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Back to School Shouldn't Mean Back to Ritalin

school kids.jpgMany of us who have children have been confronted with scenarios such as these: 

The kindergarten teacher is complaining that she can't get Johnny to stay in his seat.  He keeps wanting to move around the room.
Dave frequently gets in fights on the playground.  He is quick-tempered with the other children.
Suzie daydreams all of the time and she just can't concentrate.  Her grades aren't what they should be.
Jimmy fidgets and fusses all through school.  He's always bothering the other students and talking out of turn.

At one time, behavioral problems such as these were recognized for what they are—normal problems with childhood behavoir. While there are some children that could rightfully be labeled as having “Attention Deficit Disorder” (ADD)  or “Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder” (ADHD), today too many kids are being “diagnosed” by school officials and parents pressured to put their children on “meds” as a solution. With overfilled classrooms and underpaid teachers, Ritalin and other medications are often being used as a “quick fix” for these types of behavioral problems at school. Something is wrong when up to 50% of the children are on Ritalin in some American  classrooms!

Few people that are caught in the Ritalin-Go-Round stop to think about what drugs do to the child.  Ritalin is an amphetamine, more commonly known as an “upper” or “speed.”  How safe is it to be using speed  on a regular basis (even in small doses)? These medications blunt appetite and may have other side effects, including a rebound effect that makes the child even more “hyper” when the medication wears off than he was before putting him on meds.

Beyond that, what lesson is a child being taught when adults put him or her on medications to make him behave?  Have a problem with behavior? ...emotions? ...paying attention?  Pop a pill!  That'll fix it!  (And we wonder why we have a drug problem in this country!)

So what should parents do when the school system insists that their child is impossible to handle and MUST be put on medication NOW? That's what we'll explore in this article. Let's start by taking a look at some of the cases of children's behavioral problems and what we can do to help.

Normal Behavior

First, we need to understand what “normal” behavior is for children.  Children are not little adults.  They are in a different stage of neurological development where they learn primarily by touch and feel.  This is called kinesthetic learning and some children, particularly boys, are naturally more kinesthetic than others.  It is the kinesthetic learner that is most frequently labeled ADHD.

Children are supposed to be full of wiggles and giggles and energy that just doesn't end.  That's a sign that they are healthy.  It used to be that adults worried if a child was too quiet! 

It is also natural for children to have shorter attention spans. They learn best in short blocks of time, interspersed with physical activity and exercise. When children play, they move from one interesting object or activity to another.  The younger the child, the shorter their attention span.  As adults, we need to respect these needs of children and adjust our expectations accordingly.

Being active and being hyperactive, however, are too different things. There has been a marked tendency to increased hyperactivity and disruptive, uncooperative behavior in children during the past 15-20 years.  However, it is unlikely that our children suddenly developed a “Ritalin deficiency,” so what has changed during this time?

Diet and Nutrition

One of the most important needs that young, growing bodies have is the need for not just good, but  great nutrition. To supply the minerals, vitamins and everything that children's bodies and minds need, they have to eat fresh vegetables and fruits.  General nutritional deficiency lies at the bottom of a great deal of ADD and ADHD problems.  Here are specific nutritional problems that contribute to behavioral problems in children.

Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates. From sugar-coated breakfast cereals to start their mornings, to  candy and soda vending machines at school, to stores stocked  with candy, pastries and monster sized sodas, America's kids are eating their way, not only to high dentist bills, but to wild blood sugar swings that make them overly active, unable to pay attention in school, and to aggressive behavior.  Teachers note that when kids return from high sugar-filled lunches and snacks, they “bounce off the walls.”  Hypoglycemia (blood sugar imbalances) creates both hyperactivity and attention deficit behaviors. Licorice root, HY-A and Super Algae can all help hypoglycemia and sugar cravings.

Insufficient Protein. Protein gives sustained energy and provides the amino acids that are necessary to create neurotransmitters in the brain.  Protein helps stimulate ephinephrine production, so it directly helps ADHD (see sidebar on Stimulants) by aiding mental focus.  Adequate protein intake also helps balance blood sugar levels, which contributes to more stable thinking.  Studies show that children who ate protein for breakfast performed better in school, while kids who ate carbohydrates (especially sugar sweetened breakfast cereals) did worse than kids who ate no breakfast at all.  Feed kids eggs, red meat or protein shakes for breakfast and it will help stabilize their mood. Spirulina and Super Algae, due to their high content of amino acids, are often helpful in ADHD, especially when taken during breakfast and lunch.

Food Additives. Aspertame (Nutri-Sweet™) contributes directly to ADHD symptoms.  Some children improve just by taking this one thing out of their diet.  Food colorings and other food additives  may also exacerbate ADHD symptoms. Using a general cleansing formula like Enviro-Detox can help the liver deal better with these chemicals and get them out of the body.

