ADHD Alternative Treatment





ADHD Alternative Treatment for Kids and Adults
by Douglas C. Burr M.S., L.Ac., RCP

Douglas Burr is a Licensed Acupuncturist, with a Masters of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine. He was a Respiratory Therapist for 20 years before studying Oriental Medicine. He practices in San Diego, CA.
Throughout the country intense debates are taking place over the medical management of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Parents, consumer advocacy organizations, and many physicians are seeking alternatives to the potent stimulants used in treatment.

Currently as many as 3 million children have been prescribed methylphenidate (Ritalin), a CNS stimulant, for treatment. Of course pharmaceutical interests are rigorously defending its use. Drug treatment seems to offer a quick fix. But what parents need to know is that drug treatment offers only a short-term limited solution to a complex multifaceted problem. Medication only covers some symptoms and does not actually get to the root of the problem.

Acupuncture for ADHD

Acupuncture can treat ADHD for adults and children without drug side-affects. In my clinical practice, ADHD has been effectively treated with acupuncture, nutritional counseling and glyconutritionals for both adults and children. It's always great to hear parents proclaim, "I can't believe it's the same kid!" after just a few treatments. Parents are also amazed at the improvement of the general health of their child. For any parent who knows their child would scream and head for the quickest exit at the site of a needle, needle-free treatment is available.

The ADHD Problem

Today, ADHD has become an all too familiar term with 3% to 11% of school age children diagnosed with the disorder. The majority diagnosed is boys, but some researchers feel the number of girls may be under identified. The symptoms are a large group that is loosely defined, and range from a lack of concentration with poor study habits to major disruption at home and aggression in the classroom. Approximately 50% of cases persist into adulthood.

While the exact cause of this disorder is still unknown a combination of several factors is most likely; sensitivity to processed foods, additives and sugar substitutes, inability to absorb vital nutrients, exposure to environmental chemicals, toxins, molds and fungus, and inactivity. It is also generally believed that genetics and family medical history play a role but is difficult to determine because more than one factor is identified in most cases.

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In 1994, the American Psychiatric Association's Manual of Mental Disorders, Forth Edition (DSM-IV) created the official term attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, ADHD and identified 3 subtypes; inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Some professionals use the term ADD for children who are only inattentive but official reports and records are required to use ADHD. There are no straightforward clinical tests to diagnosis ADHD. A detailed clinical history provided by parents and teachers is used to provide a "definitive" diagnosis. The drawback being that this information can be extremely biased depending on the experience of teachers and education of parents. (1,2) Other disorders and issues must be ruled out such as learning disabilities, chemical dependency or the child is academically unchallenged. It has also been found that some children that have been labeled "gifted and talented" display some of the same behavioral traits as those diagnosed with ADHD.

Western medical treatment has a multifaceted approach with individual and family counseling, behavioral therapy, school remediation and medication. An integral approach between school, family and medical practitioner is ideal and yields the best long-term benefits.

Drug Treatments for ADHD

Many times drug treatment becomes the only medical management. The first line of medications is the use of psycho stimulants with methylphenidate (Ritalin) being the most widely used drug. Approximately 70% of those treated show improvement in primary symptoms such as impulsivity although benefits may not hold over 2 years. A study found that over half of children diagnosed with ADHD also had depression, anxiety and conduct disorder which methylphenidate does not treat. Ideally the medication use should be reevaluated after the first semester of the child's school year. Many times, however, this plan is not followed and the child remains on the medication without any reevaluation for a very long period of time. Unfortunately, the action of methylphenidate is virtually identical with cocaine and in the United States it is a Schedule II controlled drug. (3-5) With its potential for abuse it is fast becoming a "street drug" among teenagers. (6)

Further controversy continues because of the long-term side effects that include loss of appetite from nausea resulting in poor weight gain, insomnia and headaches. Although rarely, psycho stimulants have been know to cause leukopenia (drop in white blood cell count), psychosis (7) and the development of tic disorder. Besides the problems dealing with side effects parents are frustrated with contradictory views from ADHD information groups. An example is the Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed 25 years of scientific studies and found that certain foods and food additives do cause behavior problems while groups like CHADD state that there is no correlation between food sensitivities and behavioral problems. Recently, individual schools that have changed their lunch menus, eliminating soda, processed and fried foods and choosing fresh fruits and vegetables are reporting a significant drop in behavioral problems throughout the school. This reflects a Purdue University study that found children deficient in omega-3 fatty acids are more likely to have ADD, learning disorders, behavior problems, depression and dyslexia.

