This article dives into a holistic look on ADHD including the environmental and lifestyle causes and solutions available.
The previous article, Understanding ADD and ADHD, looked at the basics of this disorder including both conventional causes and treatment. If you haven’t already, it is worth reading that one to deeper foundation for the material presented today.
In the realm of alternative health, ADD/ADHD is often viewed not just as a genetic or neurobiological disorder but as a complex interplay of biological, environmental, and psychological factors. This holistic perspective considers diet, lifestyle, emotional well-being, and environmental influences as integral to understanding the causes and managing the condition.
Further emphasis is placed on how mental, emotional, and physical health are interconnected. Stress, nutrition, physical activity, and emotional states are all seen as crucial contributors to the symptoms of ADD/ADHD.
Critique of Conventional Approach
Alternative health practitioners often point out the over-dependence on pharmaceutical treatments in conventional approaches. They advocate for more natural and less invasive methods as either complementary or primary treatment strategies.
This is especially the case for children who are drugged to be able sit still and pay attention to school, rather than looking at the idea that perhaps the classroom is not well-suited to children instead.
Psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin, who has been called the conscience of psychiatry, wrote in a New York Times op-ed many years ago, “In all cases of so-called A.D.H.D., the diagnosis is harmful. The child instead needs a real medical and psychosocial educational evaluation, and usually the child will quickly respond to improved teaching and parenting. We are diagnosing and drugging millions of our children instead of providing them the improved educational and family life that they truly need.”
In any case the lack of a drug is not the cause of the problem. So can we looking deeper at the roots? That’s the aim of this article.
Not just Genetics but Epigenetics
Conventional medicine likes to place the blame for all things on genetics. It fits into the materialistic worldview of genetic determinism. Now, there certainly is credible evidence that genetics play a role, as was covered in the previous article. But genes are not the end-all of attention-deficit.
As one book put it, “ADHD is highly heritable; however, epigenetics are considered relevant in potentially explaining the variance not accounted for by genetic influence.”
As we explore this wide range of environmental factors at play, keep in mind that all of them can alter epigenetic expression. It’s not just about the genes but how they are expressed.
What follows is a hint at some of the many associated and causal factors at play. This is not meant to be exhaustive but illustrative of some of the science on the subject.
Environmental Toxicity in ADHD
A meta-analysis of 66 studies examined the associations between early chemical exposures and ADHD diagnosis or symptoms. The researchers found the following:
- “Childhood lead exposure was positively associated with ADHD diagnosis and symptoms in all analyses except for the prenatal analyses”
- “Other statistically significant associations were limited to organophosphates…polychlorinated biphenyls… and both prenatal and childhood mercury exposure”
- Anesthetics, cadmium, hexachlorobenzene, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were not found to be associated with ADHD
Another systematic review and meta-analysis looked at four groups of pollutants: air pollution (both particulate and gaseous air pollution); heavy metals (Pb, Mn, Hg, and other heavy metals); persistent organic pollutants; and phthalates.
- “With respect to the first group, air pollution, we found a positive association between air pollution and increased risk of ADHD/symptoms of ADHD in about 60% of the total investigations included.”
- “Our findings about POPs are controversial. Whereas 4 systematic reviews reported a positive association between these pollutants and ADHD, the other 4 reviews and none of the meta-analyses found a significant association”
- “With regard to heavy metals and phthalates, our overview revealed concurrent positive associations with both ADHD status and symptoms.”
Another study found that second-hand smoke exposure was associated with a higher risk of developing ADHD and other learning disabilities. Alcohol and other drugs for pregnant mothers are also implicated.
Something important to recognize with this stuff is that prenatal exposures may be more responsible than childhood exposures. Both likely play a role, though different environmental toxins may be more impactful or less so at different times of development.
The Role of Diet and Gut Health
What we eat is both a source of the nutrients we need, the lack of which can lead to detrimental effects in neurodevelopment, as well as a source of toxicity, which can have different detrimental effects.
Breastfed infants had lower ADHD than formula fed infants. Breastfed is the solid line in this picture, while formula is the dotted line. The dashed line is formula enriched with bioactive compounds, thus something trying to get closer to breast milk.
A review found that unhealthy diets are positively associated with ADHD, while healthy diets are negatively associated. Specific nutrients such as vitamin D, magnesium, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids played a role in ADHD symptoms. Vitamin D and magnesium supplements even showed improvement in ADHD symptoms when baseline levels were deficient.
Sugar has specifically been implicated as detrimental. “This meta-analysis indicated a positive relationship between overall sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages consumption and symptoms of ADHD.” Similarly, artificial food colorings were found to exacerbate symptoms.
Probiotics like Lactobacillus rhamnosus and multi-species probiotics have shown evidence of effectiveness for ADHD symptoms. The role of the gut microbiome is increasingly being looked at. One study found “Composition differences of gut microbiota in subjects with ADHD may contribute to brain-gut axis alterations and affect neurotransmitter levels, which could contribute to ADHD symptoms.”
Diet is often highlighted in alternative health approaches, whereas conventional medicine used to commonly say “this has nothing to do with what you eat”. Thus, a focus on identifying and eliminating potential food sensitivities and emphasizing a balanced, nutrient-rich diet will be helpful.
Fluorescent Lighting and ADHD
The effects of fluorescent lighting on ADHD have been explored in several studies. It has been observed that fluorescent lighting can contribute to agitation, hyperactivity, stress, and weaker cognitive skills in autistic subjects, suggesting a similar impact may exist for individuals with ADHD.
A study aimed to explore and compare the behavioral and neural responses of ADHD subjects to different types of fluorescent lighting color temperatures finding that some colors where better.
As this video discusses the answer may not be straightforward whereas some types of ADHD may have difficulties with light while others won’t.
