Can Kids Take Natural Supplements for ADHD? Child Health Experts Weigh In

Updated August 28, 2020

ADHD and ADD are neurological and behavioral disorders that manifest in trouble with concentration, impulsivity, and excess energy. Children with ADHD have a hard time sitting still and tend to be more disruptive than children with ADD. ADHD has an onset age of 7 years old and can continue through the teen years or adulthood.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 9% of American children ages 13-18 have ADHD and the number of incidences is rising. A 2017 study indicates that sleep deprivation, circadian rhythm disturbances, and sleep-disordered breathing may contribute to ADHD symptoms.

ADHD experts seem to agree that natural supplements can have a notable positive impact on ADHD symptoms.


What Experts in Natural Medicine Have to Say About Natural Supplements

Dr. Josh Axe is a licensed chiropractor who is also a certified doctor of natural medicine and a clinical nutritionist. Dr. Axe turned his passion for healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle into his career when he opened a functional medicine center in Nashville, which is now one of the most renowned clinics in the world. With over 17 million visitors every month, his website is considered the top natural health website in the world today which is overseen by a Medical Review Board.

In his work, Dr. Axe has pointed to some international studies that show a genetic link to ADHD. In his work with patients, Dr. Axe believes that the additional causes of ADHD are environmental factors and dietary concerns that increase the risk of developing ADHD and making symptoms worse. Dr. Axe is especially concerned with studies that have revealed a host of side effects from common medications for children with ADHD such as Adderall and Ritalin. Side effects can be serious and include:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Personality changes
  • Nervousness
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Vomiting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Psychosis
  • Addiction
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Muscle twitches
  • Extreme mood swings


In keeping with his philosophy of healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle, Dr. Axe believes that parents can help their children improve ADHD symptoms by eliminating certain foods in their diet, adding other foods to their diet, and giving children natural supplements. Dr. Axe notes five key supplements for decreasing ADHD symptoms in children. They are fish oil, vitamin B-complex, a multi-mineral supplement, probiotics, and GABA.

Dr. Axe recommends 1,000 milligrams of fish oil daily noting the EPA/DHA in fish oil is critical for brain function and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Fish oil has been shown to reduce ADHD symptoms and improve learning. Children with ADHD benefit from taking 50 milligrams of B-complex vitamins to help the brain release serotonin, especially vitamin B6. Dr. Axe also recommends taking a multi-mineral supplement twice daily that includes 5 milligrams of zinc, 250 milligrams of magnesium, and 500 milligrams of calcium to help relax the nervous system. Having ADHD can upset the digestive system, so Dr. Axe recommends taking a good quality probiotic daily. Finally, Dr. Axe recommends taking 250 milligrams of GABA two times per day which is a calming amino acid; although he cautions reviewing adding GABA with your doctor because it may interact with other medications.

Harvard Medical School's Research on Natural Supplements for ADHD Child

Harvard Medical School has conducted research and evaluated studies on natural supplements for ADHD and depression over many years. Their researchers conclude that there is no diet, that by itself, will improve how children with ADHD think and behave.

On the other hand, researchers believe that some children's behavior and thinking may be affected by food additives, artificial colorings, Omega-3 fatty acids, or deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals. Researchers believe that foods have an effect on some children's behavior that mirror ADHD symptoms, but they haven't been able to segregate the differences in children to understand why some kids are affected and not others.


The Feingold diet claims that processed foods and certain fruits and vegetables are to blame for ADHD symptoms in children and that this diet works well as a complement to other types of treatment and supports. Harvard researchers haven't found evidence to support the Feingold diet in reducing ADHD symptoms and aren't convinced that it helps.

In past decades, small studies were done on the effect of food colorings, artificial flavors, and other additives to aid in food preservation, but the results didn't prove anything of value.

A six-week British study involved 153 preschool-aged children and 144 students in grade school where they studied the effects of sodium benzoate and artificial food colorings. At three points during the study, they gave half the students a placebo. All children in the study demonstrated a higher level of hyperactivity irrespective of their hyperactivity prior to the study.

