Raising any child can feel like a puzzle. However, when your child has ADD or ADHD, that puzzle can seem to have a few missing pieces. This was the case for Laura J. Stevens with her first son, Tommy. As she describes in Solving the Puzzle of Your ADD/ADHD Child: Natural Alternatives for Hard-to-Raise Children, when Tommy was four, a pediatric neurologist concluded that he was hyperactive and “would probably experience sever learning problems in school and always require special education classes.”
Something about that conclusion didn’t sit well with Stevens, who has a master’s degree in nutritional science and has written extensively about the relationships between diet and health. Yet when Stevens asked the pediatrician about the role of diet in hyperactive children, she was told there was none.
In fact, Stevens and her husband were told to use M&M candies to reward Tommy’s good behavior. Yet when Tommy’s behavior deteriorated even further, Stevens began to notice that certain foods, additives, and chemicals in the environment seemed to set him off. Finally, Stevens had her son’s blood levels tested. The tests revealed that he had abnormally low levels of fatty acids. Supplementing his diet with omega-3 fatty acids and adding magnesium to his diet had a noticeably calming effect on Tommy. To this day, Stevens writes, Tommy — who has since graduated with high honors from a prestigious university — has no trace of ADHD.
Though Tommy’s story may seem hard to believe, Stevens addresses several misconceptions about ADD and ADHD and fills in some missing pieces, including diet, exercise, allergies, and gut health. She posits that giving attention to these areas can help turn around more than just her own son.
Stevens begins with a thorough exploration of what defines ADD and ADHD, the characteristic symptoms and underlying etiology. “If a mother or father has ADHD,” she writes, “a child has a fifty-seven percent chance of also having the disorder.” Accurate diagnosis, she explains, depends not only on meeting clinical criteria, but also a visit to a pediatrician and some blood tests. There are also several lifestyle factors that contribute to ADHD, she writes, via the epigenetic pathway, where environmental conditions can turn certain genes on and off. One of these, Stevens writes, is fat intake.
While Stevens does address traditional ADHD medications, thoroughly outlining the pros and cons of each, she spends much more time discussing how ADHD can be prevented through a healthy pregnancy and through breastfeeding. Here, she recounts one study that demonstrated that forty-three percent of ADHD children were breastfed, compared to sixty-nine percent of children without ADHD.
Diet, Stevens writes, is also a critical — perhaps the most critical — component of managing hyperactivity and ADHD symptoms. Here, she offers what she calls the A+ diet, which is comprised of whole grains, fatty fish, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and unprocessed nuts and seeds. Perhaps the most important factor, Stevens writes, is parents learning to “become label readers” in order to avoid the multitude of artificial food colorings, flavorings, and preservatives in our food supply today.
One study Stevens draws upon tested the effects of two mixes of dyes plus the preservative sodium benzoate on preschool children. The study suggested that these ingredients corresponded to adverse behavioral changes in both those with and without ADHD.
That said, artificial additives may not be nearly as detrimental as something most of us consume every day: sugar.
Sugar, Stevens writes, contributes to “several effects that are similar to drug abuse: bingeing, withdrawal, depression, and craving.” And sugar is related to neurochemical changes in the brain — in particular, lowered levels of dopamine. Over time, Stevens warns, “this may lead to alterations in behavior including binge-eating and symptoms of ADHD.”
Parents should monitor their child’s diet, Stevens writes, and use only natural sweeteners, such as honey, xylitol, or monk fruit extract. Stevens also offers numerous recipes and suggestions for breakfast, eating out, and quick meals.
Lifestyle factors are also very important in managing ADHD symptoms, Stevens writes. In particular, children must get enough sleep. Stevens cites one study that linked sleep problems with ADHD symptoms and higher intakes of carbohydrates and sugar. Exercise may also be part of an effective treatment for ADHD: one study found it was “just as effective” as Ritalin and Strattera in reducing hyperactivity. Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, zinc, and iron are also important, Stevens writes, as they have all been shown to markedly improve behavioral symptoms and support learning and memory.
Lastly, Stevens discusses food allergies and chemical sensitivities. She then offers guidance for parents on how to test their child for allergies at home, as well as simple steps to eliminate common food allergens such as chocolate, wheat, milk, and gluten. For example, parents can keep a notebook to document what their child consumes and how it affects his behavior to gain a better understanding of which foods may exacerbate ADHD symptoms. For all ADHD children, Stevens suggests taking probiotics and avoiding NSAIDS. Research shows, she writes, that children with ADHD have more infectious and digestive problems than other children — one of which is known as leaky gut.
The amount of information this book offers may seem overwhelming at first. But Stevens’s writing is clear, concise, and packed with numerous tips readers can use to take the guesswork out of parenting.
Solving the Puzzle of Your ADD/ADHD Child: Natural Alternatives for Hard-to-Raise Children
Charles C. Thomas Publisher, September 2015
Plastic Comb, 266 pages