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To Treat ADHD, Parents Turn From Drugs to Diet

Parents concerned about the potential lifelong dependency of some ADHD drugs tinker with their kids diets to solve behavioral problems.

Shortly after Mark Carey was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a kindergartner, he was prescribed Concerta, a stimulant medication similar to Adderall or Ritalin. But Mark’s mother, Rachel, was concerned about the side effects—Mark lost weight rapidly, couldn’t sleep, and began lashing out in school. Plus, Rachel “had a ‘gnawing feeling’ that he’d have to always be on the drug,” Colleen Kimmett reported in STAT News.

That sense of gnawing, it turns out, isn’t totally unfounded: As Madeleine Thomas reported in Pacific Standard last year, the 1990s saw an explosion in the number of children both diagnosed, and prescribed medication for, ADHD. “So many children were on ADHD drugs in the ’90s that lines would form outside the school nurse’s office, where students went to take their midday doses,” Thomas wrote. “Now, those children are all grown up and living on their own. As adults, many find themselves unable to get off the drugs.”

According to Thomas, many of the stimulants used to treat ADHD are classified as Schedule II drugs, meaning they carry a high risk for dependency. Even kids who benefit from the drugs for a while may wind up using them for far longer than needed. Many of the patients that Thomas spoke with had been on the drugs for years or decades, and experienced both physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal when they tried to wean themselves off the meds. “Everything feels so much harder,” one woman told Thomas. “It’s just a mind fuck.”

Rachel Carey is one of a growing number of parents experimenting with a low-risk, alternative treatment for their kids: dietary interventions. Though the evidencethat diet could serve as—or supplement—a primary treatment for ADHD is small, it seems to be growing, according to Kimmett. Artificial food colorings, for example, have been shown to increase hyperactivity in kids; meanwhile, supplementation with fatty acids seem to improve symptoms in some kids, while strict elimination diets help others.

Mark, now 10, avoids sugar, milk, and artificial food additives; he also takes a vitamin supplement. In the months since Rachel started him on this regimen, he has stopped taking his medication completely.