A brief Internet search found a multitude of websites proclaiming the problems with the pharmaceutical management of ADHD. These sites are from parent and medical professionals alike. Websites like alone provides enough information for any parent or teacher to search out a more integrative approach in treating ADHD.


Yes, there is an alternative to medicating your child. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a complete system that can treat each patient individually and address the problems specific to that person. Western medicine views ADHD as a complex neurodevelopmental disorder. Like Western medicine, TCM treatment of ADHD can be extremely complex. Treatment takes into account the patient's age and stage of development, which is extremely important in TCM.

Children grow in stages from infancy to adulthood and certain organ systems may be deficient until development is complete. While one organ system, according to TCM is deficient; another can be in excess causing an imbalance. Balancing these organ systems is at the heart of successful treatment. Western medicine lists multiple side affects but does not consider the effects medications have on this process. TCM can support this development while getting to the root cause of ADHD. Symptoms that are unique to your child can be address specifically as well as diet and environmental influences.

What you can do at home:

TCM looks at children as mostly Yang in nature. Yang is exuberant, moving, warm and loud. As opposed to Yin, which is still, quiet and cool. Children need ample opportunity to run around, jump up and down, and yell at the top of their lungs! Children need to be involved in physical activity on a daily basis. Any kind of sports, marital arts, horseback riding, dance etc. is highly encouraged. One parent described asking her 16-year-old daughter after a full Saturday of horseback riding, "any plans tonight?" The daughter responded tiredly "I'm going to bed early". YES! the mother happily exclaimed. And we must not forget the dreaded TV, computer and video games. Fun as they are, long term stimulus of this type is draining on creativity and cuts into time for family and friends. Limiting time on these is always a good idea. I've been heard many times telling my daughter "go outside and get dirty!"

Diet is an extremely important issue in growth and development of children. Good quality complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids and enzymes as well as proteins, vitamins and minerals are required for growth, development and all bodily functions. It is important to note that a nutritional deficiency can alter brain chemistry and impair function. But also eliminating offending foods or additives is just as important. Hypersensitivity to certain foods and additives can contribute to behavioral disorders. A combination of these factors can be part of the problem. Studies have shown that eliminating just one potential offending food or additive showed limited or no improvement, while multiple elimination was almost always successful. (8)

Drug treatment can be beneficial in the short term but you do have other options for the long haul. An acupuncturist can work with your western medical provider to adjust medications and create a strategy for eliminating medication all together. For any questions please contact me at

1. Barkley RA. Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 1998.
2. Fisher BC. Attention Deficit Disorder Misdiagnosis. Boca Ration, FL: CRC Press; 1998
3. Volkow ND, Ding Y, Fowler JS, et al. A new PET ligand for the dopamine transporter: studies in the human brain. J Nuclear Med 1995; 36:2162-2168.
4. Volkow ND, Ding Y, Fowler JS, et al. Is methylphenidate like cocaine? Arch Gen Psychiatry 1995; 52:456-463.
5. Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, et al. Dopamine transporter occupancies in the human brain induced by therapeutic doses of oral methylphenidate. Am J Psychiatry 1998; 155:1325-1331.
6. Breggin P, Breggin G. The hazards of treating ADHD with Ritalin. J Coll Stud Psychotherapy 1995;10:55-72.
7. Findling RL, Dogin JW. Psychopharmacology of ADHD: children and adolescents. J Clin Psychiatry 1998;59:42-49.
8. Boris M. Food and chemical intolerance: Placebo-controlled studies in attention deficit disorders. In: Bellanti JA, Crook WG, Layton RE, eds. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Causes and Possible Solutions (proceeding of a conference). Jackson, TN: International Health Foundation; 1999.

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