- “ADHD medications aren’t natural.”
- “I only want to use natural ways to manage my ADHD symptoms.”
- “I don’t want to put anything unnatural into my body.”
These are just some of the familiar comments I hear during or following one of my presentations about ADHD medications. In our world where more and more things come out of a bag or a factory, it makes sense that we are trying to balance this with as much “natural” in our lives as possible.
I like to think that “natural” has become the new black. “Natural” has become very fashionable. I myself have been on an “all-natural” whole food diet for the past several months aimed at decreasing inflammatory arthritis that had been causing nasty pain in my back. I will admit, this natural approach has been the only thing that has relieved the pain and I admit liking to be, at least for once, trendy.
So, while I completely get it when we prefer “natural” and not wanting to put anything in or on our bodies that would be harmful, I must challenge the application of this practice and those who argue they won’t use ADHD medications because they aren’t “natural”. Because if we hold true to using only “natural” solutions, we’d have to toss out many of the ways we manage health challenges and deficits.
Consider these… Glasses aren’t “natural”. Insulin isn’t “natural”. Chemotherapy isn’t “natural”. Cold medication isn’t “natural”. Tylenol isn’t “natural”. Sexual enhancers aren’t “natural”. Inhalers for asthma aren’t “natural”.
I think you get the point. But, while some “unnatural” medical treatments seem to be accepted, the debate rages on with a great degree of passion about the “unnaturalness” (aka harmfulness) of ADHD medications.
Because I tend to get a little passionate about things I really care about, I wanted to be clear and check my own biases. So, I looked up the word “natural” in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary and found this:
Natural: existing in nature and not made or caused by people.
To me this means that unless it comes off of a plant (think green and growing) and not out of a plant (think concrete and artificial), it is not “natural”.
A plastic bottle with herbal or nutritional supplements, even when it is wrapped in a soothing label that has the words “nature”, or “organic” or “living” or “natural” does not mean that it is not man made. The very nature of the plastic container reveals its true “nature”. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…pun intended) Ironically, most of the plastic bottles these “natural” supplements are marketed in are larger than any month’s supply of ADHD medication filled by my pharmacy. And it’s pretty safe to guess that these empty “natural” bottles are taking up their fair share of space in landfills. It seems to me to be a huge double standard. Natural does not come in a plastic bottle. Period. It just doesn’t.
Just as interesting to me in this “natural” (good) verses “unnatural” (harmful) debate is the actual capsule most “natural” herbal and nutritional supplements come in. Have you ever considered what they are made of? Again, I let my fingers do the walking and found numerous articles that had even me, a pretty tough gutted, raised on meat and potatoes gal, a bit queasy.
The most common form these “natural” supplements come in is the gelatin capsule. It is made from collagen taken from animal connective tissue, mostly from bones and skin of cows and pigs. In the process of making the gelatin capsule there is a pretreatment stage done usually with acetic acid. It’s been awhile, but I definitely remembered that anytime my high school chemistry teacher mentioned “acid”, it was followed by quick review of lab safety procedures as we were handed out gloves and protective goggles. Just saying.
Because the gelatin capsule is not appropriate for vegetarians or people not wanting to consume animal byproducts, there is a capsule available made from fish gelatin. In fact this is the type of capsule being used to encapsulate many of the fish oil supplements now. With this capsule, the skin, bones and fins of farmed fish are mostly used. The good news is that this might be a better choice for those with dietary restrictions. The bad news is that these capsules being made using farmed fish usually contain a higher level of toxins.
And don’t get me started on the lack of regulation or testing of these supplements! We become our own pharmacist or naturopath when we combine a little bit of this and a little bit of that supplement to decrease ADHD symptoms. Everything you put in your body reacts with something else you put in your body. Natural doesn’t mean “safe”; it doesn’t mean “take as much as you want” or take any combination from the plethora of supplement options, alphabetized from A-Beta-Carotene to Zyzyphus jujube on the store shelves.
I am not sure why it is with ADHD medications that the significant benefits gained from taking the medication are tossed out and ignored in light of all the other medical treatments that have a similar benefit ratio. Perhaps it is that there is seldom an opportunity for us to really see the entire picture. To be able to have the unbiased information needed to make the choice for ourselves.