Food allergies and “leaky gut” syndrome. Many times food allergies are at the root of behavioral problems.  Teaching children to eat the right foods for their blood type  is helpful.  Closely associated with food allergies is “leaky gut” syndrome, which is caused largely by compromised intestinal membranes which allows molecules of partially digested food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. This hypersensitizes the immune system and creates allergic responses.  

It appears that most children who are true ADD also have leaky gut syndrome.  Licorice root, una d'gato and chamomile are three herbs that can help to treat leaky gut.  Enzymes like Proactazyme and Small Intestine Detox are also helpful.  Kudzu/St. John's Wort  and l-glutamine are good supplements for repairing the gut permeability.  Careful attention to diet is also important.  Healing the digestive system will often help ADD and ADHD.

Lifestyle Factors

Heavy metal poisoning. Mercury, lead, and asbestos, poison the body and may be hidden causes of ADD,  ADHD and serious health problems.  Algin and Heavy Metal Detox are helpful for getting heavy metals out of the body.

Lack of exercise. Couch potato kids don't get the exercise they need. This causes a lack of oxygen in their brains, poor metabolizing of nutrients to fuel the body, and makes it harder for them to stay well. Physical activity also helps burn off stress and promotes ephinephrine production in ADHD children.  This is particularly helpful for children who are kinesthetic learners (kids who learn primarily by physical involvement).  These children learn best through touch and movement and are the most likely to be labeled ADHD even when they aren't. 

Lack of sleep.  Today's children are getting less sleep than previous generations.  This effects their ability to concentrate and for the body to function properly and stay well.

TV, video games, computers. These gadgets, gizmos and electronic babysitters may be making kids seem smarter, but they don't move around enough, and movement is what children need to keep their bodies healthy and growing.  By sitting for long periods of time and  focusing their attention on these devices, children experience energy explosions when they are freed from their fixation.  Some children and adolescents actually develop an addiction to electronic devices, exhibiting obsession and withdrawal cycles similar to those of substance abusers.

Emotional Issues. Stress and tension from school or home can contribute to ADD and ADHD.  Family issues, fears of life and death, moving, shifting relationships, etc. can cause children to become stressed and irritable.  Simply recognizing and dealing with these issues can help bring behavior back into normal range. 

Boredom. Face it, school is arranged so everyone can pass. Therefore, most of the kids are bored most of the time. This, in and of itself, causes children difficulty with keeping their attention focused.

Vaccine reactions. Vaccines sometimes cause low grade encephalitis, which damaged the nervous system and may contribute to ADHD problems.

The bottom line for a great deal of hyperactive behavior and difficulty with attention span is this: Get the children off of sugar, feed them nutritious foods, get them off of the electronic babysitters and get them exercising. 

Supplements for ADHD

Since many children don't get the nutrients they need, proper healthful supplementation will do wonders at turning behavior difficulties around.  Here are some suggestions for  nutritional supplements that may help children with learning or behavioral problems.

General Supplements

GABA Plus-- GABA is a neurotransmitter in the brain that serves to slow excess brain activity, thereby reducing anxiety and hyperactivity.  Glutamine forms glutemic acid, which also calms excess brain activity.  Taurine helps stabilize and protect brain tissue and may help reduce seizures.  This formula was designed to help reduce mental stress and excess mental chatter. It may be helpful for ADD, seizures, hyperactivity and anxiety. 

Focus Attention—This formula provides nutrients that help to reduce overactivity in the brain's neurotransmitter system. It also helps protect the brain from toxic chemicals. This supplement specifically helps hyperactivity and ADD. For best results, it should be taken with flax seed oil.

Balanced B-Complex—B vitamins are necessary for the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain.  They help to regulate the nervous system.

Flax Seed oil, Omega-3 EPA or Fish Oils—Essential fatty acids have been shown to have a very positive effect on ADHD children. The brain is 60% fat and a deficiency of the proper essential fatty acids contributes to a lack of good brain function.  Our kids eat a lot of fat, but it is the wrong kind of fat.  Flax seed oil contains a healthy balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils, but these are short chain fatty acids and must be converted to the longer chain fatty acids.  Wild caught fish and fish oil supplements can be very helpful for ADHD children. The brain will also benefit from using olive oil and butter instead of hydrogenated fats and oils.

Antioxidants—You need antioxidants that can cross the blood brain barrier. Pycnogenol is an antioxidant that can cross the blood brain barrier and help protect the brain against free radical damage. It is often helpful in ADHD. Another possible antioxidant is alpha lipoic acid. Rosemary is a good antioxidant herb for the brain and can help memory and focus. Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) are also beneficial in protecting the brain from free radical damage.

Gotu Kola or Ginkgo/Gotu Kola —Gotu kola has a reputation for improving memory and brain function.  It is a general tonic for the body, helping it adapt to stress.  Many people have found it enhances concentration and mental alertness. The Mind Max formula combines gotu kola with ginkgo and bacopa.  Ginkgo enhances circulation to the brain and ginseng acts as a general tonic.  Parents have found either of these supplements helpful with many children's inability to concentrate or learn.

