ADD and ADHD affect many children, and unfortunately these conditions are often treated with drugs that contain powerful amphetamines. Fortunately, there are simple and powerful natural treatment options. Today we speak with pharmacist Dr. Phil Carson about natural approaches to ADD and ADHD.
Dr. R’s Fast Facts
- ADD usually manifests as inability to focus due to fatigue.
- ADHD usually manifests as inability to focus due to hyperactivity or anxiety.
- They are both treated with the same drug(s), usually Adderall, formerly Ritalin.
- ADD/ADHD is a signal that something is imbalanced in the body.
- Diet is a very important natural treatment.
- Avoiding food allergens and focusing on sources of healthy proteins and fats can be very helpful – the paleo diet is a good example of this. This will balance blood sugar and reduce inflammation.
- When blood sugar becomes imbalanced it can cause fatigue, poor focus, cravings and anxiety
- Inflammation can also cause fatigue, poor focus, cravings and anxiety
- Healthy protein intake can help to balance blood sugar.
- Gut problems are also very important. Dysbiosis, or imbalances in fungus and bacteria, often cause ADD, ADHD and/or inflammation.
- Diet and probiotics can help correct dysbiosis
- Fish oil can also be helpful for ADD and ADHD
- Limit “screen time” in your children to help improve mood and focus. Screen time = use of phones, tablets, computers, etc.
If you need help with natural treatment options for ADD and ADHD, click here.
ADD and ADHD defined … 5:14
Medications … 10:11
Natural Options for Managing ADD and ADHD … 12:50
Nutritional Approach to ADD and ADHD … 18:35
Supplements for ADD and ADHD … 29:34
Electronic Devices and ADD/ADHD … 32:10
Episode Wrap-up … 34:07
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Natural and Alternative Treatments to ADD & ADHD with Dr. Phil Carson
Dr. Michael Ruscio: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. This is Dr. Ruscio. I am here with Dr. Phil Carson. And we’re going to be talking today about ADHD. Hey, Phil, welcome to the show.
Dr. Phil Carson: Hey, Mike. Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to be on your show today.
DrMR: Absolutely. Happy to have you here. And I’m looking forward to talking more about ADHD.
Dr. Carson’s Clinical Experience with ADHD
And I guess to kick us off, before we get into the nitty gritty, tell us a little bit about your clinical experience with ADHD. Is this something that you focus on? And did you have a personal experience with it? Or how did you get into it?
DrPC: Yeah. Yeah. Well, as a pharmacist for years, I dispensed medications for ADD/ADHD. And as I learned more about these medications and the side effects and read studies and things that were happening with people, especially young kids who were taking these powerful medications, I began to look at myself and say, “Hey, why am I giving these kids these powerful medications?”
And I would read these studies that showed that there were kids who continued on them through high school years and college years and ended up becoming addicted to them.
And this is happening now. I’ve got a daughter in college right now who tells me she sees this happening quite often that kids on these medications are actually selling these drugs on college campuses every day. Medications that they were being legally prescribed for ADD or ADHD, they’ve actually — not to be too harsh with the language — but they’ve actually become drug pushers on college campuses with their medications, selling them for high dollar amounts sometimes. And there are plenty of kids on campus looking to buy them. So that’s something that has happened.
So I began to think and question myself. Should I really be dispensing these medications? And at the same time, I had learned some things about natural products that were available and natural therapies that were available that could help these kids.
So I made the decision that I was not going to dispense them anymore. And if a parent came in with a prescription, I would politely tell them, “Look. I’m sorry. I can’t fill that prescription. I’ve made the decision not to fill those medications anymore. But if you’re interested in learning about some natural alternatives and some other things you can do, I’d be happy to sit down with you and talk with you about that.”
And that’s kind of how it all began. There were quite a few of those parents who took me up on that offer. And that’s kind of how I got started working with people — parents and children — with ADD and ADHD.
DrMR: What you said I think is definitely true, at least in what I’ve heard in terms of on college campuses. It’s almost becoming a part of the culture where, “Oh, you’ve got to study. You need an Adderall or a Ritalin.” And I understand the pressure of having an exam and wanting to gain any edge that you can. And certainly, the old school—sad to say it’s old school. But the more old school interventions may have been something like caffeine.