Studies have shown that ADHD medications are 70-80% effective for children (Barbaresi, WJ et al., 2006) and in adults it definitely levels the playing field (Biederman, J., & Spencer, T., 2002). And for those concerned about the long term consequences of ADHD medication and addiction, current longitudinal research is showing that those students diagnosed and treated for their ADHD are significantly less likely to develop addictive behavior as adults. Although “unnatural”, the benefits of ADHD medication seem pretty clear.
Please understand, I am not against “natural” management of ADHD. In fact I wrote a blog about the best “natural” ways to manage your ADHD: The Five Best Natural Ways to Manage Adult ADHD. A multi-modal approach using a variety of strategies is important in the successful management of ADHD symptoms. And I know different things work for different people. However, we need to be fair.
ADHD medications may not be “natural”, but the benefits are clear. Nutritional and herbal supplements may have benefits…but they are not “natural” either. Why do we keep pretending they are? So if one “unnatural” solution is acceptable (supplements), why can’t we view ADHD medication as a reasonable possibly, dare I say, relatively safe strategy? Why do we continue to condemn and fear ADHD medications when they are regulated and prescribed by highly trained professionals? And how is it that the unregulated, over the counter herbal supplements continue to be “safe”?
The bottom line?
Our lives these days are blessed by options. Finding the right medication or alternative treatment that has significant positive benefits balanced with the least amount of negative side effects at the lowest dose is always the goal. Always.
There is still much work to be done in the fight towards ADHD awareness. There still rages the debate at a very basic level if ADHD is “real”. Unfortunately this leaves so many people with ADHD doubting themselves as they continue to struggle alone. Instead of arguing about what is “natural” or not, perhaps our energy could be focused on what “works” so we all can succeed.
Okay, rant over.
Natural? Unnatural? What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Albert Einstein once said…”Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
For instance, have you been trying the same strategies to get out the door on time, but constantly arrive late? Are you struggling to organize your day at work or home only to lose (errr…forget) important pieces of the puzzle? Do you find yourself losing your temper with your children, spouse or other important people in your life and end the day feeling frustrated?
And at the end of it all, do you feel just a little bit like you are going crazy?
Einstein had it right…insanity is repeating the same thing and hoping this time, things will be different.
But we aren’t crazy. When we keep doing the same thing, hoping the results will be different, it may be that we keep trying to solve our challenges using our weaknesses, rather than tapping into and applying our ADHD gifts.
For instance, one of the many gifts of an ADHD brain is the ability to be creative, but sometimes we get so stuck hyperfocusing on our failures that we fail to think outside the box to solve the problem.
Or often, we hit a “tipping point” and the old strategies don’t work anymore. We are suddenly struggling in areas of our lives where we usually find success.
What would it be like to pause, tap into that creative problem solving and ask…what can I do to fix this or what can I do differently?
The next time you find yourself in a situation where all your previous strategies aren’t working, try taking these steps:
- Stop and pause. Ask yourself: What is really the problem? For instance, continually having problems getting to work on time can be the result of many things. Is it that you are having a hard time organizing yourself to get out the door? Are you not allowing enough time to do everything you want to do to get out the door? Are you late because you don’t allow enough time for the drive? Are there new distractions or obstacles that pop up preventing you getting to work on time? Believe it or not, all these different situations require different solutions.
- Tap into your creativity. Creativity is just not for artists!!! Creativity is the use of the imagination for original ideas…and most of us with ADHD have this strength in abundance! So, try some creative, imaginative or even magical thinking to solve the problem. For instance ask yourself: If I had no restrictions (or even a magical wand), what could I do to get to work on time? Eliminate the ‘can’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t work’ thinking. Get grandiose with some of your ideas. Chances are the “new solution” is in there somewhere.
- Now take action. What would be the next step you could take to put some of those strategies into reality? And then, what would be the next step after that? What can you do right now, today? Yes, you can’t slow down time, but you might be able to do something the night before to give yourself more time in the morning?
Finally (because I love a good quote to keep me inspired), perhaps consider this: Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is not noise, trouble or work. It means to be in the midst of things and still be calm in your heart. ~ Anonymous
I’d love to hear how you use your creativity in your problem solving!!! Let me know by responding to the post or emailing me at .
Which is more important to help manage your symptoms of ADD…exercise, diet or sleep?
