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Alternatives to ADHD Medication

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Medically Reviewed Fact Checked

Last Updated on April 1, 2024 by Carol Gillette

Alternative to Meds Editorial Team
Medically Reviewed by Dr Samuel Lee MD

ADHD diagnoses have become alarmingly inflated as has the “unprecedented and unjustified levels” of prescribing ADHD drugs, according to Dr. Keith Connors, the “father of ADHD,” and the late professor emeritus at Duke University. 15 Currently ADHD is one of the most prevalent mental health diagnoses in children and adults.1,16

However, many people diagnosed with ADHD are hesitant to begin taking daily medication as their first method of treatment — and for good reason. And some may be looking for safer drug-free alternative treatments. Read on for more information.

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Concern About the Adverse Effects of ADHD Drugs?

concern about adverse effects of adhd drugsResearchers have expressed the need for caution and the need for more extensive studies on the long-term effects of ADHD medications. Currently, multiple short term and very few long-term studies on the effects of ADHD drugs on either children or adults have been published. Addiction to these drugs remains a concern due to their prevalence and availability in society today.12,13

We looked at several studies, including one year-long study on the effects of methylphenidate on adults published in the Journal of Pharmacopsychiatry, and the information provided on ADHD drug labels to compile the adverse effects list below.20a,18,20,21,27-29

We also looked at some non-human (rat) studies which revealed that after 3 weeks of treatment, neurodegeneration and inflammation of cerebellum tissue occurred. Other rat studies showed decreased spontaneous locomotor activity after prolonged ingesting of methylphenidate. And, rabbit studies showed birth defects involving missing or deformed internal structures of the heart and spine. While more research is needed on human effects, here is what we found:

Adverse effects of ADHD drugs can include:
  • seizures
  • newly emergent psychosis, mania
  • suicidal ideation
  • sudden death
  • unusual changes in behavior
  • serious cardiovascular events: stroke, myocardial infarction, tachycardia, hypertension, palpitations
  • agitation, restlessness, aggression, irritability
  • akathisia
  • dry mouth, hyperhidrosis
  • priapism (prolonged painful erection)
  • allergic reactions, NMS, rashes, hives
  • depression, anxiety, clinical worsening
  • severe liver injury
  • insomnia
  • acute tonsillitis, influenza
  • abdominal pain, gastrointestinal infection
  • suppression of growth
  • visual disturbances
  • decreased appetite, weight loss
  • dependence, addiction

You might find yourself wondering if there are alternative ways to treat your ADHD without medication to avoid such effects. Below is a thorough description of an ADHD diagnosis according to the “experts,” and more importantly, what you need to know about alternatives to medication that may work for you.

What Is a Diagnosis of ADHD Based On?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, more commonly referred to as ADHD, is described as a set of symptoms that affect learning, memory, short attention span, and social behaviors. According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. a positive diagnosis depends on a qualifying number of symptoms what is adhd diagnosis based onfrom the menu of at least 6 symptoms for under the age of 17, and for the adult population, at least 5 symptoms qualifies.

Originally, symptoms had to be present before age 7, which was later expanded to before age 12, for a diagnosis to be considered valid. Additionally, a valid diagnosis is one that is not better accounted for by a different psychiatric disorder like substance abuse disorder, medication-induced symptoms, autism, etc. Also, symptoms do not occur exclusively during a psychotic episode, i.e., schizophrenia and symptoms must have been on-going for at least 6 months.

