Over the past two decades, diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)/attention deficit disorder (ADD) have continued to rise. According to Blair Hammond, M.D., Pediatric Clerkship Director in the Department of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, this increase is “in part because doctors are more aware of the diagnosis, and also because parents are more aware of the condition and bring up the issue more frequently with their doctors/teachers.” It’s no wonder, then, that prescriptions for ADD/ADHD medications have also seen a sharp increase. In fact, more than half of children diagnosed with ADHD receive some form of prescription medication. Although experts claim the combination of behavioral intervention with prescription medication is the Cadillac treatment for ADD/ADHD, there’s some evidence for the effectiveness of several alternative therapies.
- Biofeedback. ADD/ADHD kids spend more time in theta brainwaves (a daydream-like state) than beta brainwaves (the type that keep us alert). But children can learn to stay in the appropriate brainwaves by playing video games with a controller governed by their brains. “If they’re playing a racecar game, for example, the speed of the car slows down or even comes to a halt when the child’s brainwaves shift outside of the appropriate range,” says L. Eugene Arnold, MD, MEd, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Ohio State University and interim director of the university’s Nisonger Center. “But, if they’re in the right brainwaves, they can go as fast as they want.” The goal: To permanently change the underlying abnormal electrical brain activity associated with ADHD.
- Meditative activities, guided imagery, and hypnosis. “Similar to biofeedback, imagery can help soothe, calm and focus an impulsive brain,” says Donna Fremon-Powell, a certified guided imagery therapist and hypnotherapist in La Habra, California. “Plus, since ADHD children spend a lot of time in theta brainwaves, repetitive positive affirmations — both audible and subliminal (like on a CD while they sleep) — are readily accepted by the subconscious mind.”
- Herbs and supplements. St. John’s wort is among the most commonly used herbs for ADHD, but the latest research shows that children who take St. John’s wort to control symptoms are no better off than those taking a dummy pill. In fact, there’s no evidence to support the use of herbs in ADHD treatment, and there may be dangerous interactions for kids with ADHD taking herbs along with prescription medications. However, one supplement that may be effective is melatonin, a natural sleep hormone. “Melatonin probably has no direct effect on symptoms of ADHD,” claims Arnold, “but it may help children with ADHD initiate sleep.”
- Mirrors. Researchers claim that having a child complete tasks in front of a mirror may help children with ADHD stay focused. “The mirrors act as a coach to remind them they’re getting off task,” says Arnold. In one study, the more time ADHD kids spent looking in the mirror, the better they were at completing the puzzle they were given. The caveat: The mirror method only works if the child has a clear diagnosis of ADHD. In normal children, the mirrors may actually decrease attention and performance.
- Massage. It’s no surprise that massage can help boost mood, but there’s some evidence to suggest it can also help children focus. In one study of 28 teenage boys with ADHD, those who received 15 minutes of massage for 10 consecutive days had better concentration than those who underwent a guided muscle relaxation exercise for the same amount of time.
- Exercise. Exercise is good for the brain as well as the body, and it may improve ADD/ADHD symptoms as well as mood and anxiety. Yoga, tai chi, or qi gong may be your best bets, but any form of exercise is likely to do the trick,” says Fremon-Powell. “It helps kids with ADHD release energy in a healthy, constructive way.” One study even suggests that exercising in open, green spaces boosts brain function. And while one study doesn’t meet the burden of proof, a walk in the park may be good for the soul — even if it doesn’t help ADHD.