Columbia and Harvard Universities joined forces in 2004 in a similar meta-analysis study where their results showed that by eliminating artificial colorings from children's intake was only about 33%-50% as effective in reducing hyperactivity as prescribing Ritalin. Researchers weren't able to detect any similarities in the children who were more sensitive to artificial food colorings.

Researchers have also looked at the connection between Omega 3 fatty acids and ADHD symptoms.

London researcher, Dr. Paul Montgomery published a study in Pediatrics magazine that showed that children who took Omega-3 fatty acids showed significant improvement in behavior, reading, and spelling. This makes sense considering that Omega-3s and Omega-6s are necessary fatty acids that feed bodily cells, improve immunity, and boost heart health.

More studies need to be done to evaluate the connection between ADHD and the Omega fatty acids.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating two servings (3.5 oz.) per week of fish. AHA advises choosing varieties of fish that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids such as "salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna."


Studies of micronutrients in children have shown similar inconsistent results.

Researchers have not found evidence to date that adding such vitamin or mineral supplements make any difference in reducing ADHD symptoms. Harvard researchers warn parents that large doses of vitamins or minerals can be toxic foe children.

In light of their findings, Harvard researchers support parents providing their children with a balanced diet with healthy proteins and limited saturated fats. In addition, researchers encourage parents to limit fast goods and encourage their children to get regular exercise.

What Medical Doctors Have to Say About Natural Supplements for ADHD and Depression

Dr. Sanford Newmark works at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine as the medical director. He also serves as head of the center's Pediatric Integrative Neurodevelopmental Program. Dr. Newmark specializes in treating children with autism, ADHD, and other chronic childhood disorders and conditions. In addition, Dr. Newmark is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and is a clinical professor in the pediatrics department at the UCSF School of Medicine.

Dr. Newmark takes a conservative approach towards treating ADHD by combining conventional medicine with diet, behavior management, and other complementary treatments before prescribing medication for ADHD.

In making recommendations for children with ADHD, Dr. Newmark considers that children with the disorder are often low in iron, zinc, and magnesium. He concurs with Dr. Axe that a supplement containing these three minerals, when given to children with ADHD, can significantly improve symptoms. Dr. Newmark notes that one study showed a remarkable improvement in children with low levels of iron after being given a multi-mineral supplement. Likewise, Dr. Newmark agrees with Dr. Axe and Harvard researchers about the benefits of adding Omega-3 fatty acids or fish oil for children with ADHD. In fact, he believes that fish oil is good for everyone's general health, especially for those living with ADHD and depression at any age. When asked about substituting cod liver oil for fish oil, Dr. Newmark affirmed that it's fine to use cod liver oil; however, children don't need all the preformed vitamin A that cod liver oil contains.

Beyond looking at vitamins and minerals, Dr. Newmark sometimes recommends one of two herbal remedies for ADHD. He believes that Pycnogenol (from the bark of a European pine tree) can be helpful for some children. He also likes an herb called valerian which combined with lemon balm may calm some children. The doctor notes that these herbs can be hard to come by. While both herbs have a calming effect on children, the herbs won't necessarily increase their ability to concentrate.


When asked about how parents should approach treatments for ADHD, Dr. Newmark recommends seeking a pediatrician or family doctor that has professional experience in treating ADHD. He also recommends that schools provide a good evaluation for learning disabilities. Testing results may lead parents to the right course nutritional, behavioral, and school interventions to help their child have success at home, in school, and in life. Dr. Newmark supports medicating children for ADHD only when necessary and that taking a natural supplemental approach won't hurt.

Overall, Dr. Newmark likes to remind parents that the goal in life is not to sit still and for parents and teachers to hold that expectation may inhibit children's wonderfully creative and talented capabilities.

In considering the opinions of a doctor of natural medicine, leading school of medicine, and a medical doctor with a specialty in treating ADHD, there is little disagreement and much similarity. All three experts agreed that we need more research to fully understand ADHD and how to treat it. All agreed that natural supplements, especially zinc, iron, magnesium, and Omega-3 fatty acids are the best choices for treating ADHD in children with the least potential for negative side effects.

If you're still confused about the best way to manage your child's ADHD symptoms, the experts at BetterHelp will match you with a licensed counselor that will assist you in making the best choices for your child's diet, supplements, and exercise plan.

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