Although the idea of treating “hyperactivity disorders” with amphetamines in children has been around since the 1930s, the diagnosis of “adult ADHD” was only included in the DSM from 2013 forward. The APA clearly stipulates that ADHD is a childhood development disorder — but puzzlingly, evidence for this in diagnosing adults is waived, as memories often fade and, according to the DSM-5, “are unreliable.” 3,22,23

Symptoms list for ADHD include the following:
  • Displays poor listening skills
  • Loses and/or misplaces school items needed to complete activities or tasks
  • Sidetracked by external or unimportant stimuli
  • Often forgetful in daily activities
  • Diminished attention span
  • Lacks ability to complete schoolwork and other assignments or to follow instructions
  • Avoids or is disinclined to begin homework or activities requiring concentration
  • Fails to focus on details and/or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork
  • Squirms when seated or fidgets with feet/hands
  • Marked restlessness that is difficult to control
  • Appears to be driven by “a motor,” runs about or climbs, or is often “on the go”
  • Lacks ability to play and engage in leisure activities in a quiet manner
  • Incapable of staying seated in class
  • Overly talkative
  • Difficulty waiting turn
  • Interrupts or intrudes into conversations and activities of others
  • Impulsively blurts out answers before questions completed
Symptoms for “Adult ADHD” are similar, but were later modified, i.e.:
  • Lacks ability to complete homework is replaced by “fails to meet deadlines”
  • Makes careless mistakes in schoolwork is replaced by “careless mistakes at work”
  • Often loses/misplaces school items is replaced by “misplaces wallets, keys, mobile telephones”
  • Forgetful in daily activities is replaced by “forgets returning calls, paying bills, keeping appointments”
  • Runs about or climbs is replaced by “often uncomfortable in restaurants and meetings”
  • Incapable of staying seated in class is changed to “in the office or workplace”
  • Avoids homework is replaced by “avoids preparing or reviewing lengthy papers”

Does this seem like a complex diagnosis criteria? It is no wonder that so many ADHD drugs have come to be misused (off-label or recreationally) by students wanting better grades, or for thrills. And doctors struggle with such a monumental task, and could result in many imperfect diagnoses and perhaps too many ineffective drug-based treatments.5

Is there a Known Cause of ADHD?

The term ADHD has become enmeshed in modern language and is regarded as a “mental disorder,” for which the cause remains “unknown”. However, researchers have proposed many very complex and sometime elegant theories such as that attention and hyperactive behaviors may be related to a wide range of factors including trauma, genes, and brain dysfunction.4 But understanding remains elusive. Since there are no biomarkers that have been observed or determined, the label ADHD remains a largely subjective one.

However, known contributors of ADHD symptoms DO exist and have been well documented. These can include heavy metal and chemical exposures, substance abuse, poor diet, nutritional deficiencies, lack of sleep, genetic factors, learning disabilities, stressors, social dysfunction, and many others that a prescription drug would not be able to correct or resolve.17,19

Symptoms on the other hand, are not the same as a clinical/subjective diagnosis. Symptoms are like a roadmap that can, with careful investigation, lead to authentic answers and real relief. Medication is the most common form of treatment for a person of any age who has been diagnosed with ADHD. The National Institute of Mental Health reported 10 years ago that of the millions of children and adults given a diagnosis of ADHD, 69.3% were medicated with ADHD drugs.17

Are There Other Ways to Treat ADHD Symptoms Without Medication?

As mentioned, the most common treatment for ADHD is prescription drugs such as Adderall or Ritalin.5 Amphetamine-based medications are highly addictive, can cause undesirable health outcomes, and are under-studied as to their long-term effects. Other drugs include non-amphetamine stimulants, other types of stimulants, and non-stimulant medications. All of these can have adverse effects. And according to the FDA’s black box warning, Ritalin and similar drugs are considered high-risk for abuse and dependence.11,21

Alternatives to ADHD Medication

Fortunately, there are drug-free ways to treat ADHD symptoms.

If you are concerned about adverse effects of medication, you likely want to know about other alternatives and strategies. Below, we’ve listed a summary of some holistic and self-empowering ways to address ADHD, followed by an expanded description for each.