DrMR: Or, God forbid, some activity. I remember when I was in college physics. They had one of those virtual shooter games where you’d stand up. And you move, and your character moves as you move. And we would play that game every hour for 10 minutes as a break. Because you moved around so much, it was like a mini bout of exercise that got you kind of fired up. And then you went back to studying.
So I think we’ve gravitated out of those things. And now, kids, unfortunately, are finding themselves in this culture where, “Just pop a Ritalin or an Adderall or whatever it is because you’ll have this focus for a few hours.”
And a lot of those are obtained, unfortunately, from kids who have a prescription who are selling them to other students. So I agree with you there.
DrMR: It’s definitely a problem. And I want to come to the medications more in a moment.
ADD and ADHD defined
But just in case anyone on the call is not aware of what it stands for and what some of the typical symptoms are, can you explain a little bit of that to the audience?
DrPC: Yeah, yeah. Well, as far as ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), these people who have been diagnosed — and sometimes, I say they’ve actually been labeled more so than they’ve been diagnosed with a particular condition or whatever or disorder. These symptoms and problems that they’re having, sometimes they get labeled that way in school.
But they usually have problems focusing, problems sitting still. If they have hyperactivity, they’ll definitely have a problem sitting still. And they’ll have outbursts in class sometimes. Sometimes, these children will. They have problems with concentration. Behavior problems occur from these things.
There’s a whole long list of other symptoms and problems that can come from some of the things that they’re experiencing where they get singled out, maybe by their friends or by the teachers themselves, sometimes with a label that gets put on them. They end up with other psychological problems like depression and self-esteem issues. So it can kind of spiral in that direction a lot of times. And it’s sad when that happens to a kid.
DrMR: Sure. Yeah, it is. And something I know we’re going to circle back to is many times those symptoms are an indicator of a more serious, underlying problem that needs to be addressed.
DrMR: And so I definitely want to circle back there in a second. But something I wanted to ask you in terms of children compared to adults — do you have any information in terms of how prevalent this is in children compared to adults? Because I’m hearing about more and more adults now who are on these medications. It used to be something I only heard about in children, or predominantly in children. And now, I’m hearing it much more in adults. So I’m curious to any thoughts you have there.
DrPC: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, my wife tells me all the time that I’ve got ADD. I’m 56 years old. Yeah, it is something that has become more common, it seems like, with adults as well being diagnosed with ADD. It’s still more of an issue with children.
But yeah, I’ve got some friends who have been told the same thing, that they have ADD. But whether they really do or not, that’s questionable because I don’t think they have had anybody diagnose them. They haven’t gone through any kind of testing or anything to determine that.
But I think it is a problem with adults in a lot of cases because the same underlying causes that are affecting these children are affecting the adults as well. And sometimes, a person may have had those issues and problems as a child. And they carried it right into adulthood.
DrMR: And probably again that comes back to some of the same underlying factors that need to be addressed to address the root cause of what, in my opinion — and it sounds like we’re in agreement on this — is just a constellation of symptoms that become diagnosed as ADD and ADHD. But it’s not a true diagnosis, if you will, at least in my opinion.
DrPC: Yeah, mine as well. Mine as well, yeah. And there are those underlying issues. And that’s one of the things that I started talking with parents about. The medications that they were being prescribed were going to help. It was going to give them more focus, more concentration. But it wasn’t correcting the underlying problem.
DrMR: Right. Right. Now, to maybe paint this in a broad generalization—and if you have any modifications you’d like to make to this, please let me know. But could we loosely characterize ADD (attention deficit disorder) as kind of like a fatigue syndrome? And ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder), someone is just kind of bouncing off the walls, overly sped up. And they just can’t calm down enough to focus. Is that a fair characterization?
DrPC: I think so. I would agree with you on that, yes.
DrMR: Okay, so you’re kind of looking at two opposing imbalances. One person has not enough energy. The other person has too much energy.