Iodine —We have also discovered the ADHD kids are often low in iodine and using Iodoral, a high potency iodine supplement, can be very helpful with ADHD.  We use 1-2 tablets per day for adults, half that dose for children.

Parasympathetic Nervines

For the child who is having problems because they are too stressed, the following nervines may help to relax and calm them down.  These formulas will react backwards in true ADHD.  The reason is explained below under the heading, understanding ADHD.

Chamomile —Chamomile helps reduce inflammation in the intestinal membranes.  It is also a nervine that is particularly useful where heat  (inflammation or fever) is found in combination with tension and irritability.  It helps children who are peevish and whiny, calming irritability and crankiness. Herbalist Matthew Wood says that chamomile is for “babies of any age.”

Stress-J  Liquid —This is a good general nervine formula for stress, anxiety, and nervous tension.

Nutri-Calm—This is an anti-stress vitamin/mineral supplement which helps calm nervous, high-strung individuals and does not cause drowsiness.  It contains B-vitamins for synthesis of neurotransmitters, vitamin C and nervine and adaptagenic herbs to help reduce stress.

Understanding True ADHD

Ritalin belongs to the class of drugs known as amphetamines.  These drugs, which include cocaine,  mimic the hormone and neurotransmitter ephinephrine (adrenaline).  These drugs are “uppers” or “speed” because they are highly stimulating.  Why does “speed” appear to calm ADHD children down? 

I discovered the answer to this several years ago when working with a friend of mine who was an adult with ADHD.  As she was describing her experience of the world (caffeine and Chinese ephedra helped her feel calmer) it occurred to me that she may not be reacting backwards to nervines at all.  I realized that her problem was an overactive parasympathetic nervous system coupled with an underactive sympathetic nervous system. 

To test my theory, I mixed her a combination of powerful sympathetic nervines (ephedra, lily of the valley and scotch broom) and asked her to take small doses (3-5 drops).  This formula would give most people anxiety and heart palpitations.  It helped her go to sleep.

Together, we tested this theory on other ADHD kids and discovered that true ADHD children and adults are “parasympathetic dominant” in their nervous system.  Under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system they become more open to sensory input.  These people are in constant sensory overload, which keeps them constantly agitated.

Ironically, as a result, they often feel calmer and more focused when their sympathetic nervous system ( “fight-or-flight” response) is activated.  Hence, they often live “on the edge” creating stress in their lives to initiate a sympathetic nervous system response.  Although the sympathetic nervous system tend to “wind us up,” it also helps us filter out distractions and stay focused.  This is why a  small amount of an ephinephrine “mimic” will improve concentration.

A child who is tense and “hyper” is probably just stressed, and calming nervines which activate a parasympathetic response will help.  For the ADHD child however, calming nervines just make the problem worse.

So, how can you tell the difference?  It's rather simple.  Just look at the child's pupils.  If the pupil is enlarged, this is an excess sympathetic nervous system reaction (i.e., stress) and will respond to calming (parasympathetic enhancing) nervines.  If the pupil is small, however, this indicates excess parasympathetic activity and nervines that enhance sympathetic activity (stimulants) are needed in small doses.  Here are some sympathetic agents.

Sympathetic Agents

ENRG-V—This is an adaptagenic formula that helps the adrenals.  It is very useful for younger children with symptoms of ADHD.  The hard part is convincing parents that the formula will calm their child down not “energize” them. 

Chinese Ephedra—Chinese ephedra or MaHuang, contains ephedrine, which mimics ephinephrine (like Ritalin and amphetamines do).  Hence, small amounts of formulas that contain them may be used as alternatives to Ritalin and other medications.  Unfortunately, Chinese ephedra has been made illegal in the United States.  However, Western ephedra, also known as Brigham tea, is still legal and will still have some positive effect for ADHD.

Bitter Orange-This remedy is still legal and contains a small amount of synephrine, a compound that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system like ephedrine. 

Caffeine—Remedies that contain caffeine can help ADHD children feel calmer. Good choices are a little green tea, chocolate or an extract of kola nuts. 

Scotch Broom —I've used small amounts of this toxic botanical on someone with adult ADHD.  I think it's too strong for children, however.  With adults, use dosages of 3-5 drops.

Using sympathetic agents is symptom controlling strategy (like taking the meds) and should be used only for stabilization while dietary changes, lifestyle adjustments and supplements are used for a more permanent solution.  However, the bottom line is that there are many options for solving ADHD besides taking drugs. I highly encourage parents to explore these options rather than just submitting to pressure to put their children on medications. 

For more information on helping children with learning problems, see my DVD program Holistic Solutions to Learning Problems.