ADHD can cause problems with focus and attention, making it difficult (or impossible) to meet goals at work or school. Currently, amphetamine (Adderall) and other stimulants are the first-line treatment for ADHD. Not all of us are in a hurry to down habit-forming substances as a first choice solution, though. Fortunately, there are supplements and other treatments that can help people with ADHD improve attention, focus and behavior. Here I name some of the supplements for ADHD.
Essential fatty acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6)
Multiple studies have been done on people (especially children) with ADHD taking one type of essential fatty acid (EFA) or another. While some have shown good results, others haven’t. The conflicting study results had puzzled researchers for some time, but now some experts believe they understand why some studies showed a benefit and others did not.
Basically, they are beginning to believe that the type of EFA’s taken and the amounts taken matter. As far as type goes, Omega-3 EFA’s from cold water fatty fish seem to work best. Omega-6 EFA’s in the form of Evening Primrose Oil seem to have good results. Where things get tricky is deciding how much to take. Researchers believe that the ratio of Omega-3’s to Omega-6’s matters. Most Americans have a diet very high in “bad” Omega-6 fats and very low in “good” Omega-3 fats. The theory is that this imbalance causes or worsens ADHD symptoms, as the ideal diet would have lots of Omega-3’s and much less Omega-6’s. The solution, then, is to either change your diet completely so the vast majority of the fats you eat are Omega-3’s, or to take Omega-3 supplements to balance out all the Omega-6’s in your diet.
How to pick the right Omega-3 supplement? Here’s a quick guide:
- Get fish oil.
- Make sure the fish oil is purified and/or tested by a third-party lab (it should say whether it is on the package).
- Make sure the fish oil is from small cold water fatty fish, such as sardines. Smaller fish have less risk of containing mercury.
- The fish oil can be concentrated, but it should have an overall ratio of about 2 times as much EPA as DHA. This should be listed on the label.
- Make sure the product has not expired, been sitting on the shelf a long time, been exposed to heat or radiation (radiation might happen when shipping internationally).
- If you want it to work, don’t buy $1 fish oil from the dollar store. Go for a good quality brand, at least on your first try, so you can really see if it works for you.
There is some evidence that people with ADHD may benefit from taking Evening Primrose Oil. In studies it has improved hyperactivity in particular. (36)
Pycnogenol is a proprietary extract of the bark of the French Maritime pine tree (Pinus pinaster). It has many positive reviews online for the treatment of ADHD. The active ingredient is called procyanidin. In one study on children with ADHD, Pycnogenol caused a reduction of hyperactivity and improved attention, coordination and concentration in the group.
Zinc deficiency is actually pretty common and people with ADHD can suffer from it as well. The difference is that for them, a deficiency of zinc can exacerbate symptoms. People with ADHD often benefit from adding more zinc-rich foods to their diets. Beware: if you eat a lot of grain, the phytic acid in the grain reduces zinc absorption. (This isn’t the case if the grain-based food also has yeast in it.) If that isn’t an option, zinc supplements are a good alternative. The most common form of zinc you’ll find in supplements is zinc oxide. Avoid this and opt instead for zinc gluconate or zinc citrate, which are more bioavailable. This chart gives RDA’s for adults and children of various ages. When it comes to zinc, more is not better: excessive zinc supplementation over time can cause a deficiency of copper in the body.
Kava is an herb known for its calming properties. According to herbalists, it is a good “daytime sedative” because it does not have any negative effect on clarity of thinking. It is thought to promote the action of GABA, the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. While there are some studies on kava for stress and anxiety, I could find none on kava for ADHD. However, for those concerned mostly with hyperactivity, anxiety, aggression or sleep difficulties, kava could be helpful.
Deanol, also known as DMAE, a nootrophic precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, can be used as a supplement for ADHD. At least one double-blind, placebo controlled study showed that deanol improved symptoms as well as one of the first-choice prescription treatments for ADHD, Ritalin (methylphenidate).
Lemon balm + Valerian
The use of valerian and lemon balm combinations has been studied in randomized controlled trials in adults with sleep disorders and insomnia with positive results and without daytime sedation or rebound phenomena (47). Lemon balm has not been studied in children with sleep disorders or ADHD. This compound is on the FDA’s GRAS list, but caution should be exercised in patients with Grave’s disease because of a possible inhibition of thyroid hormones (43).
Valerian root is from the herb Valeriana officinalis. It is typically used for its calming effects. It is thought that this effect is related to Valerian’s action on GABA and/or GABA receptors. Valerian root may be used to quell anxiousness and hyperactivity, and may also help with insomnia (which is a problem for many people with ADHD).
Some ADHD supplements containing Valerian root combine it with Lemon Balm (next).