And how does this interface with what the favorable medications are for each condition? Are certain medications more favorable for one condition compared to the other? And then maybe we can use that as a springboard to talk about some of the negative side effects of these medications.
DrPC: Yeah, yeah. Well, what I have been seeing for years with these medications is that the same medications were used across the board with either diagnosis. If it was [ADD], they got Ritalin. If it was ADHD, they got Ritalin.
And that was one of the first medications being used. Ritalin is not used much anymore as it was. Adderall is used a lot more. And then there are some other newer drugs on the market as well for ADD and ADHD. But I would see them being used across the board either way.
And that would be, a lot of times, the only medication they would be on. Now, there were some kids who would have a lot of anxiety-related issues. And sometimes, I would see kids being put on anti-anxiety medications as well. Sometimes, I would see them with an additional antidepressant medication as well, as far as being prescribed to them, depending on what all was going on with that particular individual.
DrMR: Sure. Sure. And you make a point there that’s a nice transition, I think — the point of anxiety, that’s a transition to some of the natural approaches. Anxiety is something, as I’ve observed it in the clinic, that can be provoked by imbalances in blood sugar, especially if someone is not eating enough. And especially if you couple not eating enough with caffeine use, that is like a Molotov cocktail for anxiety if someone has an underlying predisposition to that.
So certainly, there are a few things that come to mind, blood sugar being one, of course food allergies probably being another, gastrointestinal issues, to use the term broadly — it could be dysbiosis, inflammation, what have you — and maybe a couple other things that are a little less apparent, like histamine. But people who are eating too much dietary histamine or have histamine overload definitely tend to have more foggy thinking and irritability.
Natural Options for Managing ADD and ADHD
So let’s talk a little bit about some of the natural options that people have for managing ADD and ADHD. Or I should say, address the underlying cause of the symptoms that manifest as ADD and ADHD.
DrPC: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, one of the first things that I learned about natural approaches to ADD/ADHD was from Dr. William Crook. He was a pediatrician from Jackson, Tennessee, who was somewhat of a pioneer in the area of using natural approaches to treat ADD/ADHD, primarily ADHD.
And in a lot of the research and the studies and works that he published over the years, he showed that a lot of the underlying cause with these kids is dysbiosis — the gut issues from dysbiosis. And one of the connections he made was that these kids often had a history of ear infections or respiratory infections and had been on multiple antibiotics and sometimes steroid medications as well for the respiratory issues.
And of course, it doesn’t matter, child, adult, or whatever, but especially in children, you take those medications repeatedly, you’re going to destroy the normal flora in the gut. And you’re going to end up with dysbiosis.
And so he made that connection. And that was one of the first things I learned, to use that approach and talk to parents about that.
And 99.9% of the time when I consult with parents and children with these issues, that’s the case. They’ve had, at some point in their childhood, either in infancy or toddler stage, young child, where they’ve had these issues and been on multiple antibiotics. The majority of them have had tubes in their ears because they had chronic ear infections.
And now they’re exhibiting these symptoms. And they’re getting classified or, like I said, labeled with ADD or ADHD. So that’s a very common underlying cause that I’m seeing in the people that I work with.
DrMR: And just to clarify for the audience — the term dysbiosis is a general term we use to characterize imbalances in the gut that might be bacterial in nature, fungal in nature. It’s kind of imbalances in some of the stuff that is normally there — to use the term loosely.
And Phil, is this the same — I believe you said it was William Crook who was kind of a pioneer in fungal research and treatment?
DrPC: Yes, absolutely. The primary connection that he made with the dysbiosis of the gut was the yeast, the overgrowth of yeast and fungal infections in the gut. He did a lot of work and wrote a lot about Candida and the Candida issues that people are dealing with and this being one of the primary underlying causes of this overgrowth of Candida in the gut and in the body with these kids.
DrMR: So let’s go into a little more detail about the gut because I put a lot of focus on the gut, of course. And I think everyone listening is used to that because it has such far reaching and profound impacts.
And some interesting things that come to mind regarding the gut and dysbiosis are, of course, any dysbiosis has a chance to cause neurological manifestations, whether it be fungal or bacterial.