Ideally we are fueling our bodies with nutritious food, moving our bodies with regular exercise and getting the consistent sleep we need to feel rested, alert and focused to decrease our symptoms of ADD.
But reality is…we are missing at least one, if not all of these essential management strategies.
If you could focus on one key strategy to make the biggest difference in experiencing relief of your symptoms of ADD, which would it be?
Trying to address or change all three of these at the same time is a plan fraught with more potential for failure than success. So where to start? Up until recently, when trying to place one as a priority over the others, I am not sure I could choose. Each has its benefits and important role in managing your symptoms of ADD, but there is one that seems to be coming out a clear winner.
So if you are wondering “Where to start?” to minimize your symptoms of ADD and get the most bang for your effort, I am going to officially go on the record (and perhaps out on a limb) and say that getting enough, consistent sleep is the priority. Here’s why:
Sleep is more important than food. That is if the science I read is accurate. It’s true that a well-balanced diet rich in protein will benefit our overall energy and provide the longest lasting fuel source for our busy bodies and brains with ADHD. However, a person can go without food for many days and survive. Within a day of having a bad night’s sleep, we start to experience drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, less patience, decreased accuracy on tests, impaired judgment, memory challenges and a lessening in the functioning of our immune system to name just a few. Go without sleep for ten days, and you are likely to die. I am convinced that if sleep weren’t essential to our overall well-being we would have evolved out of it ages ago.
It’s hard to eat healthy when we are sleep deprived. When we are tired, our intention or determination to eat healthy is shaky at best. Simply put we don’t have the energy to shop, plan and prepare nutritious foods. Add to this the impulsive symptoms of ADD around food choices and our best intentions for healthy eating never make it through the kitchen door. In fact we may even gain weight and feel hungrier as our tired mind seeks out easy to get sugary and carb-filled food because they are metabolized the fastest and will satisfy our exhausted brain.
Sleep is when our physical body regenerates and our hormonal and immune systems are restored. Without sleep, our body cannot mend itself. Wounds will not heal, muscles worn by exercise cannot repair, key neurotransmitters essential to our well-being and optimal brain functioning cannot be replenished. In fact ADHD medications are not as effective when poor sleep is involved because the unrested brain has not had a chance to restore its neurochemical balance. Our ability to fight infections and ward off illnesses is significantly decreased. Ever try to head out to the gym with a head cold?? There is also evidence that sleep deprivation will negatively affect our digestion and increase our stress hormones.
Lack of sleep dumbs you down. Sleep plays a critical role in thinking, learning and memory. Consistent, adequate sleep is key to being able to perform at our best academically or for that matter any task that requires memory and accuracy. Bluntly, lack of sleep interferes with attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently. Without sleep our memories can’t be consolidated and you can’t remember what you learned or experienced during the day. Just imagine trying to do well on a test or that report to your boss when your mind wasn’t able to fully absorb the information from the day before and your thinking is fuzzy.
You are less likely to feel like exercising when you are tired. Admittedly, sleep and exercise are intricately entwined. Research has shown that when we exercise we sleep better. However, when we don’t sleep we are not able to utilize or produce serotonin for our brain. Without enough of this neurotransmitter, we may experience depression or anxiety or both. Neither of these common co-existing conditions with ADD are very motivating when it is required to put one foot in front of the other and head out the door for a brisk walk.
If you are not sleeping well, here are a few key ways to maximize your pillow time:
- Turn off screen electronics at least one hour before you plan to go to bed.
- Develop a bed time routine that helps your body and mind prepare to shut down for the day. This might include bathing, changing into pajamas or reading.
- Create the most ideal sleep conditions for yourself. Cool rooms and warm blankets are more conducive to sleep. Keep the room dark and consider adding white noise in the background if your mind tends to not want to shut off. Pay attention to physical distractions that might interfere with sleep such as uncomfortable mattresses, scratchy sheets or tight fitting sleep wear.
- Get up at the same time (or within an hour of that time) every day…including weekends and holidays. Although we would love it to be true, we can’t make up for lost sleep and “sleeping in” on weekends deregulates other areas of our lives that plays havoc with such things as when to eat, exercise, take ADHD medications, etc.
How are you sleeping with ADHD? Let me know by responding to this post.