesium, zinc, and omega 3 and 6 are others that play a role in ADHD. One study showed that ADHD symptoms were significantly reduced when taking magnesium, zinc, and omega 3 and 6 together.

In addition, other herbs and supplements like lion’s mane, pycnogenol, ginseng, ginkgo, st. john’s wart, carnitine and saffron have also been known to be potentially helpful, although some studies are conflicting and show limited effectiveness. 

Supplementation when levels are low can be essential for both brain health and supporting ADHD symptoms. But which ones should you take?

While starting with a high-quality multivitamin like this one is a great place to start, more targeted supplementation can be great. Omega 3 and 6 supplementation are the best place to start, as research shows strong evidence of impacting ADHD symptoms. Here’s one to get you started.

Hormone Balance

Hormone fluctuations also play a role. In females, normal monthly hormone fluctuations during their cycles can impact ADHD symptoms. In addition, in males low testosterone may contribute as well.  Balancing thyroid and adrenal hormones are also important.  While there are a variety of hormones that researchers believe may play a role in ADHD, one that plays a role in brain health is melatonin – which we talked about above because of its role in sleep. This hormone is secreted in response to circadian cycle changes and can help with sleep disorders. For some, melatonin supplementation can help improve sleep quality and ultimately impact ADHD symptoms.

Since it’s hard to know which hormones may be unbalanced without working with a professional, finding a functional medicine provider you trust can help you achieve hormone balance for optimal brain health. 

Gut Health

There is also a HUGE gut-brain connection!  In addition to the nutritional recommendations previously mentioned, if there are any gut symptoms like gas, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal pain, it would be best to get some gut testing to get the bottom of the root cause.  We often do tests like stool studies, breath testing, and/or organic acids tests to determine if there are any gut infections, bacterial or yeast overgrowths, gut inflammation, lack of digestive capability, and more!  Balancing and healing the gut is a crucial step to improving brain health, including helping with ADHD symptoms. 

Mitochondrial Health

The mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells–the energy producers, and have a huge concentration in the brain.  Thus making sure the mitochondria are healthy and functioning optimally can really improve concentration and focus. Besides making sure that all of the key mitochondrial nutrients are optimal, making sure inflammation, chronic infections, and toxin exposures are treated are also super important!

Optimal Health With Functional Medicine!

At Arizona Wellness Medicine, our team of highly trained functional medicine providers will create an individualized plan for you to get to the root cause of your symptoms. We want you to feel your best, both mentally and physically. If you or a loved one is struggling with ADHD, we have a team of providers who can help. Get in touch here to make your first appointment.

Resources:

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19627998/

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/11766-attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd-stimulant-therapy

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28566963/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2955638/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2955638/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4170184/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4170184/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6945516/

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1087054712459558

https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/85/8/e3.28.short

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