Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition characterized by difficulty concentrating, trouble finishing tasks, impulsiveness, and restlessness. It has been diagnosed in over 6 million children, and it affects about 4.4% of adults in the United States.
ADHD symptoms can severely impact quality of life, and get in the way of school or work. Though the condition is usually treated with medication like Adderall, some people may want to use natural supplements in addition to a doctor-prescribed regimen. Therapy is another non-pharmaceutical treatment that can help.
Before considering alternative treatments, you should speak to your doctor to determine what options are best.
Here’s what you need to know about therapy and supplements for ADHD.
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT helps you to recognize unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors and develop healthier ones. During CBT, people with ADHD also learn to cope with symptoms that may come along with ADHD such as mood swings, a quick temper, and a hard time dealing with stress.
Additionally, David W. Goodman MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine says CBT can help someone with ADHD reflect on things that they’ve done in the past, such as a negative result of impulsivity, or wasted or missed opportunities due to the condition. With a therapist, you can work through these past memories and learn how to move forward.
Overall, CBT for ADHD is viewed as an effective treatment. A 2015 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology looked at 32 studies with a total of 896 adult participants. They found that CBT had “medium to large” positive effects on functioning in adults with ADHD.
Iron’s main function is to make hemoglobin, which helps transport oxygen throughout the body. But it also plays a role in brain function and an iron deficiency could worsen ADHD.
A 2013 study published in BMC Psychiatry looked at a sample size of 2,957 children and adolescents and determined that iron deficiency anemia is linked to various mental health conditions, including ADHD. Additionally, a 2014 study published in The Annals of Medical and Health Science Research found that low levels of iron in the blood was also linked to ADHD.
If your diet is very low in iron, it’s possible that you have iron-deficiency anemia. If you suspect you may be iron deficient, see your doctor for blood testing.
Some iron-rich foods include:
- Lean beef
- Leafy green vegetables like spinach or kale
- Beans such as white beans or kidney beans
Zinc is another mineral that plays a role in brain function. It’s a trace mineral, meaning we really only need a small amount of it. Uma Naidoo, MD, author of This Is Your Brain on Food and Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital recommends also testing for zinc deficiency if you think this could be a cause for your ADHD symptoms. Though, zinc deficiencies are rare in the US.
That being said, a 2015 review published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America found that in studies in other countries, children with ADHD tended to have lower zinc levels.
While the review states that results have been mixed on whether zinc supplementation can actually help ADHD, the authors admit that zinc is beneficial for overall health, and could possibly help ADHD symptoms.
Another study from 2005, published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry showed promising results for relieving ADHD symptoms with zinc sulfate supplements. About 400 children participants were given either a placebo or 150 mg of zinc sulfate daily for 12 weeks. The group that took zinc saw significant improvements in symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity compared to the placebo group.
4. Vitamin C
Naidoo says that Vitamin C impacts brain function because it is a cofactor for important enzyme reactions in the brain. A cofactor is a compound that helps carry out enzyme functions. Therefore, vitamin C will help your brain perform optimally by helping to carry out chemical reactions.
A 2017 review published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine determined that deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, were linked to ADHD. Additionally, a 2005 study published in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids found that flax oil and vitamin C supplements improved hyperactivity in children with ADHD.
On top of this, vitamin C helps with iron absorption, so this is particularly helpful if iron deficiency is worsening ADHD.
5. B vitamins
The same study above from the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine concluded that B vitamin deficiency is also linked to ADHD. Vitamin B6, in particular, seems to be linked to brain function. Naidoo says that B vitamin functions vary since there are several types, but in general, they help with biochemical reactions in the brain, thereby supporting your mental health function.
A 2006 study published in Magnesium Research involved giving vitamin B6 and magnesium to children with ADHD over the course of eight weeks. The researchers found that the children given vitamin B6 and magnesium experienced reduced ADHD symptoms.
Ginseng has been used for herbal remedies for centuries. Researchers believe that it is beneficial to brain health thanks to an active ingredient in ginseng called ginseng total saponins (GTS). A 2020 review published in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience noted that GTS can protect brain cells as well as improve brain function.
A small 2011 study (18 subjects between the ages of 6 and 14) published in the Journal of Ginseng Research found that there was a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms after eight weeks of taking 1,000 milligrams of Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) daily.
Pycnogenol is a plant-based extract from the French maritime pine bark. It contains a blend of natural antioxidants and is used to help with a variety of physical health problems due to its anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Neurosurgical Sciences found that Pycnogenol could improve brain function in healthy professionals (without ADHD). The small study administered 150 milligrams of Pycnogenol daily to 30 patients over 12 weeks. Compared to the group who took a placebo, those who consumed the Pycnogenol noted better alertness and mental function. Additionally, plasma-free radicals and oxidative stress were reduced by 30%.
Another small study from 2006 published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry involved giving children with ADHD either a placebo or 1 milligram of Pycnogenol per kilogram for four weeks. The children who took the Pycnogenol had a significant improvement in hyperactivity and had a relapse of symptoms one month after stopping taking the supplement.
The bottom line
More research –– both larger-scale studies and studies including more adults –– needs to be conducted to determine the true efficacy of these supplements for ADHD. Goodman says it is more likely that someone will respond positively if someone has a true deficiency in one of these vitamins or minerals, but otherwise, there is a lot we don’t know.
If you are going to try taking supplements for ADHD, make sure to consult your doctor first, both experts urge. You need to make sure that any medications that you’re taking will not interact with the supplements.
Goodman says that if you decide to try supplements, and you don’t notice a difference in one or two months, that’s a long enough trial period. After this, you should consult your doctor to see if therapy and/or medications could be a better fit for you.