Hyperactivity is a common childhood disorder which can cause significant problems both at school and in the home. Conventional medical treatment for this condition is centred around the drugs Ritalin and Dexedrine. While these medications are being prescribed with increasing frequency, last month saw the publication of a report questioning the appropriateness and safety of their use in hyperactive children. The article, published in the doctors’ newsletter Drug and Therapeutic Bulletin, calls for an urgent investigation into the long-term effects of the conventional treatment for hyperactivity. For parents who are looking for an alternative to Ritalin and Dexedrine, what other options exist? Scientific research has found that hyperactivity can be related to the deficiency of certain healthy fats in the diet. What is more, supplementing with these fats may help to reduce hyperactive symptoms and problems with behaviour. Here, we look at a natural drug-free approach to this common childhood problem.
Hyperactivity, also known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a childhood condition characterised by symptoms such as impulsiveness, reduced concentration, uncontrollable over-activity and learning difficulties. The drugs used to treat ADHD are actually potent stimulants. The chemical name for Dexedrine (dexamphetamine) is essentially ‘speed’ by another name, and Ritalin (methylphenidate) is a related substance. Despite their stimulant action in the body, paradoxically these drugs seem to calm behaviour in some children.
However, these drugs do not work for a significant proportion of hyperactive children, and are also linked with a variety of side effects such as insomnia and restlessness. A study published in 1999 in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that one in 10 children taking these drugs suffers from psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or paranoia. Also, according to the Drug and Therapeutic Bulletin report, doubts still remain about the side effects of these drugs and whether or not they are addictive. Neither is it known whether taking these drugs improves academic performance.
In recent years, research has suggested that their might be a link between ADHD and a deficiency of healthy dietary fats known as long chain polyunsaturated acids (LCPs). LCPs come in two main forms; omega-3 and omega-6. One of the omega-3 fats, known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is thought to play an important role in the regulation of neurological function. Two other LCPs (this time of the omega-6 class) known as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA) may also have important roles in this respect. DHA is found naturally in oily fish, while GLA thought to be the active ingredient in evening primrose oil. Evidence of low levels of LCP has been found children with behavioural and educational problems. Low LCP levels are also associated with other ‘neurological’ conditions including dyspraxia (poor coordination and clumsiness) and dyslexia. Two symptoms which parents can look out for which area sign of LCP deficiency are excessive thirst and dry, scaly skin.
Because LCPs participate in brain function, and their deficiency seems to be common in children with ADHD, could supplementing with LCPs help these children? To answer this question, a group of children with education problems were treated with a supplement containing a mix of DHA, GLA and AA. Another group of similar children received an inactive (placebo) treatment. Within three months, the children on the real treatment saw significant improvements in general behaviour compared to children on placebo. A blend of DHA, GLA and AA is available under the name Efalex. This supplement can be found in health food stores and chemists.
Another nutrient which may help in ADHD is magnesium. Magnesium has a number of important roles in the body, including a general calming effect on the neurological system. Research has shown that some children with ADHD have low levels of magnesium in their bodies. Supplementation with this mineral has been shown to help reduce hyperactive behaviour. The dose of magnesium should be adjusted according to age, but an average 10-year-old should be given between 100 ” 200 mg per day.