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Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at a Glance

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People with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have trouble paying attention or controlling impulsive behavior, and they may be overly active. Difficulty paying attention is the main problem for some people, hyperactivity and impulsiveness for others. Surveys estimate that as many as 9 percent of American children and 4 percent of adults have ADHD. Conventional treatment for ADHD includes medication, behavior therapy, or a combination of both. Stimulant medication (the most commonly used type of medication) has been shown to be helpful for at least 70 percent of children with ADHD.

What the Science Says

Although conventional treatment has been proven helpful for ADHD symptoms in children and adults, complementary approaches have not. Complementary health approaches studied for ADHD include the following:

  • Dietary supplements
    • The possibility that omega-3 fatty acids could be helpful for ADHD is being investigated, but the evidence is inconclusive.
    • Correcting deficiencies in the minerals zinc, iron, or magnesium may improve ADHD symptoms, but this does not mean that supplements of these minerals would be helpful for people with ADHD who are not deficient, and all three minerals can be toxic if taken in excessive amounts.
    • Melatonin has not been shown to relieve ADHD symptoms, but it may help children with ADHD who have sleep problems to fall asleep sooner.
    • Research on L-carnitine/acetyl-L-carnitine and various herbs, such as St. John’s wort, French maritime pine bark extract (also known as Pycnogenol), and Ginkgo biloba, has not demonstrated that these supplements are helpful for ADHD.
  • Special diets. Despite much research, the role of foods and food ingredients (such as color additives) in ADHD remains controversial. Some evidence suggests that only a small number of people with ADHD are affected by substances in food, and that different individuals may react to different foods or food components.
  • Neurofeedback. Some research has suggested that neurofeedback, a technique in which people are trained to alter their brain wave patterns, may improve ADHD symptoms, but several small studies that compared neurofeedback with a simulated (sham) version of the procedure did not find differences between the two treatments.
  • Other complementary health practices. An assessment of research on homeopathy concluded that there is no evidence that it is helpful for ADHD symptoms. Several mind and body practices, including acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage therapy, meditation, and yoga, have been studied for ADHD. However, the amount of evidence on each of these practices is small, and no conclusions can be reached about whether they are helpful.

Side Effects and Risks

  • Dietary supplements may have side effects and may interact with drugs. In particular, St. John’s wort can speed up the process by which the body breaks down many drugs, thus making the drugs less effective. Zinc, iron, and magnesium can all be toxic in high doses.
  • If you’re interested in trying a special diet, consult your health care provider and consider getting guidance from a registered dietitian. Planning, evaluating, and following special diets can be challenging, and it is important to ensure that the diet meets nutritional needs.
  • If you’re considering using any of the approaches discussed here for ADHD, discuss this decision with your (or your child’s) health care provider.
Date Created: 
June 2013