We do see things like insomnia, depression, irritability, brain fog that have all been correlated to a greater or lesser extent with things like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or Candida overgrowth or yeast or inflammation in the gut.
So just the imbalances themselves seem to be able to cause problems and probably through a few mechanisms — maybe through potentiating leaky gut or causing bacteria and inflammation to be able to get into the brain.
And there is also the potential of the immune system. As the immune system is attacking these things or needing to deal with these things, that causes inflammation which can also interfere with someone’s ability to think.
So there’s so much that happens in the gut that affects the brain. And some of these solutions here — and again, curious to get more of your perspective here, Phil. But some of these solutions can be easy.
Cleaning up your diet — excessive amounts of dietary carbohydrate, especially dietary sugars, will feed many types of dysbiosis. Something like a probiotic can be a very easy fix for many types of dysbiosis. And there are different probiotics. But those can be very helpful.
So just there, you can get a lot of yardage in terms of improvement with dysbiosis and then the neurological symptoms that can follow second to that. So what would you add or expand in that realm, Phil?
DrPC: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I agree with you there 100%.
Nutritional Approach to ADD and ADHD
And that’s the place where I start with people that I’m working with — with the diet, with nutrition — and explain to them what the various types of food, especially the carbohydrates you’re doing, if they do have dysbiosis and there is an overgrowth of fungus and Candida, that they’ve got to start with the gut. And they’ve got to start working on the nutritional part of it and making some dietary changes. So that’s where I start.
And of course, probiotics as well. I think it’s extremely, extremely important that they include those and also include trying to eat more fermented foods that can help as well. But that’s a valid part.
And also reducing some of the inflammation in the gut that’s causing some issues as well is something that we do. And I use different types of fish oil a lot of times that can help sometimes with that.
But the issue with the gut and the brain is something that’s being talked about even more and more. And more research is being done there. And I’m glad to see it.
I recall when I first learned about this brain-gut connection several years ago, I ran across a book called The Second Brain by Dr. Michael Gershon. And this was the first time I’d ever heard of anything like this and that we had a second brain.
And he makes a good case there for the connection between our enteric nervous and the central nervous system and just what you were mentioning a minute ago that that connection is there. When our enteric nervous system is out of balance, it’s going to affect the central nervous system. And you’re going to have those psychological problems and brain issues that people are often not aware that it’s that connection that’s causing those problems.
DrMR: Definitely. So the gut is a very important place to start. Totally in agreement with you on that. Blood sugar is another.
DrMR: And this is something that I’ve recently been reminded of as I’ve been working on a book and maybe not eating as frequently as I should. I’ve never had anxiety my entire life except for, I’ve noticed, if I use a little bit too much caffeine and if I don’t eat enough.
And for me, it’s a very simple remedy. And it’s something I’ve seen in many patients where just getting them to eat frequent meals or getting them to stabilize their blood sugar really helps regulate mood and focus and energy and also weight and sleep and many things. So any thoughts on blood sugar, tips for stabilizing that, and how that impacts things like ADD and ADHD?
DrPC: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And this is one of the things that I stress to the parents when I’m working with them. They’ve talked to me about a child that has these problems. The carbohydrate sources and what the child is eating, especially at breakfast and at lunch if these kids are in school and they’ve got to try to remain focused and have better concentration because it’s those blood sugar swings that are causing a lot of problems for these kids.
Of course, they crave — most of them, especially if there’s a Candida issue, they’re going to be craving these types of foods — the sugars and the sweets and the simple carbs that convert to sugar very quickly. So I stress to them the importance of making those dietary changes where they’re eliminating those types of carbs as much as possible.
And most often what these kids are eating for breakfast every morning is some kind of high-sugar cereal. Or they’re having a high-sugar pastry like Pop-Tarts or something like that.
DrMR: Yeah, and maybe a glass of orange juice which is just essentially a glass of sugar.
DrMR: Sugar on sugar.
DrPC: They’re drinking orange juice or some kind of sugary drink right along with it. And then they get these major sugar spikes. And then a few hours later, the sugar bottoms out. And then it’s just one problem after another. So the importance of making those dietary changes is something that I stress.