Lemon Balm, an herbal treatment from the plant Melissa officinalis, is used to induce feelings of calm. It is a mild sedative that inhibits the enzyme that breaks down GABA, leaving GABA around longer. It is thought that the rosmarinic acid content in Lemon Balm is responsible for this effect. Some say that despite being a sedative, Lemon Balm is also good for improving concentration, attention span and memory. It is often combined with Valerian root.
Chamomile has long been known for its calming effects. It can prove useful for ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity, anxiety and insomnia. This is due to the chrysin flavonoid content of chamomile. One of the best things about using chamomile is that it is easy to find and if you enjoy tea, it can be quite a pleasant ADHD remedy.
Magnesium deficiency is common in people with ADHD, worsening hyperactivity and depression (if present). Supplementing with magnesium has been found to decrease hyperactivity significantly.
Gingko biloba is a popular supplement used for improving cognitive performance, concentration and memory. This lends it to ADHD treatment easily. It is sometimes combined with American ginseng.
Gingko may interact with some medications, so be sure to check with a doctor or pharmacist before taking it.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is another popular herbal supplement, often used effectively as an antidepressant, according to this meta-analysis. Sources seem to be all over the place regarding opinions of whether St. John’s Wort is effective in the treatment of ADHD. A few studies and experts believe it is, but at least as many show that it is not. Since depression is often comorbid with ADHD, I am listing it here. Note: St. John’s Wort can interact with some medications.
Passion flower, sometimes combined with Valerian root, has shown effectiveness as a calming agent. It is believed to also improve memory and cognitive ability. For adults with ADHD, Passion flower can be especially helpful with insomnia.
SAM-e supplementation benefited 75% of the adults with ADHD in this small study done by UCLA.
According to Mayo Clinic, early evidence suggests that SAMe may benefit adults who have ADHD.
SAM-e is a supplement that can help with anxiety, depression and many other conditions. It may be especially helpful for those with genetic methylation deficiencies (which are fairly common). When starting out with SAM-e, be sure to begin with a small dose and work your way up to a higher dose if needed. Taking too much can cause anxiety and general ill feeling. If you are one of the many people with a genetic deficiency in one of the detoxification pathways, taking SAM-e will immediately allow your body to detoxify- and when it does, all those toxins coming out may not feel good. If you experience discomfort while taking SAM-e, stop taking it until you can talk to a doctor about it. A doctor knowledgeable about genetic mutations that affect detoxification pathways can help you determine if you should be taking SAM-e or not.
There has been some speculation that people with ADHD may have deficiencies of iron. One study showed that people with ADHD have lower levels of iron in the brain.
So of course, researchers have been checking into whether iron supplements could improve symptoms of ADHD. One study done in France found that iron supplementation was as effective as stimulant medications at treating ADHD. The concerning part of the study (to me, at least) is that the supplements given to the children was 80mg per day. This is much more than the 14-16 RDA for kids. I’m not saying the dosage in the study was inappropriate- often times genetics or environment can make a person an ultra-fast metabolizer of a particular nutrient, and that could necessitate higher doses. This is pure speculation on my part, though. Because excessive iron supplementation can be harmful, don’t take such high doses of iron without a doctor’s approval.
A far better way to get more iron is to eat more iron-rich foods. Particularly before bed, these can be helpful. This is especially easy to accomplish if you are trying an elimination or certain other special diets for ADHD. Many of them have meat and spinach (which are high in iron) among their options.
Deficiencies of B vitamins are extremely common and on top of that, genetics and environment can make a person need more than average. For people with ADHD, a deficiency of B vitamins would likely lead to a worsening of symptoms and possibly difficulty functioning.
One double-blind study showed improvements in the behavior of kids with ADHD when given supplements of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). The study noted that people with ADHD tend to have low serotonin levels and that after several weeks of vitamin B6 supplementation, serotonin levels had increased. Interestingly, the effect on serotonin levels remained three weeks after the study stopped.
Hops as a Mild Sedative for Those with ADHD
Hops are an herbal remedy for anxiety and insomnia. This is not a very common treatment for ADHD, but it could improve those problems, which are common in ADHD.
Blue-green algae, such as spirulina, are a source of B-complex vitamins, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and amino acids. There are some comments and reviews online saying spirulina works for ADHD. Since it is a healthy addition to most diets and provides many nutrients that could be helpful in ADHD, it’s worth a shot to give it a try. As with fish oil, you don’t want to get your spirulina from the dollar store. Stick with a reputable brand so you are sure of what you’re getting.
Skullcap is an herbal remedy used to produce calmness without drowsiness. It is an extract of the roots of plants from the Lamiaceae family. It could be useful for hyperactivity and anxiety in those with ADHD.