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Childhood ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder:

the viewpoint of the naturopathic practitioner

By Michael Byrne, N.D.

It is important that children are successful in both learning new skills and in getting along with their peers in order to build healthy self-esteem. Each of these tasks can be quite challenging for children exhibiting the symptoms classified as ADHD (inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity). There is a lot of concern about ADD and ADHD in children and many parents are considering whether it is appropriate to medicate their children who display ADHD symptoms. It is important that your child be properly evaluated and supported.

Definition: ADHD has been defined as the presence of 6 or more symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. The symptoms must have been present for at least 6 months and must lead to significant impairment of function in at least two settings (i.e. school, work, home).

Diagnosis: If it has been suggested, or you suspect, that your child has ADD/ADHD, then a proper evaluation by a professional is essential. Many other conditions can cause the same symptoms. Some of these include learning disabilities, sensory deficiencies, medication side effects, hyperthyroidism, malnutrition, psychiatric disorders, and giftedness (to name just a few). Many educators, doctors and sociologists are concerned that the major factors contributing to the increasing frequency of this “disorder” may be the result of our changing educational system, family structures, and many other aspects of our culture. This view holds that the challenge to be addressed is not necessarily within the child, but within the social and educational system where the child is exhibiting these behaviors.

Causes: If no other organic or psychiatric cause can be found to explain your child’s symptoms, and the symptoms are persisting and negatively effecting your child or the people around him/her, then there is still some detective work to do. There are many other causes for this group of symptoms. I have found in my practice that digestive and nutritional issues are often intimately linked with behavioral changes in children (and adults!). For some people there is a simple link between a particular food and ADHD.

Environmental influences also play a key role in many cases. These influences include television viewing, exposure to toxins, and stress. Finally, there are cultural issues that play a role. Cultural issues can be the toughest to address, but, in my experience, often have the greatest influence upon the child’s behavior. These include the school’s/teacher’s educational approach, parenting styles, family structure/environment, and societal expectations regarding productivity and leisure.

Solutions: I have found that a three-pronged approach gives families the greatest number of tools to use and is easily understood. The three areas to address have been mentioned above but we will go into more detail here.

  1. Digestion & Nutrition: A number of studies have shown the links between various reactions to ingested food, and behavior. In some cases, there are common, healthy foods to which an individual is sensitive. Removal of these foods from the child’s diet leads to profound changes in behavior. In other cases, food additives are the culprits. I have seen many examples in my practice, and the parents of these children are thrilled to monitor food intake rather than medicate their child. In some cases, simply getting adequate protein in the morning helps these children thrive at school. Other nutritional deficiencies can also be present in otherwise healthy looking kids. Dietary adjustments and digestive aids can clear up symptoms in these cases and help build a solid foundation of nutrition for healthy development.
  2. Environmental influences: There have been many studies that have tried to evaluate the impact of television viewing on the behavior and development of children. Although the heavily funded entertainment industry dispute s many of the conclusions reached by researchers, it is clear that television viewing can be detrimental. Many studies have linked excessive TV viewing to increases in child obesity and violent behavior. Recent studies have been shown correlations between TV viewing time and ADHD prevalence. The two have been positively linked (the more time spent watching TV at age 1 and 3 years, the more likely attention problems were present at age 7). The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends no TV viewing for children 2 and younger, and only 1-2 hours per day of nonviolent, educational programs for older children.
  3. Other environmental influences include exposure to toxins. Pesticides and herbicides have been linked with other health problems like cancer and reproductive issues, and heavy metals have been linked with a number of behavioral and learning problems. If you are unsure about the safety of your drinking water, air, or food, these can and should be assessed.
  4. Cultural issues: At the heart of the ADHD epidemic are the changing educational expectations, and many other cultural issues. Children are being expected to perform on tests and learn academic material earlier and earlier in their development. Recess times and the arts are being given less time year after year, as budgets shrink, and academic goals expand. I just learned that many new schools in this country are being built without playgrounds. This is not healthy at all. Children learn with their bodies as much as with their eyes and ears, perhaps more so. It is imperative that children be able to run around and release their great supplies of energy. If not allowed to do this on the playground, children will release their energy in other ways that we do not find as desirable. We also need to look at our schedules as parents. There are increasing pressures to do more in less time, and this leaves us with less time for our children. As parents we are more stressed trying to fit all our activities and obligations into the day. Our children feel this stress, perhaps more acutely than we do. Children need consistency and attention.

These and other issues can be addressed with a professional, but it is best to get community support wherever possible. It is important to share your concerns and raise awareness with other parents at your child’s school. Other parents and a variety of classes for parents can also be a support for new parenting strategies. “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.” Classes like Positive Discipline (and other Adlerian based parenting classes) can provide parents with tools that help them identify their child’s unmet needs and teach socially appropriate ways to get those needs met. Finally, though we may see the need, for both our children and ourselves, simplifying our lives can be quite challenging because our society positively rewards increased productivity over more leisure time with family. Making a commitment to spending a special time every day with each of our children is just one of many positive activities that can help in promoting peace, cooperation, and self-esteem.

Conclusion: Obviously, many issues could be affecting your child’s behavior. My belief is that the rising prevalence of ADHD in our society is a warning to look at our priorities as a society and as individuals. Our children are sensitive to their environment (biologically, culturally and spiritually). We can learn much by carefully observing them and addressing their needs appropriately. But we have to be willing to objectively examine our routines and unwritten, cultural values to see whether they serve or obstruct our children’s development into confident, compassionate and happy people. The well-being of our children is far more important than maintaining current cultural standards for convenience, pace, and “efficiency.”

Michael Byrne, ND (Doctor of Naturopathy), has a naturopathic practice in Seattle, Washington Washington and is also a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. This document is Copyrighted© 2009 by CounselingSeattle LLC, Floyd Else, Webmaster, and may not be reproduced, in whole or in part without crediting the author, source and site name. All rights reserved.

Also see article: Naturopathy and Naturopathic Medicine