DrMR: Absolutely. And it’s a vicious cycle where, if you eat a very carb-rich meal like we’re describing, on the back end of that hours later, you can have a blood sugar low. And then part of what can happen physiologically is you can have a release of certain stress hormones to help bring your blood sugar back up.
DrMR: And so when you’re in this low, a few things happen. You crave sugar to bring you back up. Your body also releases some of these stress hormones. And then these stress hormones are what can fuel anxiety or an inability to focus. For some people, it might cause anxiety. For other people, it may cause fatigue.
It just depends on how different people adapt to this. And you see this. When you work with a number of patients, you see some people, if they don’t eat, get tired. Other people get hangry —
DrPC: Oh, yeah.
DrMR: Which is hungry and angry.
DrMR: So it depends on how it affects your system. But it propels you down this negative cascade where you crave the very foods that got you there in the first place. And you also probably tend to crave things like stimulants which will eventually end up exacerbating some of these negative hormone shifts also.
So it’s definitely this quicksand. You step in, and you can easily get pulled farther and farther down. And the way to unwind that is just to be mindful of eating a good breakfast and then making sure you have a good lunch that’s not too far away from that as a starting point and then kind of going from there.
DrPC: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And that’s what I stress to the parents. Most times, what these kids are eating for breakfast is nothing but carbs. And I stress to them the importance of getting protein, that they need a good, protein-rich breakfast.
And I tell them, if your child likes eggs, they need to be eating eggs for breakfast, maybe a little bit of whole fruit to go along with that. But they need the protein. And the protein is so important for that breakfast meal especially.
DrMR: And you make a good point about the eggs. And I just want to offer something to the listeners that might be helpful if they’re struggling with, “Oh my god! Should I give my kid two or three eggs every morning? Isn’t that going to be a lot of fat? Isn’t that going to be a lot of cholesterol?”
And there’s an important thing for us to keep in mind in this regard. When we look at certain dietary trials, we have seen some evidence showing that high consumption of fat in meat correlates with heart disease.
But it’s very misleading because many of these studies have looked at what happens in an industrialized society when that society starts eating more meat and fat which is also accompanied by processed foods, added sugars, and other things. So it’s more meat and fat, yes. But it’s in the context of a very unhealthy diet.
And so a way that someone can pierce through some of this confusion is to look at what happens when we compare different healthy diets — so when we compare your typical food pyramid or food square diet, which is very based in grains and carb. And it deemphasizes things like healthy meats and fats. You compare that to something like a Paleo Diet or a healthy version of a low-carb diet.
And there have been numerous studies that have compared these types of diets against one another. And most of them show that the better or the healthier of these two different dietary approaches is the type of dietary approach that focuses more on healthy fats, healthy proteins, vegetables, some fruits but not putting a large emphasis on carbs and carb-rich foods.
But to be careful to mention that even when we compare more of your higher-carb type of diet, like a Pritikin’s diet or an Ornish diet — that compared to a standard American diet still shows improvement. So all these diets can help relative to your normal, not-good, standard American diet.
But when we start looking at these different diets, it does seem that, even for things like heart disease, these diets that have a little bit more of a reliance of healthy meats, healthy fats, higher in protein, higher in fat, lots of healthy vegetables, and less of a carb intake tend to be healthier generally speaking.
So for your children, I wouldn’t be concerned about potentially doing any kind of damage to a child if you’re going to have them eat things like eggs as long as it’s in the context of all the other foods being healthy too.
DrPC: That’s exactly right. Very good. Yeah, and I, too, when I tell people to eat more eggs, I do stress to them not to buy the cheaper, processed eggs where the chickens have been fed antibiotics and steroids and all these chemicals, but to look for the cage-free. If they can afford organic, get them.
But there are a variety of different types of eggs out on the market today. It used to be you could only buy one kind of egg when I was growing up. Or you got farm fresh eggs from somebody who happened to have chickens.
DrPC: But now in the grocery store, you can pick and choose what you want. And I’m glad to see that. But that balance that you’re talking about there is something that I stress. Especially a child that has been diagnosed or been labeled ADD/ADHD, every meal, every snack needs to be properly balanced so it’s not causing those sugar swings that we were talking about.