Alternatives to ADHD medication can include:
  • Introduce adjustments to personal work environment
  • CBT or other practical coaching
  • Correct the diet
  • Supplements such as Omega 3, Vit D, magnesium
  • Holistic tools to improve brain-heart coherence
  • Exercise
  • Lab testing and cleansing of toxic accumulations such as lead, phthalates, other neurotoxins
  • Mindfulness-based practices
  • Develop new social skills and opportunities

• Adjustments to Work Environment

A study published in the BMJ advises using practical approaches to improve work performance such as using noise-reducing headphones to eliminate or reduce distractions while working, or to create a quiet space in which to work. For some, flexible work hours may provide a more productive work situation. Using clear written communications, or a written agenda for the day or project can help prevent missed details when giving or participating in tasks to complete. Taking structured breaks and including physical movement throughout the day can provide a positive outlet to vent excess energy and maintain calm focus over the work day. Using timers or audible alarms to act as physical reminders for improved time management and focus as well. Incentives for performance or task completion can be highly productive strategies for some. These adjustments are tools that can be tailored to the specific needs of an individual to optimize overall work performance in the workplace, at home, and other environments where there is a desire for better focus and satisfaction.6,7

• Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a genre of counseling that focuses on identifying and changing behaviors as well as exploring your thoughts, feelings, and the causes of all the above. CBT is one of the most popular forms of therapy for a variety of psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression. It is now used increasingly to help treat symptoms of ADHD in adults.25

• Correct the Diet

Nutrition and mental wellness are strongly linked. Unhealthy eating patterns have been linked to ADHD symptoms, as have deficiencies in gut microbiota. To reverse course, one would change one’s diet to include adequate protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and foods and supplements such as probiotics that support gut health. Omit sugary and chemically processed foods, cut carbs, and avoid caffeine, alcohol and other drugs to help stabilize blood sugar and energy levels.

An elimination diet works by eliminating a specific food or food group from your diet to see if there is any benefit to your overall health. Elimination diets are often used to identify food allergies. In this case, they may help you identify triggers for your ADHD symptoms. By modifying the diet, these reactions can be reduced or entirely eliminated without resorting to prescription drugs.9,17,31

• Supplements for ADHD Symptoms

Omega-3 fatty acids can be found naturally in a variety of foods, including many fish and plants. Eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are two common fatty acids that aid in brain function. Orthomolecular researchers believe that having enough of these fatty acids is essential for optimal brain health. Vitamin D and magnesium have also been found helpful in reducing symptoms of ADHD, and probiotics can help restore proper balance to the gut microbiome.9,31

• Improving “Brain-Heart Coherence”

Biofeedback is a novel technological method that can help a person measure and even change their responses after exposure to certain stimuli. The ultimate goal of using biofeedback is for a person to be able to recognize when undesirable reactions occur, and develop voluntary ways such as slowed breathing to better manage them. Many other tools also exist that optimize healthy brain-heart coherence, improve psychological resilience, and reduce stress and anxiety, including listening to music, humor, slowed breathing exercises, and meditation.10,11

• Exercise

Physical exercise, especially structured physical activities have been shown to enhance brain development and neurobehavioral functioning in persons suffering from symptoms of ADHD. Exercise is therapeutic for almost any health-related issue, for many good reasons—the health benefits of getting regular exercise are nearly endless. People struggling with symptoms of ADHD who regularly walk, run, swim, practice Qigong, and many other forms of exercise, have found it helps to improve focus, concentration, stamina, memory, and more. Some report that exercise also helps them improve impulse control.14,32

• Neurotoxin Removal

Research published in the Journal of Environmental Immunology shows that exposures to neurotoxic chemicals such as lead, phthalates and others can build up in the adipose tissues (fat) of the body, and are linked to symptoms of ADHD. Lab testing can provide insight into the chemicals we accumulate in the body. Cleansing toxins out of the body is a logical response to find relief from these phenomena as it allows for natural neurotransmitter rehabilitation.24,30