Media and Screen Use
Increased screen time, especially at a young age, is being investigated for its potential impact on attention and hyperactivity. The fast-paced and stimulating nature of modern media might contribute to or exacerbate ADHD symptoms.
Excessive and addictive use of digital media is linked with physical, psychological, social, and neurological adverse consequences. Screen time is associated with poor sleep, high blood pressure, obesity, stress, impaired vision, and even reduced bone density. ADHD-related behavior is linked to overall screen time and violent and fast-paced content.
Furthermore, this study found, “A case study of a treatment of an ADHD diagnosed 9-year-old boy suggests screen time induced ADHD-related behavior could be inaccurately diagnosed as ADHD. Screen time reduction is effective in decreasing ADHD-related behavior.” Did you catch that? Screen time itself could induce ADHD like behavior without ADHD being present.
Another study found that the relationship between sleep, screen-based media, and ADHD symptomatology found that longer media time and inadequate sleep-wake behavior increase the risk of ADHD-like symptoms.
Nature and Movement for ADHD
The opposite of screen time would be time in nature. And indeed we find benefits here.
A study comparing children with ADHD in a natural setting and a town setting found that both groups performed better on a concentration task in the woods than in the town.
Another study found that rural children, thus more access to “green space”, had less ADHD than their city living equivalent.
A case study exploring the impact of a nature hike on two students with ADHD revealed increased attention and interest in science during and after the hike.
Some of it may be the natural setting, including things such as the essential oils in the air. The other part may be the movement involved rather than sitting still in a classroom.
A systematic review supports the clinical benefits of physical activity for individuals with ADHD, showing improvements in cognitive, behavioral, and physical symptoms. Regular physical exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is essential for normal brain development and is reduced in ADHD.
Home Environments, Stress and Family Factors
Chaotic or stressful home environments, including family conflict and instability, have been associated with higher rates of ADHD. Parenting styles and family interactions can also play a role in the manifestation of ADHD symptoms.
Chronic stress and traumatic experiences, especially in early childhood, have been considered as factors that might influence the development of ADHD. These experiences can affect brain development and stress response systems.
One paper found, “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) show a high degree of comorbidity in traumatized children.” This overlap is tricky in that both ADHD and PTSD share some of the same symptoms which can lead to misdiagnosis.
Lower socioeconomic status has been linked to a higher prevalence of ADHD, probably due to increased toxicity, increased exposure to stressors, nutritional deficiencies, lack of education and more.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Another opposite of stress could be said to be conscious mindfulness.
An 8-week mindfulness meditation program for adults and adolescents with ADHD showed improvements in self-reported ADHD symptoms, attention, cognitive inhibition, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, indicating effectiveness.
A systematic review and meta-analysis found that yoga, mindfulness-based interventions, and meditation had significant effects on ADHD symptoms, hyperactivity, inattention, executive functioning, on-task behavior, and parent-child relationship in youth with ADHD.
Putting The Picture All Together
Essentially, our modern day life and environments are steered towards creating more and more ADHD. Therefore, it is no wonder that these issues are on the increase. The good news is that everything here can be dealt with to some degree. It is done so by getting back to nature, including our inherent human nature.
That’s one of the reasons I don’t like focusing on genetics so much. You can’t do anything about it. But you can change how those genes express through epigenetics by means of nutrition, environment, lifestyle and more.
This is actually quite simple. That doesn’t mean it is easy though!
Lack of time, energy and resources means you’re more likely to descend to the cultural average which is designed to maximize profit much more so than well-being. By that I mean it is easy to stick a screen in front of a kid, easier than engaging in play and going out in nature with them. It’s easier to get fast or ultra processed food than it is to make nutritious, organic, home-cooked food.
If it’s true for kids, it is also true for adults!
Everything listed above are factors associated with producing symptoms of ADHD. Causality is tough to prove, but chances are all of this plays a factor in the complex systems involved. Therefore, changing such factors are ways to decrease ADHD symptoms. To recap:
- Reduce exposure to heavy metals, air pollution, phthalates, organophosphates and more which have been associated with ADHD.
- Emphasize a healthy diet rich in vitamin D, magnesium, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. Supplements of these may help.
- Limit sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Make sure to support your gut microbiome. Consider the use of probiotics like Lactobacillus rhamnosus for potential effectiveness in ADHD.
- Avoid artificial food colorings and identify potential food sensitivities.
- Address chaotic or stressful home environments, including family conflict and instability.
- Recognize the impact of chronic stress and traumatic experiences, especially in early childhood, on ADHD.
- Explore the effects of artificial or natural lighting
- Monitor and limit the use of screens, especially for young children.
- Spend more time in nature and less time indoors
- Engage in regular physical activity
- Practice mindfulness or meditation
For expecting and new mothers:
- Avoid cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
- Be extra aware of exposures to environmental toxins and their potential impact on ADHD development.
- Breastfeeding over formula if at all possible to potentially lower ADHD risks.
Recognize that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Reducing lead intake, or engaging in detoxing protocols that remove this heavy metal for instance, could be done before getting pregnant. Then the baby is less likely to have issues in the first place.
This makes it easier over the coming years as many of these things can become vicious cycles. (Good luck removing sugar or screens from a heavily ADHD kid, for example.)
Don’t expect perfection, but a lot can be done to promote a healthy, functioning brain that can be used how you’d like it to be used.
While this is focused on ADHD, recognize what is being talked about here is mostly just moving towards a more natural way of living. Whether it is ADHD or just about any other chronic disease or disorder, this same stuff is the foundation.
In the next article, I’ll finally dive into what you’re most likely wanting to hear, that is what herbs can help. But understand that herbs can only do so much if you’re ignoring this foundation.