DrMR: Absolutely. Well said.
Supplements for ADD and ADHD
So transitioning this, I guess, out of diets and gut, which I think are definitely two vital pillars to this conversation, are there any other natural herbs or vitamins or other supplements that you have found helpful for this? Let’s say if someone maybe didn’t fully respond to some of the foundational pieces like we just went through, any other things that would be optional add-ons?
DrPC: Yeah, yeah. One of the things that I use a lot and recommend — and I mentioned this from the inflammation issue a minute ago — is fish oil. I use a particular one that has a higher concentration of DHA. And I use one Nordic Naturals makes called Pro-DHA. It has the higher concentration of the DHA, which is the essential fat that has been shown to help improve brain health. They’re putting DHA in all the prenatal vitamins now for brain development in infants. And it can be helpful. I’ve seen it make a difference in some children.
There are also some calming herbs that are available that can help kind of calm things down. Standard Process, a company that I work with, sell a lot of their supplements, they have a product called Min-Chex, a product called Orchex that can help calm a person down. When you get that hyperactivity component there, these are natural, mineral-based supplements that can help bring a calming effect.
And sometimes, speaking of that, with these children, there are nutritional deficiencies. Because of the gut issues, they don’t absorb things well. They may have some electrolyte imbalances, some mineral imbalances, particularly magnesium, potassium. Sometimes, those can be low.
And just supplementing sometimes with a good food source, multivitamin to get those vitamins and minerals that they’re not getting from their foods or haven’t been getting from the foods they’ve been eating can make a big difference as well.
DrMR: All good points.
Electronic Devices and ADD/ADHD
And something else to throw in there that popped into my head as you were mentioning that is the use of digital devices and the internet. And it’s been pretty well documented that the more one spends time on social media or on the internet, that has been shown in well-performed studies to correlate with increasing things like anxiety, depression, and just lower overall scores of subjective well-being.
So I’m not a parent. And I can’t pretend to know all the challenges that are associated with parenting. But I would think that it would be something that would yield dividends to try to limit the amount of digital media use in your children.
And I’m assuming there’s probably going to be some pushback at first. But I’m hoping that once your child comes to grips with the fact that you’re going to establish some boundaries around usage of these things, they’ll start feeling a little bit better and hopefully rediscovering how nice it is to have a person in front of them to talk to or a book to read or how the world around them looks rather than the shiny device in their hand.
DrPC: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, that’s kind of interesting you say that because I was just having this conversation with somebody a few days ago. And we were talking about a family who they limited their children’s screen time. And that’s what they called it — screen time. And how much time they got to be in front of the computer or in front of the TV or whatever — they had limited screen time every day. And they were talking about how well those children were doing in school and in life compared to other children who spent hours and hours in front of the screen.
DrMR: I like that, screen time. There you go, guys. Limit screen time.
DrMR: Well, this has been a great conversation, Phil. Anything in closing that you want to leave people with? And also, please let people know where they can find out more about you or read more from you or what have you.
DrPC: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. They can find me at CarsonNatural.com. That’s my website. And I’ve got all kinds of free resources on there, a lot of different information — information on how they can connect with me, how they can set up consultations with me and those kinds of things if anybody is interested in that.
But, Michael, I really appreciate you with what you do and asking me these questions today because ADD/ADHD is something that’s really personal to me with a lot of family friends that I’ve had with children who have gone through that and through these issues.
And to be able to have a parent take an active role and get interested in doing things the natural way instead of just doing it the easy way of taking a drug — it’s encouraging to me when people do that. It’s encouraging to me when they put into action the recommendations to do it by diet, do the natural supplements, and then see the results of what happens with those kids.
And I’ve seen some dramatic changes with children. And it’s just very encouraging to see that. So I appreciate you bringing this topic up and discussing this with me today.
DrMR: Absolutely, Phil. It’s been a pleasure. And thank you for all the work you’ve done and the contributions you’ve made in this area.
DrPC: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, Michael.
DrMR: You got it, Phil. Take care.
If you need help with natural treatment options for ADD and ADHD, click here.