• Mindfulness Practices

Lack of focus is one of the symptoms of a diagnosis of ADHD. Strategies for improvement include practicing mindfulness-based interventions. Practicing mindfulness comes from the Buddhist traditions, and aims to help a person cultivate a state of calm awareness. It may include meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, therapeutic massage, and other techniques. It has been described as a moment-by-moment awareness of the present moment, characterized by feelings of openness, non-judgement, compassion, kindness, and curiosity, as examples. These practices can be done by oneself at home, in day-to-day life, or in a more formal group setting with guidance. Positive effects on lack of focus have been documented as well as long-lasting improvements in unwanted symptoms like insomnia, depression and social anxiety.2,8

• Develop New Social Skills and Opportunities

Social interactions can be problematic for individuals struggling with symptoms of ADHD, and can disrupt home life, professional success in the work environment, and reduce life satisfaction. It is possible to learn new social skills for improvements and increased quality of life. There are classes and courses on public speaking, for example, that empower one’s confidence and ability to be effective not only on a podium, but in everyday situations. Look for other effective courses aimed at improving conversational skills, leadership skills, organizational skills, and similar. Finding social groups with similar interests can be a positive resource for highly enjoyable and relaxing interactions in a variety of settings. In residential treatment settings, peer group support can be highly beneficial.

ATMC Provides Safe Alternatives to ADHD Medications

Ultimately, medication is not the only option to treat ADHD. Every person with a diagnosis of ADHD or suffering from ADHD-like symptoms may find a unique combination of diet, habits, professional therapy, and more that works for them. Please know that if you are seeking an alternative to medication, regardless of the reasons, there are options to explore.

However, never abruptly stop taking medication without being under medical care and supervision.

ATMC has been helping people for a long time to safely reduce and eliminate medication, and to implement alternative options to ADHD medications, with great success. We understand that medication isn’t always the best answer for everyone, and we’re here to help. A team of licensed physicians, nutritional psychiatrists, and holistic professionals can work together to help you find your best and safest alternatives to ADHD medications.

ADHD meds alternatives sedona drug rehab


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27. Krinzinger H, Hall CL, Groom MJ, Ansari MT, Banaschewski T, Buitelaar JK, Carucci S, Coghill D, Danckaerts M, Dittmann RW, Falissard B, Garas P, Inglis SK, Kovshoff H, Kochhar P, McCarthy S, Nagy P, Neubert A, Roberts S, Sayal K, Sonuga-Barke E, Wong ICK, Xia J, Zuddas A, Hollis C, Konrad K, Liddle EB; ADDUCE Consortium. Neurological and psychiatric adverse effects of long-term methylphenidate treatment in ADHD: A map of the current evidence. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Dec;107:945-968. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.09.023. Epub 2019 Sep 20. PMID: 31545988. [cited 2024 Mar 29]

28. Kis B, Lücke C, Abdel-Hamid M, Heßmann P, Graf E, Berger M, Matthies S, Borel P, Sobanski E, Alm B, Rösler M, Retz W, Jacob C, Colla M, Huss M, Jans T, van Elst LT, Müller HHO, Philipsen A. Safety Profile of Methylphenidate Under Long-Term Treatment in Adult ADHD Patients – Results of the COMPAS Study. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2020 Nov;53(6):263-271. doi: 10.1055/a-1207-9851. Epub 2020 Oct 5. PMID: 33017854. [cited 2024 Mar 29]

29. Hennissen L, Bakker MJ, Banaschewski T, Carucci S, Coghill D, Danckaerts M, Dittmann RW, Hollis C, Kovshoff H, McCarthy S, Nagy P, Sonuga-Barke E, Wong IC, Zuddas A, Rosenthal E, Buitelaar JK; ADDUCE consortium. Cardiovascular Effects of Stimulant and Non-Stimulant Medication for Children and Adolescents with ADHD: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Trials of Methylphenidate, Amphetamines and Atomoxetine. CNS Drugs. 2017 Mar;31(3):199-215. doi: 10.1007/s40263-017-0410-7. PMID: 28236285; PMCID: PMC5336546. [cited 2024 Mar 29]

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This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.

Dr. Samuel Lee

Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente.  He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

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